Sat | Jun 6, 2020

Editorial | Testing our utility companies

Published:Saturday | May 23, 2020 | 12:00 AM

How well are the country’s utilities holding up in the current virus pandemic? In the last few days, Internet service has been widely disrupted, there have been unscheduled power cuts in some areas, and water, well, let’s say that many areas continue to have unannounced lock-offs. So is the pandemic testing the limits of our utility companies?

During a crisis, we still expect our utilities to work. Power plants, dams and other water-catchment facilities, and communication and transportation services are all classified as part of the country’s critical infrastructure. As a country vulnerable to hurricanes for six months of the year, our disaster preparedness plan must consider the readiness status of utility companies so that when some other disruption – like an earthquake, fire, cyberattack, or pandemic – comes along, there is continued reliability in the power grid and general infrastructure.

We understand the challenge for the utility companies to provide service in the midst of a quarantine by balancing workers’ safety against customers’ demand. We reckon that critical maintenance work must continue. The mobilisation and deployment of workers require a structured approach, which, we believe, is already in place in our light and power company as an essential service, which would have a plan in place to prepare and respond to disasters. There is the added fact that the company must find a way to deal with customers who face job losses or pay cuts and may not be able to pay their bills.

Digital technology has enabled many companies to continue operating while the majority of their workers remain at home. Home Internet usage would have soared, with thousands of students participating in online learning activities. There were recent reports that some students were unable to complete their examinations and related tasks because they had no Internet connectivity, no doubt adding to their frustration of having to make adjustments to the delivery of their education.

PREPARED FOR EVENTUALITIES

Because of the need for physical distancing, the pandemic has placed more persons at home, so it is likely that there will be increased video-conferencing and live-streaming as they try to be digitally present to keep up with work and social and family engagements.

But the service providers know all of this, and we expect that they would have developed disaster scenarios and are prepared for any eventuality so that they can maintain service at the desired speed.

The need for handwashing has been stressed repeatedly by healthcare officials as they provide guidance to the population to help limit the spread of the virus. Too many communities in Jamaica still do not have a reliable water supply. We need not stress the importance of being able to access safe drinking water and water for domestic purposes to mitigate against the spread of the virus.

While it is too early to predict the possible revenue outcome of utility companies, we anticipate that the utility companies will come out of this pandemic better than most sectors because while the economy is literally on pause, these utility companies continue to earn, and, in some cases, at a higher rate. The bills keep coming, landing in people’s inbox like clockwork.

In these dark days, as tough as it is, consumers are searching for that silver lining. We do need reliable utilities to ensure that the light stays on and that there is water in our pipes and that the Internet continues to launch us into cyberspace.