Sun | Jun 20, 2021

Peter Espeut | Choosing between life and death

Published:Friday | May 7, 2021 | 12:09 AM
Health workers and  hundreds of persons wait at the Old Harbour Civic Centre, St Catherine, for the arrival of vaccines last month.
Health workers and hundreds of persons wait at the Old Harbour Civic Centre, St Catherine, for the arrival of vaccines last month.

Like so many other people, I have been monitoring the ebb and flow of infections and deaths due to COVID-19, and the strategies used by the Government to contain the pandemic. From the outset, I have had an ethical difficulty with the mantra the Government has been using to develop policy: ‘balancing lives and livelihoods’.

The most fundamental human right is the right to life; without life, all other rights are meaningless! The Charter of Rights in the Constitution of Jamaica mentions it first: “the right to life, liberty and security to the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in the execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which the person has been convicted” [13(3)(a)].

‘Balancing lives and livelihoods’ puts the health of the economy on equal footing with human lives, and suggests that in order to protect livelihoods, it is acceptable to put human lives at risk; or worse: the policy may be characterised as trading human lives for gross domestic product (GDP). This mantra treats human life as expendable!

I think it is a serious moral lapse to attempt to buy economic growth with human lives. I thought we had done away with that in the 1830s!

Public policy must seek to protect human life at all costs; even if people (and the country) are a little poorer, it is better that the population – especially the most vulnerable – remain alive; this pandemic too shall pass.

Instead, in the name of ‘protecting livelihoods’, certain economic sectors (like tourism and horse racing) were allowed to continue to operate. I hope the lives lost in those sectors were worth the dollars earned.

LIFE IS CHEAP

Even though even one human life is of infinite value, life is cheap in Jamaica. Our murder rate across administrations is one of the highest in the world; the rate of police killings is similarly high. Had we been outraged at these killings, public policy could have been developed long ago to reduce it to civilised levels.

Road deaths per capita in Jamaica across administrations are also quite high: persons corruptly buy drivers’ licences, and drive unsafe vehicles; relatively few motorcyclists wear helmets, and pedal cyclists are not required to do so by law; debilitating or fatal head injuries are not uncommon. Were we sufficiently enraged over serious road injuries and deaths, our governments would have cleaned up the system a long time ago!

No! To our governments – of both parties – Jamaican lives are cheap; and so they seek to ‘balance lives and livelihoods’. I am sure they regret every life lost, but some must die so that others can make money.

The Government seems never have to been worried about the numbers of Jamaicans who catch the novel coronavirus; most will recover. What they are afraid of is overwhelming the capacity of the hospitals and healthcare facilities. That is what is driving policy.

I am grateful for the few weekend lockdowns which appear to have reduced the number of infections. I say ‘appear’, because another cause of the reduction in the number of reported infections is also likely to be reduced testing. When the Ministry of Health and Wellness was testing over 2,000 persons daily, we had record levels of positives – more than 500 per day! Nowadays we test only about 700-800 persons daily, so obviously the number of positives will be fewer. Testing fewer people is one way of reducing the number of positives and making things look better than they really are.

BALANCING ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT

This and previous governments have treated the health of the natural environment as expendable. ‘Balancing the environment and development’ means that we mash up a little environment to achieve a little economic growth. To build a hotel we must chop down some forest, and dump up some wetlands, and dredge away some coral reefs. This is not sustainable, as pretty soon all the forests, wetlands and reefs will be dead and gone.

We used to have the highest rate of deforestation in the world. We still have some of the most overfished waters globally. Murderation by another name!

I long for a government (a political party?) that sincerely respects the lives of Jamaicans, and the health of the natural environment – both protected by the Bill of Rights in the Jamaican Constitution. I suspect I will have to wait a very long time for that!

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.