I support the government’s decision to hold elections on September 3. My reasons are mainly contextual:
- A nearer date has less uncertainty than a later date. I think it’s academic that we have until June 2021 to officially hold the next election. The strong whiff of elections had been in the air for a long time and what delaying did was merely keep people anticipating an election and raise uncertainty about timing. It’s a common feature that such uncertainty is a drag on economic life.
- I think the bigger health risks lie with the reopening of schools; if that goes badly, it impacts more on the timing of an election, if not already held. Evidence overseas is that within days of reopening, schools and colleges are seeing massive rates of infection and having to reverse plans, rapidly.
- A resurgence in COVID-19 infections was an expected outcome of reopening borders in June and moving the country back towards an ‘old normal’; the question was always how high and wide would such infections go and how would measures be used to curb that.
I don’t like how the government has gone about implementing restrictive measures since we reopened our borders. In particular, I think the messengers were far too lax in their own personal attitudes and demonstration of how to take the virus seriously. The issue of wearing masks is the most egregious example of that, where a ho-hum approach was too often evident, when good teaching moments existed. Jamaicans put a lot on their politicians’ shoulders in terms of expectations. Even though surveys may indicate people think most politicians are corrupt, people still look up to them.
I also believe we should come down harder and faster on violations of quarantine or use methods that are much harder to circumvent. Admittedly, the latter can be costly, but it’s hard to get the real cost-benefit of health right in current circumstances.
New Zealand (NZ) gets a lot of air play for how it has handled the pandemic. Though its PM recently delayed elections from mid-September to mid-October, that has to be seen in the context of the original election date having been announced back in January. That’s in keeping with their collaborative tradition of trying to give all plenty of time to prepare for the vote. So, NZ has been on a lazy stroll to the polls. The PM now gave the parties a last-minute chance to better prepare for the inevitable in the context of an increase in cases, after a long period (just over 100 days) of no new local cases. What I keep stressing is that NZ, like us, is also pressing against a ‘drop dead’ date for its election, in mid-November. So, the PM has made it clear there will be no further delay. Meaning that whatever happens with infections, voting will go ahead. She may now be regretting now having announced in January an election in February. But, 20-20 hindsight in 2020 is now common.
Jamaica’s PM has recently made the point about the elections being important as a sign that the administrative machinery will not grind to a halt because of the pandemic. This is wholly consistent with the prevailing mantra of ‘living with COVID-19’.
In contrast to NZ, I think PM Holness has fallen into a trap set by our approach to adversarial politics, of seeking easy advantages. Having the election date in his hands was always a powerful card, and in aiming to gain the maximum by choosing the date, he did not see that it could have been better to try to ensure that, whenever the date was set, the country was better prepared for its style of campaigning during a pandemic. The large lead in opinion polls was something that perhaps was at risk of slipping if and when the pandemic became worse, perhaps turning a near open goal into a half-chance.
Instead, once the election date was announced, we seem to have been surprised by the obvious: Jamaicans love the festivities of campaigning. Despite fine words about appropriately muted behaviour this time round, the PM himself was guilty of ‘whipping up’ a crowd, with the inevitable outcomes. People were already massed and they were never going to be controlled by niceties like social distancing. Handing out masks to the crowd was fine in principle, but in the frenzy that follows, most wont keep masks on. Repeat this across the country on Nomination Day and the problem was clear.
No surprise, we have seen a surge in infections this week. We should not have been shocked because we just had a long Emancipendence holiday weekend (August 1-6), and contrary to past practices during the pandemic, no restrictions were placed on people’s activities. Many people took the opportunity to recreate all over the place, including at beaches and rivers, which were already places that caused concern about the absence of adherence to health protocols. Some 30+ have since been closed again.
We’re now trying to play catch up, but a lot of the problems are now well set in people’s habits.
The CMO commented this week that in surveying people, it’s clear that most understand the pandemic, but they also don’t feel they will be infected. That means, as a basic position, most people wont feel they need to take precautions. While many people have understood that a prudent attitude is to assume that everyone with whom one makes contact is a potential carrier, I suspect that most Jamaicans don’t get that or find it hard, for example, to think that their contacts hold this risk. “We’re cousins”, “We’re close friends” or similar thoughts mean that people’s guards are generally lowered if not down completely. Being defenseless, they will be bopped.
My own feeling is that, soon after the elections, we’re likely to go back into a stricter lock down again. It’s the pattern seen elsewhere, as a new surge in virus infections seems to be appearing in most places where it appeared the virus had been controlled. In the meantime, we’re edging that way.
In addition to having two communities in quarantine, that area was extended and a tighter curfew placed on one parish, St. Thomas (now 7pm-5am, from 11pm-5am) just a day ago. We were alerted to a worrying increase in cases in the Corporate Area and, after a government subcommittee met yesterday, we learned of new restrictions on that broad area, with 7pm-5am curfew starting from this evening through September 2.
The PM also announced tighter measures relating to how campaigning should be conducted: motorcades will be banned, but drive-through allowed:
Enforcement will fall on the JCF’s shoulders.
It will be a tough ask for this to ahead smoothly. I noted the JCF reminder 4 days ago about party-coloured lights on campaign vehicles.
Well, good luck with that! The following day, the PM posted this video:
The thorny issue of schools reopening wasn’t dealt with at the same briefing, but was addressed later: schools will not open on September 7, but a phased and blended opening will start on October 5.
None of this is too little, too late, but some of it could have been anticipated. We may never know about the planning for the election but it seems odd that the idea of online campaigning was not pushed more or demonstrated as feasible, even though it may not be an easy option nationwide. We are mostly more accustomed to that form of communication in recent months. I’d be happy for candidates in my constituency to invite me to an election town hall online.
So, let’s get thinking caps on and try to figure out ways to do some of the ‘leg work’ without the mass of movement of meeting and greeting. If this is not a one-off, then we’re going to have to reimagine the process anyway. So, let’s get to it!