Sat | Jun 6, 2020

Peter Phillips | Protecting our people is priority in the COVID-19 fight

Published:Sunday | May 3, 2020 | 12:11 AM
A policeman conducts a temperature check on a motorist in the vicinity of Angels, 
St Catherine, on Wednesday.
A policeman conducts a temperature check on a motorist in the vicinity of Angels, St Catherine, on Wednesday.

The national priority at this time must be the protection of the Jamaican people against the onset of COVID-19. This has to be done by striking the balance between implementing protective public-health measures and providing a supporting economic environment to sustain life. Jamaicans should not have to choose between death by COVID-19 virus and death by starvation.

These are serious times, and we must proceed on the basis of the best information available. This means that far more testing has to be done, particularly in the hotspot areas. To date, fewer than 4,000 tests have been done, and the fact that up to Wednesday, some 381 Jamaicans have tested positive, means that one out of every 10 Jamaicans is carrying the deadly virus. This is an alarming rate, which points to a far bigger problem than we imagine.

The response to the crisis would be more effective with greater levels of transparency by the Government in its communication with the people on the state of affairs and by avoiding measures that are unaffordable for most citizens and create undue hardship. It does not help to arrest persons who are going to buy groceries to ensure the survival of their families.

Last Sunday, I made a call for the establishment of a COVID-19 Prevention Planning and Oversight Committee (CPOC). This CPOC would enable a much more inclusive planning approach, establish critical health-protection protocols that would be applied to various sectors, and be responsible for sequencing the areas and sectors to be restarted. It would also provide oversight to ensure fair and impartial distribution of benefits.

More representation

While a version of this was subsequently announced, the committee named is not sufficiently inclusive of the experience, expertise, and capacity available. There should be more representation from the private sector, health professionals from the public and private sectors, trade unions, churches, and civil society.

The pandemonium that we witnessed on the shopping days in St Catherine must not be repeated. The Jamaican private sector, our churches, and the wider communities of faith, along with the local political representatives, must be brought in to design and implement a food-distribution system that includes a critical role for our corner shops.

Though the COVID-19 virus has not yet peaked in Jamaica, it has already devastated the country’s economy. The tourism industry has effectively closed, and the demand for bauxite and alumina on the world market has fallen. Remittance flows, through Western Union, MoneyGram, and the banks have been negatively affected by the pandemic. Many Jamaicans overseas who send money home have been affected.

It is essential that the Government proceed cautiously with the business process outsourcing (BPOs) operations as they remain a vital source of foreign exchange, and many families depend on the income to survive. Even so, we cannot risk the lives of our people. To protect this sector, the Government must establish and enforce new and improved standards of operation. The BPO leaders also have a critical role to play to protect the industry and invest in the health protection of their workers and wider communities. This is time for active, honest partnership and accountability.

Protecting the most vulnerable

Even with our limited resources, our attention must be focused on the most vulnerable, including the elderly and those with pre-existing illnesses, to limit the spread of the disease. At the same time, we must provide economic relief for those who have been most affected by the economic fallout.

The Government needs to immediately reopen the application period for the “Compassionate Grant” for the many Jamaicans who work in the informal economy and who are now earning nothing and for the elderly and young people who are trying to survive in this very difficult time as well.

It is good to laud our front-line workers, but it is even better to provide them with real-time help for the sacrifices they continue to make in this fight. Given the needs of their own families and their selfless service, a ‘Special Risk and Hardship Payment’ should be provided for all front-line sanitation workers, front-line state-employed healthcare workers, rank-and-file policemen and JDF soldiers doing front-line duties and state-employed public-transportation drivers and conductors.

In addition, the Government must design a plan to help overseas Jamaicans in need even as a decision has been made to gradually reopen our borders. It is the responsibility of the Government to bring home Jamaican workers from abroad, and this is a matter of urgency. Also, there are students overseas who have reached out to us, such as those in Barbados and Cuba, whose parents cannot afford to fly them home or afford to maintain them where they are. Government is in a position to fly students home, and they should.

The tragic death of Jodian Fearon is a painful indicator of the fact that we are just not managing efficiently. Jodian, who was in a state of active labour, died having been denied admission to our hospitals, public and private, because she had COVID-19 symptoms. It is unacceptable that our systems are not sufficiently ready to offer care to our people in their time of greatest need.

As a country, we have been through many hardships before, and we shall overcome this also. I am encouraged when I see my fellow Jamaicans making masks and distributing them free of cost, persons giving sanitisers, community members taking supplies to the elderly and the disabled. This is the Jamaica that we are – out of many, one people.

- Dr Peter Phillips is President of the People’s National Party and Leader of the opposition. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.