#COVID19Chronicles-161: September 20, 2020-Some international and regional context

No definitive measure exists to say whether a country is doing well with the handling of COVID-19. That’s not to say you cannot assess the impact of measures used by countries.

Dramatic differences in how countries have been curbing transmission rates within their borders—and which actions have been most effective across the board.

Typically, the best weapon in the containment of diseases arsenal is a vaccine, which stops a virus before it can multiply inside a person. While the world waits for this preventative medicine, which may not be ready until next year, countries are focusing on other measures, such as testing, isolating sick people, and shutting down borders. But what scientists have learned since January is that COVID-19 often beat these defenses before they could even be established.

One thing many countries learn is that ‘containment fatigue’ is real, and restrictions will be fought hard my many, maybe even most, in some areas.

No measure can set one country against another to say categorically it has done better than others. Starting conditions were not the same. Underlying conditions are not the same. Social structures and cultures are different. Ethnic differences are not trivial. Health profiles (national, regional) are not the same. Resource availability differs, especially but not confined to what medical facilities exist (hospitals, equipment, staffing etc) and under what conditions (costs, physical location and quantities). I’ve tried to follow what’s going on in lots of countries since I got back from the UK to Jamaica in March. Responses in Europe were different across the continent. Response in the USA were different from those in Europe and also different across the (strange federal structure) states. I have tried to note responses in Latin America and Africa, but again, these are all over the place. A global pandemic with no common approaches across countries, seems to bode ill for eventual success, but let me try to remain optimistic. I am not going to hail or condemn any country. I noted Sweden and Israel early on because they took clear policy stances; Sweden decided to keep things as close to normal as possible (it had some lockdown, initially. The BBC reported: ‘Sweden has largely relied on voluntary social distancing guidelines since the start of the pandemic, including working from home where possible and avoiding public transport. 
There’s also been a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, restrictions on visiting care homes, and a shift to table-only service in bars and restaurants. The government has repeatedly described the pandemic as “a marathon not a sprint”, arguing that its measures are designed to last in the long term.’

Israel decided to lockdown much (eg travel restrictions, social distancing, national emergency) early on–all in the context of no official government, pending elections.

Sweden was much criticized in the first three months, largely because its death rate was considerably higher than most. Three months further on, and the Swedish approach is showing that the impact of the pandemic has levelled off considerably (almost disappeared) and deaths are lower than in many countries. A significant part of the death story is that Sweden got wrong the policy for people in care homes, who made up the bulk of deaths. Its economy is now showing a much shallower downturn than many of its comparators.

Israel’s early success is just about to be put back as it has decided to reimpose a near total lockdown ahead of the major religious celebration, including Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, on 27 September. That new lockdown has created major political upheaval.

As the BBC reported: ‘Many nations are experiencing second surges of the virus. However most governments are now imposing smaller local lockdowns in affected areas, rather than blanket national ones.’

So, the global pandemic is exhibiting a global pattern, as second waves appear after countries have tried to go back to ‘normal’. This second wave is at least of the same intensity and magnitude (cases and deaths) as the first. It’s too early to say if this will be the chronic trend, going forward, ie if multiple waves of varying intensity will occur and with what intervals. So, somewhat like other coronaviruses, eg flu, we may see something that is quasi-seasonal, ie recurrent and inevitable.

As Jamaica’s minister of health and wellness releases data daily on tests, cases and deaths, people see Jamaica’s progress in great national and local detail, but they see little else. I do not recall a comparison with more than one or two countries in the region. Consequently, it’s easy to get what’s happening in Jamaica out of context, even in the simple regional geographical sense, especially now community transmission is occurring. But, in light of what is going on elsewhere in the world, it’s important to not just look at our country as if that tells us very much. People who should have an eye on the region can be cited as saying “Jamaica’s numbers are bad!” Bad, my foot!

Relative to most countries in the Caribbean, Jamaica’s results are good, especially when seen on a per 100,000 people basis, as the chart shows, and notably, when one considers bigger territories.

So, before you feel tempted to join the chorus of ‘the sky is falling on Jamaica’, cast your eyes around and ask if the Dominican Republic or Trinidad or The Bahamas look to be in a more ‘perilous’ state. Always, being mindful (if possible) of what each country has done or is trying to do.

Schools for scoundrels

A few weeks ago, Jamaica’s Education Minister put his teaching community into a tail spin over a report on Crime and Education. The basic point was that certain schools were associated with a significant number of criminals in prison. The matter was botched in my view, not least by some loose language by the Minister and in the media that pointed the blame at schools as if they were factories, turning out hoodlums by the dozen. Naturally, that offended many teachers, who see themselves trying hard to shape children into good citizens, often in circumstances where the basic supports of life barely exist. They are struggling against some heavy odds.

However, the more-than-a-grain of truth is that many criminals in Jamaica were failures at school. Testimony to that came in a current affairs discussion last night on TVJ’s “All Angles”. They failed at school? Schools failed them? They wasted their time? Schools lost patience with them? Discipline issues. This is a chicken and egg topic. But the bottom line is that many criminals dropped out of school or came away with a much lesser grasp of many rudimentary skills. They are persons just not well-equipped to do many things, other than basic labouring work. Fast forward. Crime as an occupation then becomes an easy option, especially if the ‘skill’ needed is brute force and callousness. The attendant dangers to personal well-being are then taken as one of the risks of the trade. Maybe, people talk themselves into walking away from that life, but it rarely happens.

We can’t turn Jamaica around in a very short time, because the flow of potential criminals–if we take the failures in the education system as a proxy–continues unabated. But, can we manage the situation better? I want to be optimistic and say “Yes”. We know that various programs exist to put more resources into communities that have been plagued by crime. A lot of human time and effort is geared towards direct help. It’s not enough. Those communities often have little that will attract people or investors, so are condemned to ‘more of the same’. Life is so dire that little differences in opportunities can seem enormous, by comparison. If one street gets something a little better than the next, it may seem that the whole world has changed. That, too, can be the source of more rivalry–call it petty jealousy–over which people are not reluctant to take up arms.

But, one element eludes many of these communities–jobs. Most people are brought up with the mantra of hard work being important. But, when you cannot find work to do, hard, or easy, many struggle to know what to do with themselves. People who are better educated or have other skills can make things happen. If you are lacking in either or both, you will struggle.

Much airtime is being given to what Jamaica needs to move forward. A phrase that keeps haunting us is that the 21st century demands much higher levels of learning. We are in an era of fast-moving technologies. Jamaican politicians are sitting on the coat tails of a potential logistics hub development, but have not been very forthcoming about the type of jobs that will be generated and the kind of jobs Jamaicans are likely to get. They may not know. Or, if they know, dare not say. I’ll go there.

Just last summer, we read about the ‘mass’ exodus of skilled port workers from Jamaica to Canada. Concern was voiced about loss of technicians, but a training programme and new equipment would help keep customers. Ironically, Jamaica was becoming a ‘technological university’ for the Canadian market. Target skills had been those trained in the maintenance exercises of the mobile equipment, such as the big straddle carriers, trucks and big container lifters. But also crane operators and heavy-equipment operators. The only thing working against this high demand was ‘indiscipline of some truckers when they go to Canada’.

So, Jamaica has skills for the basic port work, but they are dwindling in response to the country’s fragile economic situation. Could they be brought back if the logistics hub works out? Probably not. Opportunities in Canada are far more attractive–harsh winter weather, notwithstanding. So, could we train enough people to do the work? We have time. But, the stock of people from whom trainees will likely come is unlikely to include many or any from crime-infected communities.

Many people without work naturally get excited at the prospect of new jobs coming their way, even if they do not have skills to take advantage of the opportunities. Truth is, they are likely to still be stuck on the corner, hoping.

If politicians can be honest about the prospects they see for their population, can they be honest about the potential disappointment that lays ahead for many striving for something to do? If they are, they know they will face questions about “What are you doing for us?” (leaving aside the dependency problem). Do nothing and keep watching what happens to crime.

Jamaica’s crime problem is not unique in the Caribbean. Islands that have had a history of performing much better have seen their crime problems grow–The Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago–even surpassing Jamaica in some unenviable categories, on a per head basis. The common elements have been drugs, gangs, and unemployment, with a familiar base of low educational levels. The region’s teachers used to be one of the aspects that set us apart from other developing areas. We lost many to migration, but kept a good many, too. The reasons for failing education are many, but some of the results are clear. It’s an area we need to fix, at a national and a regional levels, and fix fast.