The original version of this story was posted on Petchary's blog.
“If the dirt, a dirt.”
There is a fatalistic streak in the Jamaican psyche. Sometimes it gets to the point where people shrug their shoulders and say, “Suh it guh” (that's how it goes).
In this COVID-19 era, this trend has begun. “Dirt“Refers to death. As the old saying suggests (there are many others among old Jamaican proverbs), you have to die sometime. Whether you starve to death from the economic collapse or the virus itself, it's the same. The consensus among some is: “We are going to take a risk and face the virus. At least we will have some money. If we die, we die ”.
I have a feeling that the Government of Jamaica recently reached a similar conclusion, and has been moving in that direction. The Holness administration is, after all, between the sword and the paerd. He's been trying to “balance lives and livelihoods,” as the COVID cliche would say. But for various reasons, it cannot keep Jamaica's bubbly and booming economy, especially its substantial informal sector, always on hiatus. There will be anger, even riots, perhaps. Despair is felt. I am sure that political representatives are told this every day: “We are hungry!”. This is forceful, this is real. And then there are elections on the horizon. So the “balance” has tipped.
So the press conference in the Prime Minister's Office on the night of May 12 was critical and can have serious consequences. It seems that we have reached the point where the economy, and in particular, our small and micro-businesses, cannot take it anymore. Whatever happens, we should tentatively “open up” and let the chips fall where they can. Although, in reality, we never close completely, although small and micro-businesses, vendors, taxi drivers and many others who live on the edge of poverty or poverty, have continued to suffer inordinate amounts.
This is the current situation, which will soon change: the meeting places have closed, apart from the supermarkets and the specially blessed “BPO” (call centers). The tourism sector is in a coma, as are related companies. Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett said at the press conference that he would soon announce a reopening date. This, of course, must be coordinated with the reopening of our borders. Our government was reluctantly forced to close tourism due to travel closings, which remain 95% closed, along with airlines and cruises.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare was allotted around five or ten minutes of the press conference, and the Medical Director, as usual, exuded calm and clarity. The remainder of the two-hour conference was for the Prime Minister's detailed explanation of the boundaries of the quarantined area in rural St. Mary's in and around the city of Annotto Bay; Another complex explanation of the curfew hours, which have been relaxed (since the night of Wednesday, May 13, we will have two additional hours of freedom at night and one additional hour in the morning, that is, from 20:00 to 05:00 hours) ; and the usual comprehensive explanation by the Minister of Finance on arrangements for the distribution of assistance to the most vulnerable communities. The journalists' questions yielded much more useful information and some evasive answers.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness later announced that, after meeting with church leaders, he decided to open churches and also bars, for a two-week “trial period”. Well, they say that in Jamaica, next to each church there is a bar (or vice versa).
It is clear that efforts to enforce social distancing have not been very successful, and two places where people generally move and socialize as they please are churches and bars, which, after all, are the main social gathering points. According to the Prime Minister, there are at least 10,000 bars in Jamaica (and I'm sure that's an understatement) and God knows how many churches across the island. I heard it's around 2000-3000. Again, it could be more.
There are many trivial questions – but still, not trivial – that come to mind: how are people going to have a drink while wearing masks? Don't some bars have kitchens, where food is cooked and people sit and eat? Are people really going to resist the urge to sit down for a game of dominoes? Aren't parishioners really going to hug or do that peace thing by shaking hands? Who will stop them if they do? Who is going to monitor these thousands of establishments and who is going to enforce the orders, several of which, in terms of human behavior, have already been ignored by the general population?
In places like markets and outside Western Union offices in various cities across the country, for example – remittances from abroad are a lifesaver for many Jamaicans – people continue to huddle in crowds. And if I had to guess, from what I've anecdotally seen on television reports and on my few out-of-home excursions, only about 30% of the population wears face masks. Those who do so often use them incorrectly.
All the government can do now is “implore” and “suggest” that Jamaicans behave responsibly and sensibly and abide by the rules so that we can all learn to “live with COVID-19” as we go on with our lives. However, many cannot or do not listen to or follow these warnings. Orchestrating behavior change is a long, frustrating, and also highly technical process. It is not going to happen overnight. Simply telling people to behave at a press conference that half the population was probably not even watching will have no effect.
When things have “opened” it will return to normal. I don't think there is going to be a 'new normal' – just normal. We are almost there.
There was a lot of talk about “handling” the virus. Well, Mr. Holness and others, I have news for you. Something we have learned around the world is that humans do not handle the virus, the virus handles us. All we are doing is trying to keep up, adjust, react, and sometimes we are just encouraging it, with hope and prayer. Even President Trump, who really believes he is like a god or king, now has the virus running through his White House, and there is nothing he can do about it.
We could have all the plans in the world and think we are in control. But “things and time will tell,” as Jamaicans say.
Meanwhile, let's reflect on a poster displayed on Wednesday, May 13, in the Florida Parliament during a protest: “A corpse is not a customer.”