Tue | Sep 21, 2021

Editorial | Grasp low-hanging COVID-19 fruits

Published:Thursday | March 11, 2021 | 12:11 AM

AS HE, on Monday, bemoaned the widespread disregard for COVID-19 protocols and explained his Government’s forbearance for the indifference, Prime Minister (PM) Andrew Holness argued that an overly heavy hand sometimes unleashes a backlash that is difficult to contain and is not worth the cost.

We appreciate the point, as well as the PM’s warning that the situation has reached a stage, with the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, where his administration might have to get tough, including going for a wider shutdown of the economy.

“My conscience is clear that we have done all that we can in balancing lives and livelihoods,” the prime minister said. “At this stage, the equation and the balance has now shifted to saving lives.”

This new equation is being driven by a dramatic jump in the number of COVID-19 cases that has begun to place great strain on the island’s hospitals and healthcare workers. In the first eight days of March, there were 3,866 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases, pushing the island’s total case count to 27,465. That rise of 16 per cent was on the back of an 11 per cent (2,675 cases) increase in the last eight days of February – the month in which the latest surge began.

So, this week, the health minister, Dr Christopher Tufton, reported that 13 (59 per cent) of the island’s 22 hospitals had reached at least 84 per cent occupancy of their isolation beds for COVID-19 patients. That is the point when the red lights begin to blink, warning of an impending crisis. But of the dozen hospitals in the crisis zone at the time of Dr Tufton’s disclosure, fifty-four and a half per cent of all facilities were already at maximum capacity. Some were converting other wards to accommodate coronavirus patients.

The authorities attribute the latest surge – where the positivity rate on daily tests regularly top 30 per cent – to people’s disregard of the requirement to wearing masks in public places; their ignoring of physical distancing; and their flouting of the rules limiting gatherings, such as the ban on parties and the smaller numbers who could attend church services, funerals and other events. Indeed, there is that viral video of a female pastor lecturing health officials and the police about the divine role of God for wanting to shut down her service for breaching the disaster risk management regulations.

Situations such as illegal parties, we agree, are difficult to police. And it would be difficult to arrest, and take to court, the thousands of people who walk around daily without wearing masks, which, outside of inoculating people with vaccines, is the most effective method for slowing the spread of the disease. A year on, the promised law for ticketing offenders, similar to what happens for certain traffic offences, is not yet in place.

But, as we have said before, there are low-hanging fruits for the Government’s picking, which would help in the enforcement of the protocols and have a deterrent effect. People do not like to lose things of value, especially significant assets. Neither do they like to be inconvenienced. A motor vehicle is a major asset for most people, especially if it is used to make their living.

We suspect that the public transportation and the places where people get buses and taxis contribute to the high number of cases, as potential passengers are coaxed and dragged to vehicles. The regulations say that drivers and passengers of public transport should wear masks. That rule, among private transport operators, is more honoured in the breach.

It would be easy for the police and the Transport Authority to stop buses and taxis and confiscate and impound any vehicle that is transporting people who are not wearing masks. If required, the Road Traffic Act could easily be amended to accommodate this. The owners and the drivers would lose something, an opportunity to conduct business. Stranded passengers would be inconvenienced. That would be an important deterrent message which we commit to the Government.

We remind that although Jamaica has received a first shipment of 50,000 vaccines, and has begun to inoculate people, it will be months before the island receives sufficient doses to vaccinate the estimated 70 per cent of the population required to achieve herd immunity. In our circumstance, a full lockdown of the economy is not a viable option. Sensible interventions, for the time being, is what we have. We must use them.

Good work by the police

It is not often that we have an opportunity to commend the police, especially with regard to their exercise of restraint in the face of clear provocation. The situation at the closed Hellshire Beach on Sunday, captured on video and gone viral on the Internet, of a man berating police officers who were attempting to enforce the COVID-19 regulations is one of those occasions.

The police absorbed the ridicule and taunts, before leaving the scene and the offender and his boosters, seemingly to their own devices. By so doing, they defused a potentially explosive situation. The man, though, has not had the last laugh. At least not as yet.

He was arrested on Monday and will have his day in court, including an opportunity to tell the judge if there is more to the video than has been shared on the Internet.

In the meantime, that video should be used in police training sessions.