Wed | Sep 30, 2020

Editorial | Forget campaign circus, this time

Published:Wednesday | August 12, 2020 | 12:20 AM

With A general election apparently on the horizon, Jamaica’s two big political parties had begun to campaign.

That will now intensify with Tuesday’s announcement of September 3 as the election date. Which, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and the recent upsurge of COVID-19 cases in the island, raises questions about how they intend to canvass voters.

In the past, elections meant rallies, such as those recent ones by Prime Minister Andrew Holness in Clarendon and Hanover – the latter ostensibly to inaugurate a water project – attended by a few hundred people. And there are the massive meetings, with tens of thousands of people packed tightly into town squares. Many of the attendees are bused to the venues by the parties. In between the speeches, supporters sing and dance and shout slogans. It is a fête-like atmosphere.

This is the kind of environment where the COVID-19 virus usually spreads rapidly and efficiently. There is a greater possibility, in dense crowds, of ingesting in sufficient quantities the aerosolised droplets of persons – some of whom may be asymptomatic – with the disease. The likelihood is increased, too, of having physical contact with persons, or surfaces, on whom, or where, the virus is present.

Indeed, as Prime Minister Holness’ recent swing through the central and western parishes demonstrated, it is difficult, even in the absence of massive crowds, to keep, without the strict enforcement measures, enthusiastic and exuberant supporters at bay. Or, to express it in the vernacular of the pandemic, it is hard to impose physical distancing by having people at the recommended six feet apart.

Further, as was observed during Mr Holness’ extensively covered public engagements on his tours, few of his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) supporters wore masks, which are, allied with physical distancing and frequent sanitisation, up to now the most efficacious method for slowing the spread of the disease. Masks catch most of the emitted, or expectorated, virus and help to limit their ingestion by others.

It is against this backdrop that this newspaper embraces the concerns of private-sector and civil society groups, expressed in their statement Monday, that an election campaign, conducted in the traditional style, and on the evidence of the early hustings, could “lead to a further spike in (COVID-19) cases”.

“We have observed through social and traditional media that many of these early political campaign events, such as motorcades and meetings, exhibit inconsistent application of social distancing and the use of masks,” said the groups, which include the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica. “... In some instances, the protocols are totally ignored.”

RECENT DATA

Recent data amplify these worries. Jamaica, having largely kept a relatively strong lid on the spread of the virus, has had a recent swelling in the number of COVID-19 cases – more than 100 in less than a week, up to Monday. The cases are now more than 1,030 since the first one was confirmed on March 10. Add to this the backlog of COVID-19 tests, which means a lag in the data required by policymakers to make the best decisions for managing the epidemic.

In the circumstances, it is good sense that all parties intending to contest the election, led by the governing JLP and Peter Phillips’ People’s National Party, publicly agree, with the imprimatur of the political ombudsman, to follow protocols, developed in conjunction with the health ministry, for the conduct of the campaign and election.

But the parties should go further. They should voluntarily eschew, for this election cycle at least, the motorcades, big rallies and the carnival/circus elements of the campaign, for tightly managed, small group sessions and broadcast debates, where the emphasis is on substantive policies and the quality of leadership, rather than razzle-dazzle and bacchanal. Jamaica may well be the better for it.