Sat | Aug 8, 2020

Mark Wignall | Hard times ahead

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2020 | 12:00 AM

Reality hit home last week when Jamaican bars and their best friends in psychology class, churches, were ordered to radically scale down their activities. Bars, one of the mainstays of our women most socially and economically deprived, were ordered locked. A terrifying fine of $1 million was heavily advertised.

COVID-19 was the new villain in town, and the sheriff, Health and Wellness Minister Chris Tufton was making his daily pronouncements and appeals. He and the very vocal PM wanted us to be part of the posse that corners COVID-19 and chases it out of town.

The activities of churches were scaled down to lessen the potential for crowd formation. But, of course, the exhortations to renew one’s soul while fattening the pocket of the prosperity hawkers could always move to streaming on social media.


Super-rapid change in how the society went about its daily business was upon us, and the harshness of it in the short, medium, and long term has not yet sunk into our brain cells.

“Mi never open on Tuesday, but mi open Wednesday,” said a 36-year-old bar owner to me last Thursday. Mi have mi seven-year-old son, and him at home. Mi lucky mi likkle sister helping mi keep him, but him have to eat, and mi not in di mood to owe di landlord any rent.”

She had the door locked and accommodated only four patrons at a time. “Mi lock off di light and use mi phone flashlight app. If one person leave, mi let in one more.”

“You know you are breaking the law,” I said to her.

“Yeah, but I am not going to make my son go hungry. Mi like how Andrew a handle dis virus ting, but if him mek dis lock dung ting gwaan fi too long, we will know what to do when election come.”

One young lady I know who just secured a loan from a well-known lending institution to purchase a car has not yet reached the stage of considering panic. “I don’t believe in that. I purchased the car to rent it out to my Airbnb guests. Now all I can see in the bookings is ‘cancelled.’ I have only made one payment to the bank, and now this. I don’t know where to go from here. I am in watch-and-see mode. That’s all I can do for now.”


Two months ago, 21-year-old Debs (not her real name) had just left the job she had at a BPO outfit in New Kingston. “I absolutely hated the job, but to be truthful, I took it because nothing else was available.”

Debs hated what she saw as regimentation on the job. Plus the pay, she said, was not impressive. It was then that her eyes were opened up to a new level of opportunity. Truth was that Debs had a deep, dark secret, and the job she took after leaving her BPO stint was perfect in that it satisfied her secret yearnings and paid her well. She began working in a massage parlour.

She was forced to hide the truth from her friends and concocted many stories, most of which had run their course of stretching credibility. Debs told me that with tips, she could take home, in a good week, $45,000.

Now in the lockdown in COVID-19 times, the place has been shuttered and she is home with her mother. She has no idea what will happen as she waits.

Fifty-year-old Steve has been told by his employer that he can only afford to pay him for three days of a five-day work week. He has been working for the company for four years. “I have a contract, but the boss reasoned with me, and we both agreed that contract or none, if there is a shortage of raw materials and production falters, there is less to sell. Plus, even if we secure raw material, if demand suffers, the decline we expect, we are in s!!t street.”


Last Tuesday, as I drove along a well-known thoroughfare that connects Hagley Park Road with Spanish Town Road, just about every bar was open. “Wi never si nutten like dis,” said a 72-year-old man I know from the area. “People down here don’t take orders from no Government, no politician. Dem know dat politician is wicked, so dem do dem own ting. Wi not gwine diss di virus programme, but wi not gwine satisfy with behaving proper fi guarantee hungry belly.”

Long before Chris Tufton was fully made head honcho in charge of the health ministry, it was known that Jamaica’s public hospitals and clinics were made only for the long-suffering poor who could not afford the relative luxury of private healthcare.

Fast-forward that reality to what is happening now. First, it is obvious that Dr Tufton did not disclose that he had any miracle inducing powers that could, overnight, transform public healthcare delivery into the best it could be. Let us understand that no major physical transformation has been undertaken.

I am certain that many of our public hospitals are still looking at that piece of moth-balled X-ray machine and fancy heart unit pushed into dark corners gathering dust. The expertise is here, but the resources are still sparse.

“In a way, this is perversely good,” said my doctor friend, a Jamaican who lives and practises medicine in Atlanta. “With COVID-19, the biggest priority on the mind of Tufton must be handling this unprecedented crisis to ensure that the bed capacity of the public hospitals be kept from being overwhelmed, which happens even in normal times.”

That Tufton can be lauded by the head of the World Health Organization and other important international names tell me that this little country has the potential to be much, much more than we are. Many Jamaicans have bet big on Tufton. But if the COVID-19 cases in Jamaica spin out of control any time soon, that could change.