Wed | May 27, 2020

Letter of the Day | COVID-19 message foreign to windshield washers

Published:Friday | March 27, 2020 | 12:16 AM


As a matter of urgency, public-health messaging with respect to COVID-19 needs to occur in Jamaican as well as in standard English.

Walking to the supermarket yesterday, my wife and I were stopped by a windshield washer who was obviously perplexed to know just what was happening.

Traffic has declined noticeably, and so have his earnings. The few motorists willing to exchange a brief word with him in passing have implied that there is some deadly disease going around that has come from overseas.

But beyond that, he had no idea what might explain the dramatic changes he was experiencing; nor did he recognise how he needed to modify his own everyday behaviours to respond to the crisis we all face. Nearby, a few of his fellow windshield washers sat on the sidewalk huddled in conversation, oblivious to guidelines about social distancing.

While I commend the Government and health authorities for providing regular updates and offering valuable practical guidance to the public through the media, town criers and other channels, the messaging – as far as I can tell – is taking place mostly in standard Jamaican English. It is not yet being communicated in Patois, the language best spoken and understood by the vast majority of Jamaicans.

I appeal to the authorities and the media to correct this oversight. The public health updates and guidance need to be provided in Jamaican as well as in English.


Even as it places our most vulnerable citizens in greatest jeopardy, COVID-19 affects all of us. We all need to be privy to accurate, up-to-date information to allow us to respond appropriately and in a unified way to this crisis.

If one of us doesn’t understand or heed the advisories, it puts all of us at risk. Our professional linguists have been telling us for years of the barriers our society places in the path of many Jamaicans by its stubborn insistence that we all understand and speak English. This isn’t a moment to fool ourselves that we do.