Information gap defined: Dr. Ferguson, you’ve left more questions than answers

Dr. Fenton Ferguson has many things going against him. First, he’s the Minister of Health, during a time when a rage has risen over an viral disease that many cannot say properly. Chikungunya virus (Chik V) has spread like wildfire on the tongues of the nation. He tried to calm fears by citing numbers, but the numbers became irrelevant very quickly because it seemed that reality was far from the low figures he wanted to quote and trust. He lost credibility quickly by holding on to the figures approach for too long.

He’s a dentist, by training, and he has made the approach to dealing with public concerns like pulling teeth. It’s been slow and drawn out and painful to endure.

Chik V is not known to be a major killer–estimated rate about 1 percent. Yet, it has captured the public fear emotions. Why? Well, it’s new and it came from ‘overseas’. It also came at a time when a much more dangerous virus was moving fast, albeit in Africa, mainly–the ebola virus. With scenes and reports of death and the spread of that disease, I suspect that many people just thought virus = death, please not me. The ministry did little to calm fears and educate early. In fact, they took the view to comments would fuel panic. Well, get out of here!

Dr. Ferguson may become associated with failure by government of the highest order: his FF initials may well be the worse grade that can be given to a politician–failed once, failed twice…

His national address last night–delivered in such soft ‘my dear people’ tones–was odd for many reasons. One, why has this been elevated to a national crisis when we have other known and easy-to-treat killers in our midst? We suffer more from non-communicable diseases, like diabetes and hypertension and heart problems. Are they really just run of the mill sicknesses, so we don’t need to bother?

The minister did not say a great deal that is really going to comfort people. In the end, he pushed national self-responsibility.

He wants the nation to do a national cleanup, but then told us that it’s a container bred disease. So, the horrid sight of our gullies full of garbage immediately seems less important, because they are not the preferred breeding sites. So, concern is focused on going around yards, etc. and searching for cans, pots, bowls, etc. Yet, we need focus on the public health hazards from the gullies, but he defused that.

Dr. Ferguson told us what the government had done, with lots of numbers about efforts to find cases and deal with the affected areas. It just sounded limp. He did not address the major problems that people face in getting the simple medication needed.

He told us that the cases would spike–Yikes! But, you only get it once–Hoorah! Immunity will be built up.

He touched on dengue and flu, which kill many more people, but only in passing. Again, why didn’t we have a national address about how to avert dengue infection (mainly the same as Chik V)? Why not a national address about flu? What was he trying to do? What was the real message?

He wants us to join a national cleanup day. I’m not the first to note that he did not say when that would be. Urgency? What?

Today’s cartoon captures a sentiment that many have, that this is another instance of how the government can do less with more.

Less with more may be a motto that sticks (Courtesy Jamaica Observer)
Less with more may be a motto that sticks (Courtesy Jamaica Observer)

Where the government seems to miss a big point is that it’s not doing things to convince people that it is really doing anything, or address real concerns at their root. For instance, it’s all well and good saying to people that the source is mosquitoes. But, we have a people full of suspicion and distrust. Those who believe the disease is airborne, or dumped by some other country, or just a made up thing are a mixture of those he may feel are ignorant or misinformed. But, their beliefs are still strong. The exhortation to not self-medicate–a message coming from health officials–is all well and good, except that we have a centuries-old tradition of self-medication to good effect. I think it would be hard to find more than a handful of Jamaicans who have not had a lot of self-medication all their lives, and will swear by it. In fact, we are in the process of promoting such measures and the natural remedies that others have ignored. You don’t want people to use bizzy (cola nut tea), or something else? Too bad! You’re barking up the wrong tree. This is not New York, where people only know ‘busy’.

Somehow, it seems that the politicians who are in the limelight have not captured the essence of the audience they have in front of them. Jamaicans are not sophisticated and full of reasoning, ready to be convinced by logic and facts. We are rough and poor, and have lots of suspicions, doubts and fear built over centuries of rational and irrational reasons. You can’t waltz up to them and say “Believe me, it’s…”

We have obeah and it’s strong for a very simple reason: we are a nation filled with superstitions, based on life experiences, traditions, and myths. Word of mouth is more powerful than hard facts. People believe in God, and it was clear that the minister, in closing, remembered that. That means that they have faith in something other than a person standing up and making a plea. Call it misplaced, it’s there. Deal with it! People also come from a strong tradition of fatalism. Ignore that at your peril. For those reasons, and more, the messenger and message may well be seen as the problem, in no time. Check reactions in Africa during the ebola outbreak. Cut from the same tree…

Jamaica is not clean and cozy and easy to deal with, and I cannot understand how politicians in need of convincing arguments to deal with issues seem to just ignore what they should know well.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

2 thoughts on “Information gap defined: Dr. Ferguson, you’ve left more questions than answers”

  1. FF (haha) also made the early mistake of accusing the Opposition of making political capital out of the virus, thus downgrading its importance. Do you think he was trying to downplay it because he didn’t want to put off tourists, or something? I don’t understand why he started off that way. No, Jamaica is NOT clean and cozy! On a lighter note, one group of young men have made a dance out of it! The whole issue of medication or self-medication was terribly mishandled too. He did not mention anything about the pharmacies running out of panadol!


    1. I think FF was misled or misinformed about the disconnection between official data and growing anecdotal information. That said, it may also speak to his not being close enough to his constituency.

      I doubt if tourism had much to do with it, as we are already known for dengue and that’s been a while and repeated.

      The dance and song say much about Jamaican willingness to tek serious ting and mek sport. But, also again the spontaneous creativity from adversity.

      Self-med remedies, esp. papaya/paw paw leaf juice and bizzy are circulating fast. I was drinking bizzy last week, having been bitten by mosquitoes but having no symptoms.

      My daughter thinks we’ve good mosquito antibodies after living in Guinea. 😊


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