Jamaica’s education crisis-May 10, 2021

Reverend Ronald Thwaites is a former education minister and his take on where the parlous state of Jamaican education is strikes many of the right chords in a badly tuned song. Education has failed Jamaica for most of its independence and that failure is shown throughout all aspects of a society that is highly under-education, highly unproductive, poorly paid but largely paid near its real ‘worth’.

The year and more of sporadic education for most children isn’t going to be recovered quickly and looks likely to be a permanent loss.

Jamaica’s education system has many things wrong with it, from its vision, through its methods, through the nature of inputs (children from too many homes where parents cannot help prepare and support them in education, including ensuring they are well-fed and well-rested; teachers too focused on matters other than best teaching practices).

I have no magic wand, and I am not a good example of how children can succeed in a highly dysfunctional system. But, all the talk about the importance of our human capital is hot air when one sees what passes for school life for many Jamaican children. The output is often not ‘fit for purpose’ at more than some basic levels–only 40% graduate high school with any qualification. You can’t make a progressive society and economy with such bad material.

#COVID19Chronicles-329: March 1, 2021-Lenten reflections 13-Jamaica enters new phase in pandemic control

PM Holness addressed accusations of being missing in action by leading a long press conference yesterday afternoon that outlined new measures to deal with a health crisis that has pushed the hospital system to its limits. Hospitalisation of COVID patients is now at a critical level. The replay of press briefing can be watched below; it ran for over 2 1/2 hours.

Curfews remain unchanged (8pm-5am) and a slew of other measures limiting movement and covering public gatherings, face-to-face teaching at schools, entry to Jamaica, and including the vaccines programme were outlined:

The latest vaccines situation was detailed:

Repercussions on funeral homes from burials and funerals being banned and storage costs will be a cause for concern:

Ivermectin use has been approved in COVID treatment:

#COVID19Chronicles-254: December 18, 2020-“I’m going to college!”

The letter from the first college due to reply was expected at 4.30pm ET on December 17. What would it say? How should she prepare? Was her self-confidence misplaced? Did all those hours spent drafting and revising and having drafts reviewed by her counsellor and parents matter?

At about 4.35, I wondered whether I should offer to hold her hand. But, her cohort of friends is strong and I suspected they were already in remote group hand-holding mode. She had finished online classes about two hours earlier, so was probably having a good crack with them. Then, I heard feet racing down the steps. “I’m going to college!!”

She had her laptop in her hand and pushed it in front of me—in mid-match, as I was watching an exciting Premier League tussle into its final minutes. I read the letter. It was a thrill to see the words ‘offer’ and ‘Congratulations!’

We had a long hug and kisses. I was proud and she should know that.

Education and reaching adulthood are long journeys. Not every child moves well along the road and many falter for no fault of their own or their parents or guardians.

I’m glad my youngest daughter has reached where she wanted to during her secondary school years. She’s actually going to graduate a year earlier than expected when she started formal schooling. Ironically, a move to Jamaica resulted in her skipping 4th grade and moving from 3rd in the USA to 5th here. She’s never really struggled for being ‘under age’.

Going through high school senior year during the COVID pandemic is not something to wish on any child. In-person classes switched to online doesn’t work well for everyone; high-performing students tend to see grades suffer as ranked marking is replaced by pass/fail. Some upside may be that most colleges in North America have decide to be ‘test optional’, because many students were not able to schedule or take SAT/ACT standard tests. So, that ‘blindness’ can work well for students who have good in-school grades but may not be good testers.

Now, the waiting goes on; several more applications are out and will lead to more letters in coming weeks. It’d be nice to have a stack of acceptances to then have to really choose. But, for now, it’s nice that a ‘yes’ is in the bag, and from a school that currently sits high on the list of choices.

Even though this is our third daughter to have progressed to college/university, each time has its own anxieties and stresses. I wasn’t really stressing over the first response, though I wondered how well I had judged our daughter’s attractiveness. Of course, we think she’d be a catch for any school, and how the pool of applications stack up we don’t know, but the admissions departments’ assessments aren’t part of our family that buys into our heart-felt beliefs 🙂

Well done, Rhian!

#COVID19Chronicles-201: October 29, 2020-PM media briefing

The media briefing given by the PM on October 28 can be watched here:

Its main points were as follows, including an update on the state of roads damaged by Tropical Storm Zeta:

COVID fatigue and mental health issues are now getting more attention:

COVID active cases are slowing, and the flattening of this curve is a good sign, but it’s being watched, cautiously.

Minister Tufton gave an health issues update.

Care homes were being tested as are correctional facilities.

Curfews remain unchanged.

Funerals protocols remain unchanged through November 30.

Age limit remains at 65 for stay-at-home till November 30.

Schools will move in a phased manner to face-to-face classes, from November 9 through 20, with 17 pilot schools pilot in 9 parishes targeted (affecting primary and secondary schools, and some 60,000 students).

#COVIDChronicles-194: October 22, 2020-What digital means to older people

I had a column on this topic published in Jamaica Observer’s ‘The Digital Life’, yesterday.

SOMEONE commented on Twitter , recently, that people who take more than 45 seconds at an ATM/ABM should be ‘penalised’. I responded that he had no idea of the issues faced by physically or mentally challenged people, or older people, who cannot do things as fast, because they do not process the information as rapidly. I went to an ABM a few days ago and the lady in front of me was there about five minutes. She was in her 60s/70s. She completed her transactions and took however long it took. The digital age has made many people think in nanoseconds and about speed as if it’s something everyone should crave or be destined for the garbage heap.

I’m a director of the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP) and I hear and see many concerns about technology from older people in Jamaica. Though I’m in my mid-60s, I’ve managed to master much new technology at work and leisure; I’m often the one in my household who understands what needs to be fixed, whether it’s an Internet router or microwave thermostat. I’m not a gadget person but I like things to work for my benefit, not for looks.

CCRP’s feedback supports findings that older people face many problems with the digital world; some physical, some mental (processing what needs to be done); some technical. Many people mastered the mouse, then they needed to master touchscreens and swiping, now they need to master voice-activated or facial-activated. All are simple for many, but pose problems for others. Add to that fears about what technology may be doing behind the scenes. One doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist, just maybe someone who has had scamming e-mails or worse been the victim of some kind of cyberfraud. The latest Apple operating system for iPhone alerts you when an application is accessing your device’s camera or microphone.

As Forbes has highlighted, recent reports indicate older people are getting used to new technologies but the issue is whether they are able to master it. One finding is that there is little or no input from older adults on their design.

The irony, Forbes noted, is that “most older adults prefer to age in place, and technologies, including Internet of things (IoT), Ambient/Active Assisted Living (AAL) robots and other artificial intelligence (AI), can support independent living.”

While studies have shown that older adults could use well-designed technologies in their daily lives, few developers have addressed user-related issues in their design processes. Researchers concluded that effective technologies are going to be “those that prioritise the needs and wishes of older adults, general acceptance of potential users, and suitable preconditions for its adoption”. These are all difficult goals to achieve “with a top-down design methodology that fails to engage users in the design process”.

Participants in the study reported a lack of understanding of modern technologies and digital platforms as a barrier that kept them from using new technology and made them dependent on others to operate basic features. They said they had purchased services (for example Netflix) they didn’t use, because they couldn’t understand how to operate them. We often hear the story of family gatherings where the seniors love the youngsters coming so that they can use them as tutors for the technology. There’s a great Ally Bank ad that has the grandkids being handed the laptop as soon as they arrive, and being told, “It’s not working.”

We know seniors can manage to send messages on WhatsApp, but may not know how to add pictures, use voice notes, or forward messages or other features. I once knew a lady who told wonderful stories and when I suggested she start to write them on her computer, she admitted she did not know how to start with any of the word processing software. When I explained she could dictate and have her voice converted to text she looked at me with awe.

In Jamaica, we have low trust in institutions, such as banks, but high trust in people, even strangers. A lady once met me at an ABM and asked if I would help her log in to her account and withdraw money. One of my fellow directors, Ambassador Aloun Assamba, CEO of COK Sodality Co-op Credit Union explained that they now have an online platform which makes it much easier for people, especially seniors, to use their banking facilities. “Initially, many are reluctant to try it so people will walk them through it and usually when that is done they are happy. It is the setting up that is the problem. We have found it takes a little patience to work with the seniors but once it is done they are happy,” she said.

We know that memories can fail rapidly after a certain age. One feature of many technologies is passwords, but keeping them safe and remembered is often a challenge. Many people write them in a book, but can they find the book? An acquaintance related how she could not access her investment account because she’d had no reason to log in because it is not her primary bank account. She was locked out of it, then had to call customer service. But, the line is not toll free; she used a lot of credit waiting an excessive amount of time in the queue. Not a big problem to solve, but things conspired to make it hard to solve, and costly.

Older people often demand little more than consideration. When it comes to technology, they’d like a seat at the development and implementation tables. Is that too much to ask?

Dennis Jones is a director of the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP).

#COVID19Chronicles-182: October 10, 2020-How’s the week gone at school?

Public schools reopened in Jamaica on October 5, online only. A few weeks prior, the expectation was that they would open to a blended approach:

‘.

It’s been a struggle for many, with many reports of spotty Internet access at homes at schools. Some 400,000 students of 600,000 were estimated to be without Internet access at home, and the impact was worse in rural areas. Concerns about a current and widening divide are high.

Parents were skeptical about face-to-face, prior to reopening:

Schools had rejected a data-driven policy for face-to-face school:

Parent’s support helplines are part of the ‘coping’ system in place:

Parents and students are having to learn how to navigate the Learning Management System:

Tablets are coming, sponsored by both private and public sources, and these are providing good PR moments:

Many important schools events have been disrupted and Champs 2020 was cancelled:

So, too, School Challenge Quiz 2020:

#COVID19Chronicles-171: September 30, 2020-Back to school? Some perspectives from students, parents and teachers.

While most parents, students and teachers in Jamaica wait anxiously for the new school year to begin on October 5 (having been deferred from September 7), several in that category have been back at school for nearly a month already. Many children studying abroad went back in late-August and some private schools in Jamaica went back about the same time. So, how has it been for some of them?

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My daughter started boarding school in the USA, in New England, in September 2019. She was having a great junior year, with excellent grades and a fuller athletics program than she’d enjoyed in Jamaica. She had decided to make the move and had done the research and sold the case to her mother—I was resistant to the end, but bent after I went to visit the school. To our great joy, she was representing well as a Caribbean-US girl and as a self-motivator. She’d found herself amongst a few Jamaican friends and some acquaintances from The Bahamas. She was inspirational in the school having a fund raising drive to aid Hurricane Dorian relief efforts. Then COVID-19 struck.

She spent an unplanned 6 months at home, after spring break, when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant she was not able to return to school. She enjoyed being home in Jamaica, but did not really enjoy when school resumed for the spring term, and she had to continue classes remotely, online. She missed the opportunity to try a new sport, varsity softball, which should have had spring training in Florida in March. She really missed the trip to Disney World that’d been planned as part of the trip. 😩Boo! COVID sucks! 😡

She returned to school in late-August, however. She had to return with a negative PCR test result, less than 10 days old. Testing wasn’t fun, at UHWI, but negative results were a great comfort. 👍🏾🙏🏾

Her own take on the transition was interesting (as shared in a Whatsapp message):

“…as i knew I was going to be travelling to the US by myself, the thought gave me so much anxiety and even going through the airport on the day I was very anxious especially in jamaica because I didn’t know if ppl would take it seriously and be wearing their masks correctly but I was pleasantly surprised and I didn’t know what to expect in ja or in the US but luckily I had an older friend there with me to help me out as well. some people in the miami airport were a little non chalant about wearing their mask and as i passed them while being socially distant I was very passive about them not wearing their masks. but now that i’m at school i’m settling in quite nicely, not a log of ppl on campus but student will be tricking in soon mainly on the 3rd and i’m so excited but the freedom i have will be tightened up (like ordering food).”

She’s a senior now in high school, so is also in the throes of college applications. Broadly, US colleges have decided to make applications ‘test optional’ for 2021 entrants. She has an SAT result, from a test sat last fall; she wanted to resit to try to improve her score, and managed to do that at school last week, adding the essay component, which made the exercise about 4 hours long.

Meanwhile, college enticements are flowing in; online sessions and tours are being offered; some in-person visits are resuming. It’s an active and exhilarating time, with its full bucket of anxieties over choices and what is the right strategy to get what you what, where you want. Oh, to be 17! 🙂

As the application process advances, one can’t help but focus on how colleges are preparing for entry in 2020 and beyond, with installation of protective facilities (eg isolation areas) in case a major outbreak occurs at the college. Many have medical facilities associated with them, but how they would be used and be available in an emergency is to be tested.

Her first two weeks involved quarantine in her dorm; her room mate arrived after about a week. They had meals brought to them. COVID testing is every 3-4 days, and rapid results methods are being used. The dorm house has a nice porch, so it was at least an option to sit there and enjoy the approaching fall cool weather and the changing leaf colours.

Masks are mandatory and social distancing is applied.

Classes resumed a couple of weeks ago. Day students were registered last week. Online options exist for those who prefer them, and classes are recorded. Face-to-face classes have resumed. Life on campus is resembling normal life, but with many restrictions. For instance, movie night over the weekend was outdoors.

Students were able to walk in the woods around school. But, some organized sports have resumed: my daughter has had a week of soccer practice; a limited schedule of inter-school matches will be arranged for the varsity team, while the junior varsity will play intra-murally.

My daughter was able to leave campus at the weekend for a trip to the plaza and pharmacy—masks and social distancing in force. School will run until Thanksgiving in late-November, students will leave campus and not return until 2021. Online tuition will resume after the Thanksgiving holiday through to the Chrismas/New Year break.

We speak often, including video chats, as the fancy takes us, but often between activities when my daughter is walking to or from her dorm or a class. Her days are full but still fun. I’ve not detected any health-related stress in her voice. She had trouble sleeping in her early days back but Sleepytime tea seems to be working well.

+++++

I have a Jamaican friend, who teaches in a private school in St. Andrew. Her son is at a private university in New England, as a junior (his 3rd year). He also preferred returning to campus because he felt he could focus better. He also felt that the protocols were well thought out, so the safety factor was key. The state requires quarantining or a negative test. The school has easily accessible testing stations throughout campus. They test every 3-4 days and the turnaround time is about a day and a half.

Students have to be creative with socialising as only people who live in the dorm can enter the building. So, friendship circles have shifted somewhat to include persons who live off campus. Add to that, many friends have not returned to campus at all as they have opted to attend class remotely. There is some concern about how this will evolve when winter arrives as outdoor venues won’t be as comfortable. Culturally, New Englanders are very self-conscious so compliance for mask wearing and social distancing is enforced by everyone. If someone steps in without a mask the social pressure is there to get them to conform. Creates a greater sense of overall safety.

++++

As a parent I have several issues to deal with while my child returns to being educated in the current situation. First, there’s anxiety coming from separation and distance. But, I’m confident in my daughter’s school and how they managed the online teaching during spring term, the summer preparation, and now the fall resumption. I hear confidence in my daughter’s voice as she discusses her days and activities.

She had previously attended AISK, which is leading Jamaican schools on how to bring technology to bear to facilitate resumption of classes.

Interestingly my friend, although she had the same anxiety, as things evolved locally she felt that her son would be in a more controlled environment at school. Their testing procedures are more accessible and the systems are in place should he end up in quarantine.

Her concerns about distance was similar. There is no just jump on a plane anymore. Christmas break may not be an option as quarantining on return to Jamaica will take up most of the time and so he feels that it won’t make sense. She completely understands but it’s heartbreaking when one considers not being able to see him until next summer.

+++

But what do teachers see? My friend sees that protocols have to be simple for them to work. Classes have to be small. Kids will be kids and will forget protocols and so numbers have to be at a size where they can be easily monitored. The students have been more or less cooperative. Teachers spent a lot of time explaining the rationale behind the systems to students and they get it. Adults have to be on guard all the time to remind kids to social distance. Yes, it’s great to have kids back. The toll on teachers is extensive. Their duty schedule is expanded because the kids are now in self-contained units for the whole day. In addition to the physical toll teachers also worry about their level of exposure everyday and the possibilities of getting sick. The mental health component is real. The level of anxiety is high.

#COVID19Chronicles-168: September 27, 2020: Better the devils we know?

I expect little from politicians, personally. I also don’t hold them in great reverence; most don’t show me reasoning capacity of the highest order; their emotional outburst make me question the balance of their views; and in Jamaica, I’m concerned about their constant attempts to appear be the source of all good things people want, but sadly too often, primarily, for their own supporters.

What I expect is a good ear and a real appreciation of national and local issues. So in that vein, I wonder what they really understand about mask-wearing resistance.

Do Jamaicans respect noise abatement rules? Most do; many don’t. Do Jamaicans respect road traffic rules? Most do, many don’t and a particular subgroup—-taxi and minibus drivers—don’t to a degree far greater than the rest of us. Do Jamaicans expect to be given concessions, let off and given second chances for egregious behaviour? Yes, and with good reason, based on actual experience with government.

So, with a background of patchy compliance with most things, what should we expect over something as seemingly trivial as wearing masks?

I’m just going to take a look at what COVID19LIFE is getting us to accept and understand in that regard.

I went to play golf at dawn, yesterday, as I often do on Saturdays. After weeks of heavy rain, the club had warned about mosquitoes in abundance and urged long-sleeved shirt and long pants. I’d forgotten that last week and found I was the special on the menu 🤔😳😩🏌🏾‍♂️Fool me once…

I had the picture taken because I dress like this only at this time of year; the mosquitoes at Caymanas are savage.😩😳

Golf allows lots of human interactions but with lots of social distancing. Those working at the course adhere to COVID protocols; caddies and course maintenance staff wear masks most of the time as they move around the course. Naturally, when far from anyone one can see their masks in place other than covering their faces. Players are usually good at compliance; on the course, they are the same as those who work there, and many have added not using caddies as a form of added protection—not having additional personal interaction (bad for the caddies’ pockets, though). Many players do not mingle in the bar areas but sit on the balcony, well-spaced and ventilated and use the hand sanitizters before heading on into the main building. I tackled someone entering the bar last week without a mask (not a man I recognized, so I assume a visitor)—the sign stated clearly no mask no service—but he had to be an exception: “I’m just paying my tab.” I gave him the choice of 7 iron or 3 wood up his a**e. 🤔😡Sorry, I’m not tolerant!

After golf, I headed home with two errands in mind, get cash and buy bananas. Well, the two Scotia ABMs by the gas station at Washington Boulevard/Molynes Rd had a dozen people waiting outside them so I didn’t stop there. (I noticed though that they were mostly masked and about 2m apart; some couldn’t help being up under armpits, though.) That meant I had no money for bananas. Aargh! I could use Qwisk or my credit card? What’re you smoking, bro? 🤔😂😩So I drove though the small street market at Grants Pen Rd/Shortwood Rd and just observed. Masks were more evident than last week, though this was a spot check not a structured survey.

My observations last week (scenes in the video) had triggered a response from the MP:

My ABM errand had to wait till closer to home. The line at the Texaco gas station was short but the mask issue loomed large:

It’s obvious some people don’t get what ‘personal responsibility’ means, so despite efforts by others, we’re worse off than we need be:

Mask wearing is proving to be a bigger test than many expected; it’s also pushing at boundaries of personal liberties for some—the USA seems to be the main battleground. It could also indicate some mental problems:

It’s also about messaging. It’s also about if incentives are needed, either sticks or carrots. When pushed, governments have gone for sticks. It’s hard to think what carrots would work. In using sticks, some governments have also pushed closer to dictatorial measures. That’s not been tried in Jamaica, and I’d not think it’d be well received.

Is some cognitive dissonance at work?—conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behavior, as displayed when people know the bad effects of certain ‘recreational’ drugs but still take them.

When Jamaicans have been asked by health officials about their understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic, they answer overwhelmingly that they understand what it is and how it spreads, but…many believe they wont get it. That belief is bolstered, I imagine, because deaths have been low in relative terms and even the number of cases is low, relatively speaking. So, it’s a mild form of denial, I guess. However, that’s why many feel they have nothing to spread as well as nothing to catch. The important feature that most people will be infected by not show symptoms either hasn’t factored in, or people really believe that unless you see or hear the symptoms, nothing is being passed around. That said, we’ve heard stories of near panic when someone sneezed in a confined space.

Government officials in many countries have dug their own graves on messages by being as mixed up as fruit salad in how they’ve followed rules or been the arch buffoon in how not to wear masks.

What know is those who understood the need apply it. Mark Wignall wrote about this behaviour in today’s Sunday Gleaner. He noted the denials: ‘One said to me, “Missa Wignall, big respect. None a wi right here so know anybody whey sick wid di virus, so right now, wi feel safe. Respect.”’ He also pointed to what I have noted, that ‘personal responsibility’ if for others to practice: ‘So we are stuck with what we know. Jamaicans know, to a large extent, that we all need to protect ourselves, but from my talks with many at street level, they somehow believe that if ‘others’ do what is right, all will, in time, be okay. That is plainly dangerous.’ (my stress).

That final point, is for me, too true and points to a grave and obvious danger, because the fight in Jamaica against the pandemic is not even and is for everyone but ourselves to fight, in the mind of too many.

#COVID19Chronicles-136: August 28, 2020: Our baby left on a jet plane 😳🤔🙏🏾

Our number 1-2-3 child headed back to school yesterday. She left early afternoon and by 10:30pm she called to say she’d landed safely. Bags came fast and she was in her dorm not long after 11 and one of her teachers had left her snacks 🙂

When she came home in early-March for Spring break, we had only expected her to be with us till end-month. Well, COVID19LIFE mashed up those plans. She was able to have online school for her Spring term. We had her grandmother and grand aunt with us for 3 months. Now, nearly 6 months on from her arrival, in-person schooling can resume.

Living with COVID19 has meant many major changes, especially with international travel. So, face coverings are mandatory at airports and, in Jamaica, non-travellers cannot enter the departure area. Temperatures are checked along with travel documents at entry. That means a little log jam on entry. So, decked out with cloth mask and face shield, and carrying hand sanitizers and spare masks, our young warrior set off.

Family and friends illing around outside NMIA, while passengers enter
Face shield is almost now de rigeur for airplane travel

She’s a seasoned traveller so was happy to be flying solo. However, she met an older friend travelling to the same destination, to resume college, so ended up with a peer buddy.

We’d talked extensively about how to proceed through airports and navigate other people, with some clear advice to take no nonsense from anyone not following protocols and keeping all at a good distance. She passed security at this end easily; the airport was quiet. Our concerns were at the US end and how things would be managed at Immigration and with TSA, so we’d checked online for any horror stories. Of course, we read and saw reports of the odd crazy travellers who refuse to wear masks and are being forcibly removed from planes. But, none of that presented issues.

NMIA walkway to departure gates

So, now, she has to quarantine for 14 days while settling in—‘cohorting’. School will be on-campus and remote and lessons will be recorded to allowing remote learning for any who prefer. Daily health testing is scheduled. I’m interested in how the eating etc will work, though I think the general meals wont be happening, but more family-style and small group dining will prevail. It’s still nice weather and I’m sure the teenagers are champing at the bit to get back into their sports program.

Anyway, lots to ponder and lots to hope for in terms of good things to happen in this important senior high school year. Thinking about college is stressful enough, but with the health and safety issues on top. Ay caramba!

#COVID19Chronicles-130: August 22, 2020-Jamaica is not COVID-ready for elections, but has time to do better

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!