COVID-19 in Jamaica: Chicken Merry, Hawk Deh Near


For weeks now, I have been posting regularly about COVID-19. I would much rather have been writing about the many environmental issues that keep rearing their ugly little heads around the island and across the Caribbean, but I can’t seem to get to them. There is always something new and important to post about “Rona” (short for Coronavirus, as some Jamaicans familiarly call it).

We are not in a happy place right now, however. There is no getting around it. Last night many jaws dropped in horror when 98 new cases were announced over the previous 24 hours. One more patient died (a 74-year-old man from Clarendon) bringing the total to 15. This announcement put the cat among the pigeons. Now we are waiting anxiously for today’s numbers, which are going to be very late; and that does not bode well.

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Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jacqueline Bisasor-McKenzie at last night’s press briefing (with our fabulously expressive and skilful deaf interpreter Antoinette Aiken, in the box).

The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) was quite plain in her comments (as she generally is) at last night’s press briefing. When we opened our borders (June 15, just over two months ago), there was a steady, but expected increase in positive numbers. Then came a major event on the Jamaican calendar – the Independence/Emancipation Day holiday. The CMO has linked the current “spike” in numbers to that period – August 1 – 6.

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Our Prime Minister Andrew Holness sometimes adopts a paternal tone. “Now children, don’t forget. Go out and have fun. But please, be good and observe the rules.” Unfortunately, the children were not very obedient.

Note that no additional restrictions were placed over the long weekend, which turned into an extended five-day break.  The Prime Minister commented at today’s emergency press briefing (in which he announced shorter curfew hours for Kingston & St. Andrew, St. Catherine and Clarendon) that he thought at the time Jamaicans were suffering from “fatigue” after all the restrictions. So, they were given a “bly” and a gentle reminder to abide by the protocols from the PM. Frankly, I would rather be fatigued than lying in a hospital bed.

The more well-heeled left the city to relax at exclusive villas, where they could do plenty of social distancing by the pool. Fine. However, the majority of Jamaicans simply flooded beaches and riversides.

Chicken merry, hawk deh near.

As noted before, Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie was less than amused. The beaches and rivers were shut again.  Too late, the COVID horse had already bolted.

And then, there was Nomination Day on August 18. The Jamaica Labour Party issued guidelines for the day, which sounded very reasonable. But there is nothing reasonable about Nomination Day. Reason flies out the windows of overcrowded coaster buses, out of the unmasked mouths of eager supporters chanting slogans. And so it was.

In the next ten days, therefore, we can expect another “spike” – because most political candidates (with some notable exceptions, such as East Portland Member of Parliament Ann-Marie Vaz) seemed to make only a feeble effort – or none at all – to control their supporters on Nomination Day. Don’t stop the party!

Chicken merry, hawk deh near.

Today, the Prime Minister announced new restrictions on election campaigning, overriding the protocols already put forward by his party before Nomination Day. The police force is expected to ensure that there are a certain number of people in buses, and that there are only two buses. Enforcement will, once again, be a concern. Why have motorcades at all? Why not get creative and do some online campaigning, perhaps?

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The PNP and JLP chickens making merry on Nomination Day. Note the policewoman watching the crowd, on the right. (Photo: CVM Television)

Now Education Minister Karl Samuda has pushed back the date for schools to reopen to October 5, due to “unforeseen challenges.”  Some challenges can be foreseen, however.

Meanwhile, on the political front, the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) seems to have changed its tune. After the party leader had welcomed the election announcement in Parliament, the PNP is now accusing the government of putting its own interests above those of the people’s health. Oh, what a difference high virus numbers make!

Life is a little sad and dreary. Even our cinemas will be closing tomorrow… But, cheer up! We had a lovely couple of days of rain this week, the garden is flourishing, and Tropical Storm Laura is giving us the cold shoulder; she will pass to the north of us. I think we have got a “bly” from the Director of Hurricanes, up there. This time.

“Rona,” however, is not giving us any such “bly.”

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11 thoughts on “COVID-19 in Jamaica: Chicken Merry, Hawk Deh Near

  1. Honestly this is all a fiasco. As often happens in Jamaica there is a lot of show but the substance is lacking and actions/policies not well thought out. For instance, Jamaica stopped receiving flights from countries with runaway covid infections later than some of our neighbours (I won’t knock the government on this since it is very likely that the virus was here weeks before) and then reopened earlier than most neighbours (barring St. Lucia, Antigua and I think the Bahamas) with a plan that changed thrice in a week (I well recall the anger that many had when it was announced initially that Jamaicans returning up to June 14 would have to do a two week quarantine but that passengers (read: tourists) arriving from June 15th onwards would not). However when it became clear that covid cases were experiencing a resurgence in the US and it seemed we had no more true local transmission, we kept receiving flights from the US. The measures taken included requiring residents of hotspot states to produce a covid-19 negative test result. A perfect example of a showy policy (“look we are doing something!”) that isn’t well thought out and therefore isn’t likely to be effective.

    The reason being that unless travellers bring identification OTHER than their passport there is no way to prove that an American is a resident of a particular state. Sure their flight may have originated in Miami, but that doesn’t make them residents of Miami anymore than my flight out of Montego Bay makes me a resident of St. James. One could just as easily claim to be a resident of a state with no direct connections to Jamaica and therefore travelled to Florida to catch the flight. Since covid-19 tests are difficult to come by for travel purposes in the States, all it takes is for a few Floridian residents who want to travel to the Jamaica to lie about their home address and presto they avoid the need for a test. Then you have travellers who might indeed be covid-positive who otherwise would not have even been allowed to land who are then processed and quarantined but have brought the virus here.

    Even when the Bahamas experienced an explosion of cases to the point where they (briefly) overtook Jamaica in total numbers of cases, our politicians seemed not to put 2 and 2 together as the government didn’t stop flights and the opposition didn’t begin questioning why the government didn’t.

    So we kept up flights, whilst the authorities gave out mixed messages by letting big businesses who violated some of the measures off with a rap on the wrist while keeping curfews and some restrictions in place still. Unlike earlier times when the government made quite the show about Elephant Man coming in from Europe and not bothering to follow restrictions put in place, another celebrity (Usain Bolt) had a birthday bash which doesn’t seem like it was authorized under current restrictions and where videos seemingly showed people not following any of the guidelines and we hear nothing about fines or charges. Naturally people of more modest fame will see things like this and come to conclude that the restrictions aren’t serious and don’t need to be followed. People attended parties despite clearly not having been in Jamaica long enough to have finished home quarantine before attending and then just as quickly left.

    If we wanted to open up the economy domestically we needed to have much stricter rules and follow up in place for quarantine for the time being. Having people register (via phone call) with the nearest police station to their homes for home quarantine would have been a start. Placing armbands with a hazard/warning tape style signage on it would also have helped (the modern equivalent of the Scarlet Letter) and ensuring that people given the bands were made aware of the serial number of their particular band being recorded for the quarantine database so that at the end of quarantine when health officials came to remove it they would match the numbers to ensure persons didn’t remove one band and illegally solicit a similar replacement band for when next they interacted with the authorities would also have helped. It would mean that merchants, taxis and the general public would have been made aware that a person who was walking about with that band was actively VIOLATING quarantine and would make it much less likely that they would be allowed entry into stores or venues or be able to hail taxis. Such a measure would also be cheap and it would mean anyone attempting to violate home quarantine would have to go through extra precautions since they don’t benefit from anonymity to the wider public AND they can’t be sure that someone somewhere won’t make the authorities aware of their presence outside of quarantine.

    Instead we focus too much on the flash high-tech solutions of a covid-19 app on persons phones (which persons simply leave at home if they want to violate quarantine) and uploading daily videos (which persons can do even while violating quarantine if they visit another’s home and upload a video of themselves with a bland background such as a blank wall and a few chairs; even then if you upload a video in the morning what is to stop you from leaving your phone at home for an hour and going down the road to the nearest bar?) instead of holistic solutions (apps, videos and armbands and registering with the police).

    The government then calling an election and starting campaigning with crowds was yet another egregious example of the lack of thinking. Cases were already higher than had been the case since June and they whip up crowds? Unbelievable. No forward planning to drive local cases down to zero before the election and to keep out imported cases in the run-up to election? No plans for how to conduct voting and ensure everyone can vote and to feel safe voting? One would think they had only heard about covid-19 2 weeks ago.

    We’ve been done in by the politicians, businessmen, celebrities and ordinary Jamaicans attempting to have their cake and eat it too. As a result there will be no cake eaten or any cake to simply have.

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    1. I read your response carefully and yes, I agree with you on some points – largely that the timing of the elections was really “off” and has proved to be even more inappropriate with the current soaring COVID numbers. The efforts to continue campaigning “with restrictions” was a non-starter and should never have even been attempted. I don’t agree with you on the “Scarlet Letter” type arm band though. It would encourage stigma and that is already a major factor in the spread of the virus, though not much talked about.

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      1. I can appreciate the stigma aspect of it. What do you think could be done to increase compliance with the quarantine rules though? As it stands it isn’t sustainable to have one rule for us modest folks (14 days quarantine) but another rule for the famous and those who just don’t care (like the pastor who came in to Jamaica and preached at churches in Clarendon and St. Thomas, or some of the persons who flew in for Bolt’s party and flew back out). Eventually more people who were inclined to follow the rules will just disregard them and break them on the side if they see the rules really don’t mean anything or have any consequences (covid-19 spikes aside).

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      2. Stigma is such a complex issue, isn’t it. Yes, the rules have been very unevenly applied. Which is nothing new in Jamaica, sadly. Bolt and his celebrity crowd should have been better role models for the younger generation – especially young men, whom I see everywhere not wearing masks. It’s not cool or something. I think the best way would be to “make an example” of a transgressor like Bolt…publicize it…

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      3. Agreed re publicizing making an example of a transgressor like Bolt, but first they need to actually make an example of him. It’s almost certain that he violated some regulations and he hasn’t been charged. Likewise they made a big to-do about deselecting a candidate in the run-up to the election, but now that the election is done and dusted there seems to have been no legal action taken.

        So on the one hand, a famous person hosts a big party with numerous persons violating quarantine and nobody wearing a mask, but on the other we see a video of police in Half Way Tree rounding up young men (and they were ALL men) who are just average, everyday Joes for not wearing a mask. Worse yet they inconsistent even in THAT exercise. They round up young men, but then when they stop a lady and she defiantly walks on after just putting on her mask they let her be. Then later instead of rounding up another young man they talk to him in a condescending and warning tone (like a superior talking to an inferior) and let him off with a warning when he puts on his mask. Meanwhile they are still walking some of the rounded up young men to a truck to carry to the station even though at least ONE of these young men had put on his mask subsequent to being detained.

        The exercise also seemed nonsensically since the purpose of the regulations (to stop the spread of the disease) was clearly not being sought when you decide to stick a bunch of random strangers together in the back of a small pickup truck. How were they to socially distance there? Plus most of them didn’t even have masks as a mitigation measure. And after being charged at a station, what happens? Well they get fined (or gaoled for a bit) and then released….not quarantined despite being clearly put into a situation (by the authorities) that increased the risk that each of them might have gotten it. Being young persons, they are thus more likely to suffer less severe symptoms and to spread the disease more widely and thus increase the risk of more vulnerable persons catching it.

        Jamaica’s election turnout was a paltry 37% just now (and would be 33-35% if you include the thousands who aren’t even registered to vote (and seem to have no interest) but eligible to do so). Is it any wonder when people can see plainly that it’s one rule for the privileged (of which the politicians are but just one set within that class) and one for everyone else? And that even the rule for everyone else isn’t consistently applied, but seems to be arbitrary (as a young man you may or may not fall victim to it) and even discriminatory (men v women, whether you are perceived as being a ghetto youth or non-ghetto youth) in application?

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      4. All very important points, Jon. I agree about making an example of public figures, which has not been done. The Kingston St Andrew Corporation just (yesterday) confirmed that a permit had been granted for the party (which is puzzling) and the immigration agency is investigating whether two famous footballers who attended had in fact breached COVID protocols and not done 2 weeks quarantine on arriving from overseas. Ugh. Good point about the political representative, I think that got forgotten about in the excitement of the election!
        I think the HWT mask incident was a mistake. I am not sure whether it was legal.
        The incredibly low turnout may have been partly due to COVID fears. I confess I did not vote myself (for the first time in my life) because I am in the “vulnerable” category and did not feel safe doing so. It wasn’t worth risking my health. But the previous election was a record low so this was even lower, and reflects voter apathy clearly – and the public’s perception of politics and politicians, probably…
        Isn’t it funny? A “ghetto youth” is almost automatically considered to be a young man!
        Thanks for your comments!

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      5. Thanks petchary for your considered replies.

        Addressing the last point first, yes it is funny now that I think about it, where a ghetto youth is automatically a young man. Though I guess when one considers that for Dutch and German the terms “Jongen” and “Junge” (both cognate to “young’un” or “young” in English) means “boy” and that in Patois “yute” has similar meaning narrowly defined to just one sex (male) despite originally deriving from a term that could be applied to either gender…then it should come as no surprise that Jamaican English terms influenced by Patois usage will follow suit (so “ghetto yute” in Patois and “ghetto youth” in Jamaican English. Languages are funny and curious that way.

        That HWT mask incident was of very questionable legality. Which reinforces the sense of the arbitrary and discriminatory application of the rules (thus weakening the idea of needing to conform to them).

        I’m not convinced that covid had that much of an effect on the electoral turnout. Electoral turnout has been declining steadily since the end of the 1980s and has been dropping rapidly since 2007. I’m certain covid had some effect (as you admitted for yourself and as I know from a couple of relatives who were in a similar bind as yourself in being in the vulnerable category), but maybe without covid we might have seen perhaps 40% turnout rather than 37%. I had seen a very persuasive argument made for that as follow:

        1. Jamaicans by and large don’t feel that they will personally catch the virus (this was borne out in some polls I believe), even though they might be worried about the spread of the virus —> hence why so many aren’t taking the necessary precautions

        2. Jamaicans generally went out to party even though cases were rising and we all saw what happened for nomination day and the initial stages of campaigning.

        3. In the 1970s and early 1980s voting was actually a risky prospect because it could have cost you your life under the wrong circumstances, yet we saw turnouts of 70-80%

        Therefore the main reason why most Jamaicans stayed away was simply because they didn’t want to vote, because the same Jamaicans who were disregarding covid personally in order to fete and go about daily life couldn’t be (generally) the same people who were now afraid to vote.

        Interestingly, if one looks back at this article from 2015: http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/commentary/20151116/vote-or-shut you can see something interesting. Dr Abrahams conducts a very small survey of 70 female patients aged 23-54 and finds only 36% (does that number look familiar?) had ever voted and only 20% intended to vote in 2016. If those figures are a harbinger of the future (and if the JDF turnout figures of 36% in 2016 and 25% in 2020 are also a harbinger of the future) we could reasonably expect to see turnouts of 20-40% going forward.

        And yes, let’s see what happens with the political representative. My gut feeling though is that nothing will come of it. Much as how I doubt the immigration agency investigation of the two footballers will come to anything either.

        Bolt being granted a permit is just ludicrous and only reinforces the sense of discrimination and double standards at play. Your average person was very unlikely to get such a permit for such an event.

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