Thu | Aug 17, 2017

A disaster in the real sense

Published:Tuesday | November 17, 2015 | 11:00 AMDaniel Thwaites, Contributor

In the midst of our supposedly 'modern' mindset, certain ancient prejudices and behaviours stubbornly persist. One such is the desire and demand every so often for a scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb, and for the ritualistic shedding of blood.

Fenton Ferguson is this year's victim, having been felled by an audit he ordered that showed that hospitals had the problems we knew they had.

Ferguson was supposedly responsible for 'policy', and others responsible for administration and implementation. The Gleaner's editorial reasoned:

"Ironically, it was not specifically the deaths of the 19 preterm babies ... that brought down Dr Ferguson. Rather, it was his handling of the findings of an audit ... . As it has turned out ... the greater fault lay in the inadequacies of operational managers and the failure to hold them to account ... . However, ministers are accountable for the combined impact of breaches on institutions if they have failed to install competent managers, or have failed to hold them to account."

My only observation is that if we want ministers to have administrative responsibility, we should give it to them so the public knows exactly who to hang.

But I don't think it was Fenton's failure to fire managers that did him in. His gaffe that the premature children were not "babies in the real sense" has to be one of the most disastrous bloopers ever. Never mind that he caught and corrected himself immediately.

I know my own reactions. At first: fear. The threat of infection and contamination, for good reason, reaches down into some animalistic part of our brain. So the initial incorrect broadcast that a 'mystery bug' stalking Jamaica's hospitals had already claimed several lives set off every pre-rational alarm, and I conducted a quick mental audit of whether I had anyone in the hospitals at the moment.

But the panic was already in train and I was imagining hazmat suits, goggles, water boots, condoms, and protective gloves to go in and rescue mi people.

Then came anger and outrage, and a general feeling that everybody needed to be fired. That is the exhilarating communal howl for blood, which, once experienced, produces the kind of primal euphoria described by hunters through the ages.

It is only afterwards, as information began to trickle forth, that I paused to rethink. One important piece missing from the original war cry was that these were premature babies and, therefore, in a seriously life-threatening condition already.

Then I learned that although this was a terrible cluster of deaths, these, too, aren't completely uncommon and that these infections are a common problem in hospitals worldwide, especially among those with compromised immune systems. Martin Henry's excellent column, 'Hospital infections - beyond the fury' (Sunday Gleaner, November 1, 2015), on the matter cannot be superseded.

There was also a question about whether a lack of resources, including simple things like cleaning agents and water, had contributed to the outbreak. Then I heard medical professionals, people who should know, denying that.

Few informed people, unless completely politically blinkered, now maintain that the removal of user fees from the health system was a sound policy move. Why should someone covered by insurance not be asked to tender some payment if they access the public facility, except to give a tidy windfall to insurance companies and transfer resources from the poor to the rich(er)?

But there's no mystery about why the userfees were removed. Although bad for the health system, it's splendid politics.

If Fenton is to blame, it's because he, like everyone else, knew that the health system needed user fees to be reimplemented, but he and his colleagues were unwilling to suffer the political dip that a reversal of freeness would bring.

But back to the current scandal. What began as an outright panic about rampant infection had become a debate about information flow and the propensity to hide, and whether functionaries off at overseas conferences hit the alarm button fast enough.

Still, many streams converged to make the initial panic natural. The first is the reporting that I've mentioned, which was self-consciously propagandistic and sensational. Second, trust is a 100 per cent concept that you either have or you don't, and Minister Ferguson had not recovered from the handling of chik-V, in particular the incessant reference to minuscule stats about "13 confirmed cases" while whole communities were stricken and workplaces empty.

Then there was the audit's secrecy, which was an invitation for suspicion and distrust.

In fact, one lesson I draw from all of this is that smart, swift, responsive and transparent communication is an essential element in the public having confidence. And it is a prerequisite when crises arise, because whether they are disasters in the real sense or essentially manufactured, the resultant blood sacrifice is surely real.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to