I’m not a political analyst, but try to watch behaviour closely. What politicians do and say matters a lot, by definition, and humans being humans, people take what they do and say personally and to heart, whether they find that favourable or unfavourable. History may look at this pandemic episode from many angles, but one thing that is interesting as it unfolds in about messaging and presentation, and what they may tell us about decision-making processes, but also how substance matters and all the pretty words don’t matter when actions are lacking or wrong.

The last week or so has been interesting in Jamaica because a marked change in approach came into play–the government decided to lock down a whole parish (St. Catherine); it had already locked down two communities (in Bull Bay and Cornpiece–great Jamaican names, by the way). In theory, you’d think that these two sets of actions were equivalent, just different in scale. But, that’s where you’d be horribly wrong. The two communities had activities and people who are important to them and to Jamaica, but the number and range of these must be few and also limited. The parish (with over 500,000 people, see STATIN population data) has many activities and people who are vital to the functioning of the parish but also (and maybe more significant) to the Corporate Area (including the parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew, which have another 670,000 people). Put that in relation to the national population of 2.8 million and you start to understand the scale of issues that a lock down could present. St. Catherine has a major dormitory town, Portmore, and the former capital, Spanish Town (a bustling town of varied economic activities, including some major enterprises in and near it). The parish provides significant blocks of workers to the corporate area, so their absence immediately suggests that the Corporate Area would have problems functioning well, or at all, without those workers. We can also understand that, in terms of national output, St. Catherine is not a trivial part of the national whole.

So, when the lock down was announced, many felt the impact immediately, both inside and outside the parish. Restricted movement within the parish plus limitations on when people could shop meant immediate hardship for many. Add to that the initial announcement coming only about two hours ahead of the measures coming into effect; that was bound to cause havoc, as few could have anticipated the need to provide for that. Reports of people fleeing the parish that night were totally understandable for a range of reasons, some related to the virus (why stay to be exposed, if you thought you didn’t have the infection?) and some related to various aspects of economic survival (if you were not exempt but felt you could work/earn in safe and socially distant ways–assuming the best intentions–then, you would be inclined to preserve that option rather than be denied the chance to work for a week). The day after had to be chaotic, as people tried to cram into one day things that they would have expected to be able to do over several days.

Shoppers lining up, St. Catherine

People waiting in line at Western Union, St. Catherine

The food and nutrition needs were compounded by cash needs (much of which was supported through remittances).

What bothered me and some others was that this did not seem to have been anticipated. As I noted, these are simple obvious logical reactions, not the stuff of complicated logistical scenarios as in some strategic battle.

I wondered, for instance, why ideas like daily roving bread vans (and eggs?–now in huge surplus), rolling door-to-door did not feature. That’s worrying because any major lock down must provide for getting food to people, not the reverse.

The schemes put in place, initially, to let people shop (Wednesday and Saturday, by alphabetical groups) were destined to fail, just in terms of what should be expected if you move from 6 whole days to 2 parts of days to do any activity. Jamaica’s biggest religious group is Seventh Day Adventists (about12 percent), for whom the sabbath is Saturday and Wednesdays is observed for fasting. The PM is an Adventist. How did the complications this would pose escape him, or if it did, why no special provision were made? Add that people would be distressed at the possibilities that needs would not be met simply because time was insufficient and many of the reactions are easy to understand.

In a press briefing on Monday, the PM walked back several of these restrictions and removed some of the immediate and foreseeable problems. New looser, restrictions would be implemented, but with the benefit of another week, also, people’s reactions ought to be more helpful. Curfew times were also changed nationwide, all with effect from today (April 22).

However, none of that will deal with the restrictions on movement of people out of the parish. The simple facts are that the life blood of the Corporate Area (and so, much of the country) flows better with the people from St. Catherine economically active. Simple example: we had electrical and plumbing problems last weekend, when a solar heater tank’s pipes sheared and water was spouting into the air. The mains and then the relevant valves were locked off. However, for a fix the regular contractors for these jobs live in…St. Catherine. Who to get and from where else were now major issues. The problems got fixed, much later than expected, and further remedial work will have to wait.

I know the importance of St. Catherine from simply observing the traffic flows into the Corporate Area many mornings, with bumper-to-bumper vehicles from around 6am through 9am and the reverse in the late afternoon.

Traffic at Portmore, St, Catherine, tolls.

I have not touched on its internal activities or its relationship to another adjacent sizeable parish, Clarendon. I don’t condone people who tried to escape the lock down, reportedly in car trunks, or hidden some way, but I can easily understand the complicated balance many might have had to find.

The fact that the proximate reason for the lock down came from the spike of COVID19 infections at a business processing operation (BPO), Alorica, was annoying, frustrating, and bewildering. The sector had already been identified worldwide as a potential problem for incubating the disease because of the nature of its operations, and the company concerned had already shut down its operations in Central America A MONTH AGO, in mid-March. That should have rung alarm bells in Jamaica. Concerns about employment and importance to overall economic growth should have been seen in the context of the national crisis posed by the virus. BPOs are essentially footloose, and can and do open and shut down operations all the time, trying to find the right business balance. One can just look at what Alorica alone has done over the past year to reposition its operations. So, Jamaica cannot and could not protect its position by treating the BPO sector with kid gloves; the same way it could not do that with the cruise ship industry. Jamaica did not buy the reassurances of the cruise industry (though whether a clear demise in likely travellers triggered that may be open to speculation), but it accepted such reassurances from the BPO sector:

“Health and safety are our utmost concern as we aim to protect our greatest asset: our employees. We have implemented social distancing, hygiene and public health assessment measures,”–Gloria Henry (President, Global Services Association of Jamaica) speaking to a group of BPO operators in a virtual meeting.

The facts suggest that, even with reported inspections from Ministry of Health and Wellness, this either was not the case or did not matter. We have all suffered, as the spike that took Jamaica from about 100 infections to over 225 (of which, more than 120 were Alorica employees) in the space of a week, tells its own story.