Peter Espeut | Unbalanced balancing act
Every day, I record the latest COVID-19 statistics of positive cases, deaths and number of samples tested, and analyse the data. The first case was detected on March 10, 2020, and so it was about this time last year that the first Jamaicans were infected with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19.
The first 1,000 cases took 152 days to present; the last 1,000 took three days!
The first 10,000 cases took 253 days to present; the last 5,000 cases (from 17,000 to 22,000) took 17 days. So far, February 2021 has broken the record for the ‘highest daily case count’ four times, with 263, 328, 403 and 468 positive tests on the 4th, 5th, 8th and 15th of the month. There are few who will disagree that, presently, the COVID-19 pandemic is out of control in our island home.
No one believes that the positive cases detected by the Government are the only ones in the country; some suggest multipliers anywhere from five to 10 times, or maybe even higher.
The silver lining in the dark cloud is that the death toll has been relatively low, although every death is a tragedy. There have been about 400 COVID-related deaths in the 350 or so days since the first case emerged – just more than one death each day.
Official government policy is to ‘balance lives and livelihoods’, which means that there is a trade-off between the health of the economy and the health of the Jamaican population. Heavy quarantine and lockdown orders will cause the economy to haemorrhage, causing businesses to suffer and die; loosening up on the restrictions allows businesses (and their employees) to make money, but inevitably infections will increase, and people will die.
WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT?
Do we put people first, or the health of the economy? I know it is not a simple or easy choice, as both involve the welfare of people; but then, what value do we put on human health and human lives? Is the right to life of more importance than the right to make money?
A similar ‘balance’ is proposed in the trade-off between the health of the natural environment and growth in the economy: mash up a little of the environment to create jobs and economic growth. This, of course, is not sustainable, for if you cut down forests, dump up wetlands, and kill coral reefs in the name of ‘development’, one day there will be no natural environment left. Sustainable development is not a balance between environmental destruction and economic growth; there is no balance, for swapping healthy ecosystems for jobs and economic growth is nothing more than gradual ecocide.
Sustainable development is the idea that human societies must live and meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. If prosperity of the present generation is tied up with destruction of the natural environment, future generations will not have that option, as there will be no natural environment left to destroy – no more Cockpit Country, no more Puerto Bueno Mountains.
The ‘precautionary principle’ guides us to err on the side of protecting the environment. Prosperity at the expense of natural ecosystems is counterfeit development – ill-gotten gains.
As the Government seeks to balance lives and livelihoods in this COVID pandemic, on which side should they err? Should the preservation of the health and lives of Jamaicans be uppermost in their minds? Or the health of the tourism industry, football, horse racing, track & field, and the entertainment industry?
If there was ever a ‘balance’, it is now unbalanced. The recovery of the economy is being bought with the morbidity and mortality of Jamaicans, especially the elderly – and the mortality of the natural environment.
Could we please have a rethink?
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to email@example.com.