The political communications nightmare of the Government’s COVID-19 fight
We are in a crisis. The recent RJRGLEANER Don Anderson-commissioned poll confirms that we are in a deep crisis.
The polls show that over 60 per cent of the population are not in favour of the vaccines and over 70 per cent of the respondents are opposed to mandatory vaccination.
What this is saying to the Government is that the message is not reaching the people and that they are not convinced that taking the vaccines is the best antidote to this monster virus that has killed over four million individuals and affected over 200 million across the world.
In Jamaica, we managed the crisis extremely well up to August 2020. Prior to August 2020, approximately 600 Jamaicans had contracted COVID-19 and fewer than 30 had died from it. But after the country was opened up by the Government to facilitate the Independence celebration and the general election in September 2020, all “hell broke loose”. We have seen where the figures have skyrocketed to over 70,000 one year later and over 1,700 deaths. This is staggering and discombobulating.
But to add insult to injury, the polls are showing a growing disregard for the messages that are being designed and sold to them. With these rates of opinion on mandatory vaccination and the vaccines themselves, one does not need sight to see that we are in a crisis.
From my perspective, one of the contributing factors is that of a lack of understanding of political communication and political communication strategies. The Government boasts about its social media prowess from time to time. However, political communication is far more complexed and intricate and very few individuals in Jamaica understand it.
THE 5 PRIMORDIAL FEATURES OF JAMAICAN POLITICAL COMMUNICATIONS LANDSCAPE
In my most recent book, Political Communication Strategies in Post-Independence Jamaica 1972-2006, I chronicled some vistas from the Jamaican standpoint.
Upon doing a thorough comparative analysis of the political communication strategies used by Michael Manley, Edward Seaga and P.J. Patterson, I drew the conclusion that there are five primordial features of the Jamaican political communications landscape. These are: personality, culture, language, fearmongering and race.
Personality speaks to the nature and mannerism of leaders leading our country. We have had leaders who are charismatic, technocratic, laissez-faire and autocratic. Different leaders have used their personality to assist in their political communication strategies in Jamaica over the years.
Culture refers to the traditions, practices and customs of our citizens. Our food, music and dance are pre-eminent features of our culture. Leaders have traditionally tapped into the culture to assist in their political communication strategies.
Language is the means by which we express and relate to each other. This can be done orally, visually or in writing. Jamaica has a strong oral tradition and leaders have used this in their political communications strategies over the years.
Fearmongering is a communications technique that has been utilised by political actors to instil fear or doubt in citizens on a particular issue. Jamaicans have been exposed to this technique ever since it gained Adult Suffrage in 1944. It figured prominently in the referendum of 1961 and the general election of 1980.
Race refers to those phenotypical images that distinguish one individual from the other. Jamaica is a multiracial society. However, there is a dominance of the black population, with over 95 per cent of the citizens from this race.
I have mentioned and briefly explained these features of Jamaican political communication in this article. However, they are of paramount importance to the discourse at hand. Because, when I examine the current conundrum that we are in with the COVID-19 pandemic in Jamaica, I see elements of these present in the current landscape. The fearmongering, language use, culture, race and personality are all panning out in the current COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
Jamaicans are extremely fearful of the coronavirus. However, this fear of the disease has not manifested in the citizens gravitating towards taking the most efficacious treatment against the virus. This is because there is a global infodemic that has dominated the conversation around the COVID-19. For example, there are spurious arguments that the ingredients ingrained in the treatment against the virus will destroy the ‘God genes’ and in the case of our males, it will destroy their virility.
These infodemic have served to scare and bring about fear among the Jamaican population. This is why there is such high numbers opposed to the most effective available treatment against the virus and against any mandatory approach to its application.
From the outset, the language used to communicate issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic has been wrong. Language motivates and it also has a demotivating effect. Language is also an important part of our cultural formation. When we undilutedly adopt all the international language about the pandemic and just drop it on the Jamaican people, we must expect the kinds of pushback that we have been receiving.
The Jamaican people have been used to the word ‘immunisation’ instead of the word ‘vaccination’. Immunisation is a constant staple in the Jamaican healthcare system, as every one of us have been immunised against different diseases and there has been no outcry or resistance. We take the shot and willingly and happily do so.
But from the moment this word ‘vaccination’ has entered the conversation, we have been receiving the kinds of pushback we have been encountering.
Intrinsic to the language being used is our culture. Our culture helps to shape our beliefs, attitudes and values. The information out there in the public sphere is against our culture. Jamaica is a Christian society, with strong beliefs in God. If there is the infodemic that the treatment is going to destroy the ‘God genes’, what do we expect?
I am an unapologetic believer in God and Jesus Christ and I have taken the immunisation from March of this year. My wife has not been complaining and she is very happy. Similarly, my faith in God and Jesus Christ has not been shaken. I still believe that God is the creator of the universe and that He sent His only begotten Son to die at Calvary, to save me from sin.
Jamaica has a population that is 95 per cent black. These individuals are now exposed to the trappings of the Internet. They would have read about how vaccines have been used in the past to damage members of the black population in countries such as the United States. All of this kind of information about ‘vaccination’ helps to act as a deterrent to current efforts to immunise the mass of the population in Jamaica.
The personality of our leaders and those who are involved in the campaign against COVID-19 is paramount. It requires credible and respectable individuals to be out there and driving the message of immunisation among the respective public. But the current prime minister and the minister of health and wellness have decided to go solo in the matter. The coronavirus is affecting every Jamaican, whether you are Labourite or Comrade.
But both want to be famous and popular and believe that with their personality alone, Jamaicans would be captivated by their utterances. This has not been the case. From the outset, I have been advocating for a bipartisan approach to the communication strategy. This pandemic is an extraordinary one and requires prodigious treatment.
Can you imagine how Jamaicans would have responded if Andrew Holness and Mark Golding were to appear simultaneously in an advertisement, promoting immunisation among the citizens?
Can you imagine if Christopher Tufton and Morais Guy were to appear at a press conference together, to encourage Jamaicans to be immunised?
In the recent peer-reviewed book that I published on political communication, I placed the political communications dialectics of the country into perspectives. There are two major political parties and these subscribe to the fine traditions of liberal democracy. In liberal democracy, there are two distinct groups: liberals and conservatives.
In the context of Jamaica, the People’s National Party (PNP) is a liberal political organisation, while the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) is a conservative organisation.
Liberals in the context of political communications subscribe to freedom in the main and conservatives primarily subscribe to order. This is not to say that liberals do not believe in order or conservatives in freedom. The issue is that of prioritisation from these groups on any of these subject matters, with liberals placing a greater emphasis on freedom and conservatives on order.
We have seen these dialectics playing out in the global and local discourse on the COVID-19 pandemic. But, wherever you find yourself on the political spectrum, you are vulnerable to the coronavirus. COVID is impacting both liberals and conservatives and threatening the freedoms and good order of society.
It is therefore incumbent that there be a coalition of voices against this pandemic, or the common enemy of Corona will wipe us all out over time. The current communication approaches by Government is a nightmare and, if not corrected, will continue to see the coronavirus winning the fight.
- Senator Floyd Morris, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer at the University of the West Indies and Director of the UWI Centre for Disability Studies. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org