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.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (November 24)

Good

Resignation of the Board of JADCO. They’ve shown many ways to present themselves and Jamaican athletes in a bad light.

The Planning Institute of Jamaica reported that, after six consecutive quarterly declines, the economy rebounded showing a marginal increase in real GDP of 0.6 per cent; “primarily due to improved weather conditions and the strengthening of productive activities within most industries”. The rebound has to start somewhere.

Bad

The Statistical Institute of Jamaica repoted that the rate of inflation (Consumer Price Index, All Jamaica) was 0.8 per cent for the month of October 2013.This gives an annual point-to-point rate of 10.3 per cent. This increase was mainly due to 20 percent upward movement in the cost of water and sewerage. Electricity, gas and other fuels also rose by 2.9 per cent.

Ugly

Pride of place goes to the little tempest that brewed when an RJR reporter and the PM’s security detail could not see eye to eye about questions to the PM, after a project dedication ceremony. The problem between the two sides are not hard to fix. If the PM and her Office want to engage the media, then it would be easy to set up some general rules that both find acceptable. After all, politics is the art of the possible.

Press into submission

Relations between politicians and the media are often stormy. In so-called democratic countries, the public have an expectation that elected officials will be willing and available to provide information on a regular basis, and even frequently. The media are often the vehicle through which that information flows. Most people do not want to hear about and see what politicians are doing based on government information services. Justified or not, the feeling is that such presentations tend to be sanitized or simply favourable to the politician. The public know that part of the task of the media should be to probe and assess what politicians are doing, and even ask very awkward questions and press for good answers. We may not agree with the tone of questioning or we may not like the slant of particular reporters or interviewers, but we generally see that the questioning is part of what we would like to call good governance.

Yesterday, Jamaica’s prime minister, Mrs. Portia Simpson Miller, became part of a little fire storm with a member of the media. Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 10.55.34 AMA young reporter from RJR was present at the the PM’s dedication of a water and sewer project in Rose Town, St. Andrew. He posed questions to her about the project, then moved on to pose questions about what is accepted as a sensitive issue–the reinstatement of a minister of state, Richard Azan, following his resignation over involvement in the so-called “Spalding market affair”. The Contractor General’s report claimed that Mr. Azan played a key role in the decision to construct the shops and that he also helped to facilitate the collection of rental fees for the shops by his constituency secretary at his constituency office. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) subsequently ruled that no criminal charges be laid against him. The PM’s initial reaction was to resist answering questions on Mr. Azan, because she felt that that would be what the media would focus on rather than the project. However, she answered a question on Mr. Azan simply by citing the DPP ruling. The journalist persisted with his line of questioning, and it was clear that the PM did not want to go further on the matter, and was getting angry. One of her security detail stepped in to bar the journalist, and things got messy. It looks like the guard pushed the reporter and the reporter tried to continue posing his questions, putting his microphone toward the PM. That action can be interpreted many ways. Simply, the sound recording needs the microphone to go close to the speaker. Given that the PM indicated she did not want to answer any more questions, the reporter’s continued pressing could be seen as provocative. The PM called him “rude”. He could claim he was just trying to do his job. The guard could claim the same. No doubt, a confrontation took place. Why? That’s not clear.

Several issues arise from this incident. The PM has long been criticized by the media for her unwillingness to engage them formally on any regular basis. Many in the media see this latest fracas as an aspect of that unwillingness. With journalists starved of opportunities to get the PM’s views, are they over-eager to press her on any occasion where she presents herself? From what I have observed, she has not been willing to hold press conferences or briefings with local media for a very long time. She famously stated that she does not listen to radio or watch television, suggesting that she has no time for what the media are doing.

Is that a reasonable position for the nation’s political leader? She also indicated that when she’s not talking, talking, she’s working, working. Again, suggesting that communicating with the public is not what she sees as necessary. That’s my interpretation.

So, the nation is starved of her voice on many issues that the population find important. She is known to be an eloquent speaker, so her reticence does not seem in-character. She’s indicated that her preference is for her ministers to do their jobs and for her to ‘not interfere’ by commenting on their areas. That sounds good, but generally, people like their leaders to lead by more than just their title, showing clearly by public statements that the person is in charge and on top of issues. People like their leaders to give clear direction. Can such direction be clear without public expression?

What does she feel she needs to do to keep the nation abreast of how she sees things? Is Jamaica Information Service the only public presence that the PM and her office want to offer the people? An intelligent nation can handle much more than that. Jamaica has a good press and limiting its diet of news by not communicating is likely to lead to friction and unavoidable misunderstanding.

Many media practioners see her attitude as disrespectful to them and to the nation. Reports indicate that the PM has generally refused requests from the media for interviews. That’s a recipe for a bad relationship.

Politicians are somewhat schizophrenic. They usually like to get good press. They like to control messages. If the media are not present, we are back to the politicians and their handlers deciding what is issued.

The PM has put herself into a difficult position. After returning from her many visits abroad, her office does not routinely issue statements about what happened during the visit. That, naturally, leads to speculation about what happened. Media will try to find out somehow so that they can run a story.

Her office now demands that questions be submitted to her beforehand for “on-location” interviews; however, the Press Association of Jamaica never accepted that position. That seems like the PM and her office wanting a lot of control over the process. Maybe, that is the problem. But, if you want to control the media, that runs counter to what many people in a democracy want to see. Speak your mind. Hear other views. Is there a problem with dealing with divergent views?

A bad relationship is now in the process of turning very sour. It need not be that way.

Living in a bubble

Jamaican public officials seem to have put themselves into a series of awkward positions, and unlike yoga practitioners, it’s not clear that the contortions are anything but accidents. They are, nevertheless, painful to hold or unwind.

In the grand scheme of the world, we’re a young nation–51st birthday of Independence just passed. We’ve been playing many roles on the world stage over that time, and we’ve moved from just being in the chorus, to understudy for lead roles, to star, if I can use a theatrical metaphor. We now command respect in several fields that inspire and excite worldwide, especially entertainment and sport.

Our political leaders and public officials, however, do not seem to have received and read several important memos. They are not alone, as I’ve seen similar ignorance in other countries. Too many politicians seem to think that holding office is for their benefit, not for that of the electorate locally or nationally. They also have a hard time understanding that insubstantial mutterings do not substitute for substantial statements. These figures are easily found out, and often become the butt of jokes or ridicule. (Admittedly, politicians provide good butt-fodder for many other reasons–weight, height, looks, voice, choice of romantic partner, etc.) Their political careers stall or get derailed and they then seek new work as tele-evangelists, game show hosts, or directors of shady companies.

The modern world has moved away from the impression that decisions are made in ‘smoked-filled rooms’ or ‘behind closed doors’. People now expect real transparency from elected officials, though will often accept the semblance of transparency, given that very few know what really is happening.

Modern media can spread information worldwide in less than the blink of an eye. If the information is correct or not, matters little. So, pressure is on to make sure that the right information goes to the public, otherwise, false or incorrect information gets spread, and fast, and it will do its damage.

20130905-084005.jpgHere is where Jamaican politicians seem to have tried to get into a full lotus position, having not mastered downward-facing dog. They seem to be still under the impression that they are insulated from the humdrum outside world, and that they control information flow and reactions to it. Recent instances make this clear. A minister arrives late for a major meeting and gives his excuse as the desire to watch one of our top athletes run abroad. He asks for the media to be removed from the meeting. A journalist leaves a recording device in the room and then world later hears how the minister was “nauseated” by the media coverage of issues related to his portfolio. Hello! Well, cue the guffaws for his temerity in taking liberties with people’s time. Cue the possible viral reaction that he could have found many modern ways to do both things and still be on time. Cue to raised eyebrows and face palming that follow from his appearing to be unaware that actions and comments would hit the WHOLE world without his doing a thing and probably before Bolt’s chest hit the tape. Was he living in a bubble?

We’ve seen and read about other seemingly silly instances in recent days. A very important hearing on alleged drug abuse by a star athlete is being held in camera, or behind closed doors. The media were unwelcome and the venue was changed to a secret location. Surprise! The location was discoverd and its address publicized, with pictures to confirm. The opposition political party is perhaps about to witness a challenge for its leader, and partisans are putting on show their likes and dislikes. Plenty of mouth-in-foot opportunities. Maybe, they’re not surprised, but whatever their cases others are quickly deciding if the bags are full of loot or rotting fish.

John Donne’s poem begins “No man is an island“. Good journalism is built on a desire to eke out information, and if someone is trying to bury it, to try to dig further to uncover as much as possible. Jamaica has some good journalistic traditions, so it shouldn’t surprise public figures to be probed, prodded, questioned, doubted, praised, mocked, vilified, etc. So, why won’t they seek to help to move the rocks rather than watch them rolling down the hill and find oneself buried? Donne’s poem ends “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

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We’ve moved a long way from being some little island, known for very little but rustling palm trees, lovely beaches, sun, rum, and exotic fruit. We’ve produced mega stars whose reputations far outstrip our size, and who’ve encouraged a long line of new stars both here and worldwide. They stand on the stage and show that they know what their doing and how to get the audience swaying with them. Our public figures seem to have not yet grasped how to do this. We have a public well versed in making up stories if they cannot be told one. We have a public hungry for news and able to digest many nuances. Do public figures understand this? Many politicians now use social media to spread their messages. They also take opportunities to get out the message in different ways: President Obama being on late night shows is an example. Are ours dragging their feet, thinking silence is golden or no news is good news? Do they believe that what I don’t say can’t hurt me? Wrong!

These figures should know how to manage their audience, and be very interested in being ‘masters of the moment’. So, why have they given the impression that they do not know or lack such interest? Surely, they care.:-)