Meetings, speeches – and by the way, our fifth wave of COVID-19

Jamaica’s Health and Wellness Minister Christopher Tufton and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie have been very busy recently in Geneva, Switzerland, where the 75th World Health Assembly took place, ending on May 28. They have been talking a great deal about non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which as we know are rampant on the island – that is, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other “lifestyle” conditions. I wish the press release below did not contain so much jargon, but it points to the Ministry’s focus on much-needed primary health care reform.

Minister of Health & Wellness, Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton (left) chairs day one of the 34th Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting in London on Tuesday (May 17, 2022). Seated next to him (from second left) are the Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland QC, Commonwealth Secretary-General; Dr. Ruth Kattumuri, Senior Director for the Economic, Youth and Sustainable Development Directorate with the Commonwealth Secretariat; and Jamaica’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Seth George Ramocan. (Photo: Ministry of Health and Wellness)

Earlier this month, Minister Tufton also chaired Day One of the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting in London.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Andrew Holness mentioned a possible reimposition of a mask mandate. And yet, as we move along merrily through our fifth wave of COVID-19, this has not yet materialised, one week after he hinted at it, despite repeated calls from medical representatives to reinstate it. Let’s face it though – our political leaders are not “listening to the scientists.” The scientists’ voices are too meek and mild, perhaps. Someone who is never meek and mild is Gleaner columnist Gordon Robinson, who wrote an acerbic piece on the matter this week. He used the analogy of seatbelt wearing. What if seatbelt wearing, for example, was a matter of “personal responsibility”? It’s clear that the Government has thrown up its hands and given up on Jamaicans. It’s up to us. It’s all our fault. We made our bed, we have to lie in it.

So hospitalisations are fairly high again and – let’s face it – three quarters of our population are unvaccinated (the lowest vaccination rate in Latin America and the Caribbean). Bearing this stark fact in mind, we can perhaps expect this wave to continue for a while, although the Government is taking this puzzling “hands off” approach. I guess we are hoping that COVID-19 will drift away, off into the sunset. For the record, as of Thursday, May 26 we had 124 in hospital with COVID-19, 31 patients moderately ill, 3 seriously ill, and 4 critical. We had 334 new positive cases and a 30.2% positivity rate. Those are the official figures.

Or, as Reuters’ very useful COVID pages tell us:

COVID-19 infections are increasing in Jamaica, with 303 new infections reported on average each day. That’s 21% of the peak — the highest daily average reported on January 15.

KINGSTON, Jamaica. Thursday, May 26, 2022: Jamaica has provided the world with a view into its suite of interventions to rein in the epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) affecting its population. 

“Jamaica is committed to re-orienting, re-strategising, prioritising and implementing impactful evidence-based interventions tailored to the local context and strengthening surveillance monitoring and research through the development and adoption of digital solutions. We continue to implement initiatives that accelerate our response to NCD prevention and control,” noted Dr. Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, Chief Medical Officer (CMO).

The CMO was making the intervention at the 75th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday (May 24). 

Among the actions to be taken, the CMO revealed, is the revamp of the island’s world-famous Jamaica Moves Programme with initiatives in communities, schools and workplaces that promote physical activity as well as healthy eating and lifestyle. 

“We have solidified our physical activity schedule of activities by engaging Physical Activity Coordinators in all health regions to energise and prioritise this area,” the CMO explained. 

Also in the plan are continued efforts to reduce the sugar content in beverages sold in schools, salt reduction and initiating discussions on trans-fat elimination. 

“We have initiated studies on salt consumption as well as on the prevalence of trans fat in our foods. The National Infant and Young Child Feeding Policy is also at an advanced stage of discussions. We are also at an advanced stage towards implementation of a Comprehensive Tobacco legislation with this set to be tabled in Parliament this year,” the CMO said.

“We also continue to partner with civil society groups and NGOs (while) the multi-sectoral National Committee on NCD has been established and will provide oversight for the implementation of the National Strategic Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs which is currently being updated,” the CMO added.

THE NO-MASK MESSAGE: Minister of Health and Wellness Christopher Tufton poses with Dr. Carissa F. Etienne (centre), a public health expert from Dominica and Director of the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO/WHO) and Jamaica’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie. It always strikes me that the Prime Minister and other Ministers of Government of late never wear masks in photo-ops, even when, as in this case, everyone else in the photo is wearing one… Perception is everything. (Photo: Ministry of Health and Wellness)

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