EDITORIAL - The PM's opportunity
It took too long and required far too much prodding. But Jamaica's chikungunya epidemic may finally be steering the Simpson Miller administration to an approach to government and governance that engages citizens, is potentially transformative, and has the advantage of getting things done, if not cheaply, less expensively than is normally the case.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller could also gain personal political benefit from this, if that is what it is, strategic shift. For her re-engagement of the national constituency, and playing to her gifts, would help the PM to claw back a chunk of the support she has lost as her Government implements the tough, but necessary, economic reforms under its agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
A week ago, after months of her health minister, Fenton Ferguson, inexplicably downplaying the chikungunya crisis, thus sapping the Government of the people's trust and political support, Mrs Simpson Miller symbolically led a clean-up of sections of her South West St Andrew constituency, depriving chikungunya's vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, of breeding sites.
Since then, the prime minister has declared the chikungunya outbreak a "national emergency" and placed herself at the forefront of efforts to confront the problem. She is right about the effects of chikungunya. The virus, for which there is no known cure or antibiotic, doesn't easily kill. It, however, leaves its victims weakened and pained - for up to 10 days, with residual effects that might last a couple of years. Being new to the island and Jamaicans not having yet developed immunity to chikungunya, health officials estimate that up 60 per cent of the population will be affected by the virus. That will mean millions of lost man-hours and production, and risks the nascent recovery of the economy after its four consecutive quarters of growth.
So, the prime minister is on good, logical ground with the national clean-up and the broader response to chikungunya, for which she allocated J$500 million. Indeed, the last time Jamaica faced this kind of high-velocity epidemic, an outbreak of dengue fever in 1977, also transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, it was contained by the kind of national mobilisation of government agencies and engagement of citizens now being proposed by the PM.
This newspaper, without much success, has long advocated for a wider application of this strategy. We have urged the Government to get on with the little things, do them properly, and get the help of communities in so doing. Dr Ferguson, the health minister, unfortunately, prefers grandiose ideas, like facilities to rival cancer-treatment centres in America. Or, headline-grabbing initiatives on smoking.
We feel that a country in Jamaica's economic circumstance should concentrate, at this time, on the small things - the public health and public hygiene initiatives that helped to give us First-World-style longevity, but which cannot be taken for granted. Drains must be cleaned, verges trimmed, and garbage collected. Potholes should be patched.
However, too many people in government, Jennifer Edwards of the solid waste management company included, rather than seeking creative solutions, prefer to moan about the absence of mountains of cash to do even the most basic things. In any event, clean communities bring in social stability and improved health, which translate to better environment for business, investment, job creation and economic growth. The PM, therefore, should go all the way.
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