Editorial | Recovery needs joined-up effort
Prime Minister Andrew Holness is right. Jamaicans will have to learn to live with COVID-19. For, despite the encouraging signs from the world’s scientists, there is no vaccine around the corner for the novel coronavirus.
Not too many people, therefore, will be surprised at the PM’s announcement of a general reopening of businesses from the start of next month. This will include lifting the two-month work-from-home order for all employees, except those over 65 or others with underlying medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
Of course, Jamaica’s economy was never in full lockdown. If it were, given the country’s high rate of poverty and the Government’s brittle fiscal situation, we could hardly have survived it. For even though some sectors have sputtered along, gross domestic product will this year decline, the Government says, by 5.1 per cent. The downward spiral, though, could well be deeper. Indeed, thousands of people have either lost their jobs outright, are on furlough, or are working short weeks.
So, as Jamaica begins the effort to claw its way back from this crisis, the administration has to demonstrate in short order that it has a formula for cranking up the economy without unleashing an aggressive spread of COVID-19 infections, beyond the just over 500 confirmed cases.
According to the prime minister, over the next 10 days, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, working through the economic recovery task force he established three weeks ago, will, in collaboration with the Government, finalise “what workplaces will look like”.
“All the normal infection-prevention and safety protocols would need to be in place,” he said.
Implementing specific operating procedures for factories, offices, and so on, especially in respect to the domestic side of the economy, is the easy bit. There are, however, other broader issues, which are primarily the responsibility of the Government, that should be addressed to ensure the confidence of the people who must go out to work, or otherwise engage in the economy.
For instance, there is need for deeper analysis and explanation of the epidemiological data surrounding COVID-19’s impact on Jamaica. We are happy that the rate of the spread of the disease seems to have been contained, which the Government attributes to the quarantining of communities where there have been pockets of the virus, and the isolation of individuals who contracted the COVID-19.
There will be questions, however, about what the health officials’ epidemiological models say about what will happen when people are up and about in great numbers, and whether there are other explanations, beyond the success of isolation and physical distancing, for the virus’ behaviour in Jamaica. It would be useful to know, too, what assumptions they have made about the spread of coronavirus in the island beyond the confirmed cases. Indeed, many infected persons may be asymptomatic, as was the case with the vast majority of the nearly 200 employees of the business process outsourcing company, who tested positive for the virus.
There are important corollaries to this infection issue, such as:
• what will be the protocols for testing for COVID-19, including if tests will, or can be, available on demand;
• capacity of the healthcare system to cope in the event that the economy’s reopening induces a COVID-19 aftershock; and if so;
• what would be the markers for retreat, or a new lockdown;
• and how any such action would be affected.
There are other, seemingly prosaic, undertakings which can contribute to slowing the spread of the virus, but which we feel haven’t received the attention, or effort, they deserve.
One is the wearing of face masks in public, which, outside of lockdowns and consistent handwashing, is perhaps the most efficacious way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But mask-wearing, though increasing, is still far from universal, and, in poor communities, patchy at best.
Masks, for poor people, are relatively expensive. It is, however, not beyond the Government, we reiterate, to foster, through the Social Development Commission, a cottage industry in communities, in the production of masks, to make them affordable.
We sense, too, a weakness in community mobilisation in driving support for actions to prevent the spread of the virus, whether through mask-wearing, handwashing/sanitisation or physical distancing. This requires a partnership between public-health officials and community leaders.
The bottom line: a successful recovery of the economy in these times requires a joined-up effort.