Thu | Jul 9, 2020

Editorial | We are slipping on the masks

Published:Tuesday | June 30, 2020 | 12:14 AM

There is the old cliché about the United States (US) sneezing and everyone else catching its cold. These days, and in a literal sense, Jamaica’s biggest worry from America is the spread of the COVID-19 virus. And this newspaper is concerned that domestically, we may be allowing our guard to slip.

The US is Jamaica’s major economic partner, accounting for more than 40 per cent of our trade. It is the market from which the island receives more than 70 per cent of its tourists. In normal times, Jamaicans living in the United States send home more than 60 per cent of the over US$2.3 billion in remittances. In other words, US is not a country from which Jamaica can easily, or should readily, shut itself off.

It is understandable, therefore, that in the reopening of its economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Jamaica’s primary focus, with regard to its external relations is on the US, from where it wants the tourists to travel again. Tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of earnings depend on it.

Indeed, the Jamaican authorities, and the hotels where they will stay, have, insofar as is discernible, put in place relatively robust protocols to detect or to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by, or to, the mainly American tourists who have thus far begun to trickle back to the island. But it is not only tourists who are coming to Jamaica now that the island has reopened its borders. So, too, are thousands of Jamaicans who were stranded abroad, mostly in the US, during the lockdown.

HASN’T DONE A GOOD JOB

Our worry, in the circumstance, is that unlike Jamaica, the US, having taken a politically partisan approach to the disease, and failing to build a national consensus around a response, hasn’t done a good job at managing the pandemic. Rather, but for a few states, it has been decidedly bad at it.

Up to June 28, the US had recorded more than 2.6 million cases of COVID-19, or approximately 26 per cent of the more than 10.2 million cases globally. Further, its more than 128,000 deaths represented roughly a quarter of all deaths from the disease. But more disturbing, with regard to the US, is the recent spiralling of cases in states such as Texas, Arizona, and Florida, including the city of Miami, where there is a heavy concentration of Jamaicans and which we used to refer to as the postal code Kingston 21. These states, and others, have been insufficiently measured, or have not been prudent, largely for political reasons, in their approach to reopening their economies.

By contrast, up to the same date, Jamaica had confirmed 690 cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths. In other words, less than a quarter of one per cent of the Jamaican population was confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 against three per cent of America’s, where some experts estimate that the number of cases may be up to 10 times more than recorded.

The larger point here is that the structure of Jamaica’s economy and the state of the country’s development, with a large portion of its population existing on the margins and having to hustle for their income daily, mean that the island can’t easily maintain a prolonged shutdown. What we can do is be robust in the measures we take to reduce the risk of spread of the novel coronavirus as we go about our domestic activities and entertain foreign visitors. This is the area of concern for this newspaper. We sense a growing laxity in enforcement.

CONSENSUS

There is consensus that there are three low-hanging fruits in this regard: practising good hygiene, especially frequent handwashing or sanitisation; keeping the recommended physical distance from other people; and wearing face masks in public to prevent the spread of droplets that transmit the virus. Short of a vaccine, mask wearing is perhaps the most efficacious method to slow the spread of the virus. Indeed, it is a requirement in Jamaica that masks be worn in public places such as offices, shops, and on public transportation.

At the early height of the pandemic, there was a growing awareness of the utility of masks, which showed in their use. Perhaps we have been lulled by the low community spread of the virus and that in many communities, people don’t know if any of their neighbours have contracted the virus; but it is our sense that the wearing of masks has grown increasingly lax.

This is the case, especially in private buses and taxis, where many drivers, and a large proportion of their passengers, don’t regularly wear masks, with seemingly, little attempt at enforcement and/or penalty. People apparently miss the potential risk to themselves or the endangerment of others. Perhaps the recent developments in west Kingston and Norwood, St James, are an opportunity for another round of mobilisation and sensitisation by the Government on the value and virtue of wearing masks. We appreciate that the effort is hard to sustain, but it has to be done.