#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-278: January 10, 2021-Butch Stewart dies

US political events pushed some important Jamaican news off my radar for a bit, most notably the death of iconic businessman and giant of the tourism industry, Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, on June 4, after a period of illness. He’d founded Sandals Resort International and transformed tourism with its all-inclusive model.

His tourism business began from next to nothing:

He started his resorts business in 1981, using money he had made selling air-conditioning units in Jamaica and invested it in developing a hotel on North Coast, naming it Sandals Montego Bay. It became the flagship resort of a chain of luxury vacation destinations (Sandals now operates 15 resorts, including six in Jamaica).

Sandals Resorts International had a couples-oriented focus before branching out with the more family-oriented Beaches Resorts.

He founded his first business, Appliance Traders Ltd. (ATL), after he persuaded the Fedders Corp. of Edison, N.J., to allow him to represent the brand in Jamaica. ATL is now a leading Jamaican retailer of appliances, electronics and motor vehicles.

Mr. Stewart gained leadership roles in Jamaica’s tourism industry, including director of the Jamaica Tourist Board for a decade. In 1992, his ‘Butch Stewart Initiative’ pumped US$1 million a week into the foreign exchange market to help halt the slide of the Jamaican dollar.

In 1994, he led a group of investors that took control of Air Jamaica, then the Caribbean’s largest regional carrier. He put together an investment group that paid US$37.5 million for 70 percent of the airline, giving himself a 46 percent stake.

This was on of several grand public gestures that Mr. Stewart became famous for, as The New York Times reported in an article about the move.

At the helm of the troubled state-owned airline, Mr. Stewart began adding routes and improving service. As part of the turnaround, he increased the airline’s revenue and grabbed market share from competitors.

In 2009, Mr. Stewart created the Sandals Foundation, which supports school construction, education and health care access on the islands where the company operates resorts.

He was a recipient of Jamaica’s highest national distinctions, including the Order of Jamaica.

His funeral was on June 9:

#COVID19Chronicles-266: December 30, 2020-Economic conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) published its ‘Regional economic outlook’. yesterday, with an assessment of economic conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean: things have been hard, especially for tourism-dependent countries, like Jamaica:

The scale of the harsh impact is well summarised with this comment:

‘COVID-19 has hit Latin America and the Caribbean harder than other parts of the world, both in human and economic terms. The relatively large human toll is evident: with only 8.2 percent of the world population, the region had 28 percent of cases and 34 percent of deaths, by end-September.’

That’s because ‘comparatively more people work in activities that require close physical proximity, and less people have jobs in which teleworking is feasible…in addition to a high degree of informality and poverty, and combined with lower trade and financial turbulence’.

The IMF highlights why the Caribbean suffered more:

‘Dependent on tourism for anywhere between 20 to 90 percent of GDP and employment, Caribbean countries were the hardest hit. Despite being relatively successful at containing the virus spread, the sudden stop in tourist arrivals and local lockdowns was equivalent to a cardiac arrest to their economies.’

Coming out of the pandemic will be an economic challenge:

‘The recovery is expected to be protracted. Our forecast is for growth of 3.6 percent in 2021. Most countries will not go back to pre-pandemic GDP until 2023, and real income per capita until 2025, later than any other region.’

But the policy outlook is clear:

‘Policies should remain focused on containing the pandemic and cementing the recovery. Premature withdrawal of fiscal support should be avoided. However, further support should be accompanied by explicit, legislated and clearly communicated commitments to consolidate and rebuild fiscal defenses over the medium term.’

#COVID19Chronicles-258: December 22, 2020-New strains on #COVID19Life

Outside of Europe, countries are still pondering how to react to the new strain of COVID identified in the UK (and Italy). The WHO Europe is to meet to discuss responses:

The UK’s situation is chaotic as the complications for movement posed by the new COVID strain mix with emerging confusion and complications as it moves toward its Brexit deadlines, with no deal yet in place.

Jamaica’s decision to ban flights from the UK turned out to be tighter as the two flight due in today were both cancelled. The 302 passengers who arrived yesterday are in state quarantine facilities for 48 hours:

Indications that the current vaccines would also deal with the new strain have been declared by BioNTech and Pfizer:

Other English-speaking Caribbean countries have, so far, not followed Jamaica’s and Grenada’s lead.

Several major countries, including the USA, are playing wait and see.

Though, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) noted that the new strain might well have already been circulating, undetected, in the USA:

#COVID19Chronicles-257: December 21, 2020-Jamaica bans travel from UK

After giving indications yesterday that a decision would be made within 72 hours,

Jamaica has now decided to ban travel from the UK with effect from December 22 through January 4, 2021. Three flights from the UK are due in before midnight tomorrow; one already en-route.

It’s worth noting that arrivals will be monitored more strictly with PCR test on arrival (negative, issued armbands and quarantined for 48 hours in State facilities, ahead of continues 14-day quarantine at home; positive results, isolated in government facilities until recovered).

As I intimated in my blog post, yesterday, the impact of the COVID infection surge in the UK and the emerge of a mutated virus would likely have an impact on travel from there to the UK. Grenada had cancelled travel from yesterday. Other CARICOM countries may following quickly.

#COVID19Chronicles-256: December 20, 2020–That went south fast: UK travel to and from EU being stopped

It’s ironic that in the week when COVID vaccines were being rolled out in several countries, including the UK, USA and Russia and a second (Moderna) vaccine was approved in the USA for emergency use, the COVID pandemic in the UK appears to be spiralling out of control.

A new strain of the COVID virus apparently is ravaging the south-east of England and spreading significantly faster than was the case before.

The seriousness of that was that London, the East, and the South-East were moved in a tighter ‘tier 4’, restricting most movement.

Early reports were that people were trying to flee the area ahead of the lockdown.

Other EU countries started to ban flights and other travel from the UK.

Scotland banned cross-border movement.

Police presence has been beefed up to help enforce that measure.

Now, EU travel from the UK have been banned.

Freight is already affected at the border with France.

Things were going pear-shaped, already, as the scornful attitude of sneering at thoughts of “cancelling Christmas“ saw PM Johnston accept that fact for a large segment of England:

It’s too early to say how drastic an impact the flight cancellations will have on UK travel; non-EU countries are beginning to ban travel from the UK. It could be a tolling bell for some Caribbean tourism, which is just starting its winter season from mid-December. It’s hard to see countries in the region being indifferent to arrivals from the UK, in light of this latest development.

#COVID19Chronicles-235: November 29, 2020-Guilt tripping

Travel guilt is real!

Several friends of mine are caddies at Jamaican golf courses, and they occasionally tell me stories about the generosity of foreign guests with whom they work. Now ‘tourism (or travel) guilt’ is a real thing.

How travellers deal with it may vary:

Whether travel itself is part of the solution, or spending, or donating, or being especially kind and tolerant, the traveller may feel some angst about what he or she is doing. In places like Jamaica, we see a lot of this guilt meted out in the form of kindness with a monetary tilt.

With many restrictions on movement during the COVID pandemic, it’s been clear that guilt about travel has risen. But, it can be what helps some keep sane. We know!

Funnily, for all of my own lack of need, I have been the beneficiary of it, when some foreigner ‘took pity on me’ and thought I’d need USD 100 pressed into my hand for doing my job as a volunteer, I also had pangs of guilt, but decided I’d accept the gift and do something good with it. It went to a charity.

However, it takes a certain level of pity, or generosity, or more money than sense to give away a US$400 golf club that looks brand new, plus a tip. Well, one of my friends messaged me today about the new ‘toy’ he’d received this way. 🙂 Some guests with whom he’d worked for several days, helping them to learn golf, decided they’d part with their prized putter and depart from the island with a clear conscience, I guess. It’s lovely!

I was fortunate enough for him to let me also have a little ‘play’ with the toy, and I really must reconsider my life choices and think if being a caddy is what I do from now 😉

#COVID19Chronicles-234: November 28, 2020-The west has gone ‘wild’ with cases

We decided to take a short staycation and plumped for Hanover. We usually prefer the rustic charm of Portland, which is where we spent Thanksgiving last year; all three of our daughters were in Jamaica from the USA. We had the bonus of my mother-in-law and her friend. This year’s COVID-affected trip was with just our teenager, plus a cousin and his family. We get day visits from a couple living in Montego Bay.

But, we’ve grown to enjoy some spacious spots in Hanover, which work well in terms of observing COVID protocols of distancing, so several groups can stay in one place but have ample room to exist apart from each other, coming together for meals, which can also be hosted with good spacing at the table, or using several tables.

We were enjoying our turkey dinner on Thursday and praised the parish of Hanover for being lowest for COVID infections: it was the last to report COVID infections. Then, I checked the thread for the evening’s ‘Press briefing and COVID conversations’, which I’d missed. It covered “COVID-19 Protocols at Christmas”:

Well, knock me down! Hanover is now the COVID epicentre!

The west has gone a bit ‘wild’, it seems.

The regional technical director at the Western Regional Health Authority, Dr Dianne Stennett Campbell, gave an assessment of the current situation:

An “uptick in cases in the western end of the island accounts for the overall increase in the country’s figure”.

She added, however, that the increase in cases likely represents local transmission, and at the same time pointed out that no “clear” link has been established with the tourism sector. That should make some sigh with relief as the country heads towards the ‘high season’ for foreign visitors. However, it’s not clear how travel will be affected during the current surge also seen in the USA (from where the bulk of Jamaica’s tourists come), though Thanksgiving travellers seems to have ignored official advice not to travel for this holiday, with about a million people passing through airports each day for the last week. It’s usually the busiest travel time for the USA. But, whether the willingness to jump on planes will be as strong when it comes to travel abroad, we’ll have to see.

Most countries are really in a ‘don’t fly’ category for the USA, sitting at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) ‘level 4’, very high risk–‘Travelers should avoid all travel to these destinations’.

Source: CDC

So, Jamaica has been added to that category, which irked some people, but it includes The Bahamas, Ireland, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, for example. No countries are in level 3 (Travelers should avoid all nonessential travel to the following destinations). Only a few countries are now in levels 2 (moderate–Travelers at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 should avoid all nonessential travel) and only a few in level 1 (low–All travelers should wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet from people who are not from your household, wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer, and watch your health for signs of illness). Some Jamaicans may be miffed because some of our island competing destinations are in level 2 (eg Barbados and St. Lucia); while Anguilla sits in level 1.

Getting back to the west. Dr Dianne Stennett Campbell’s assessment continued: “Most of the cases we’re seeing are locally transmitted cases. We do have cases in the tourist sector, but we have not been able to establish clear pictures of whether it is transmission between visitors in our hotel sector and workers or staff members. Usually, it is from the home environment in terms of that transmission that happens locally. So we’re carefully watching that picture. It may change, but that is what we’re seeing right now.”

Up to yesterday, Hanover accounted for 218 (2%) of the total of 10,537 COVID-19 cases reported since March; Westmoreland, 363; Trelawny, 237; and St. James, 1,094 (>10%). So, Hanover may be showing a high rate of infection per head of population–it has the highest parish rate of active COVID cases per 100,000 residents, 62.1; with Clarendon being the lowest at 6.9 –but the totals are really small. St. James has higher rates but is also trending towards significant numbers, especially if one regards what its usually hustle and bustle in and around Montego Bay may mean for possible contacts from overseas travellers–a scalar issue.

#COVID19Chronicles-232: November 26, 2020-Giving thanks

In the USA, this week is usually when most people travel, to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family. In these COVID pandemic days, however, travel and mingling are less encouraged. Positive cases and deaths have been soaring in the USA during November.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) urged people not to travel, yet, the numbers going through airports last weekend through November 25 were the highest since March, over 1 million each day.

People seem determined to travel despite the high-level advice:

It’s not hard to understand: being together with loved ones and close friends has been hard for most of the year, and for most Americans, the Thanksgiving holiday is their national get-together, free from any religious associations that make holidays occurring in late-December a hodge-podge of competing claims. I also think that most people in the USA need a release of tensions that have built up immensely this year, but maybe more so in the USA heading into and continuing through their presidential elections, which should have concluded with voting on November 3. It has, however, become an extensive display of petulance by the incumbent President, claiming fraud and victory with only a set of blinded partisans try to dispute. (The popular vote was clear—over 6 million margin; the Electoral College count is clear—306 votes to 232, a margin the incumbent called a “landslide” when it was in his favour in 2016, even with nearly 3 million popular vote deficit, but he now calls “stolen”.)

Jamaica doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but some of its trappings have seeped into our culture—namely, shopping on ‘Black Friday’. But, many Jamaicans with strong US-ties do celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday and time to gather as families. (Remember, around 1 million ‘Jamaicans’ are in the USA, according to the 2010 Census; many Jamaicans have been and are schooled in the USA; returning residents from the USA are numerous.)

Also, my wife needs a break, not least from 9 hours of Zoom teleconferencing most days, so we’re taking a staycation over Thanksgiving; it fits with our youngest daughter being home from school for that holiday, and last year her older sisters living in the USA came to spend Thanksgiving with us in Portland (bringing some essential ingredients for the dinner :).

We cruised along the highways to the north coast.

SUV becomes true modern pack mule
Coastal view from highway in St. Ann

The car had become the true beast of burden, as it often does on our staycations—we know what we like to eat, so we leave little to chance on food and drink—and this time the passengers were fewer than on previous trips, so space for them was not totally at a minimum.

Traffic was normal, ie relatively light. Our car was laden with the makings of our Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, vegetables, salad, maraconi, cheese. Some debates were going on about the menu, especially desserts. But, the basics were set; Brussel sprouts seemed elusive. We would not be doing a fried turkey, as suggested by one of our local papers:

My wife asked the cook at our lodging if he knew how to make macaroni and cheese. That was not the right question; he needed to know how her mother made it, which he doesn’t, so let’s just accept he needs to be guided, carefully.

We made a chance discovery regarding dessert by having some pumpkin pudding bought from the famous ‘Pudding Man’ in Priory, St. Ann. A few slices of that would work a treat.

I’m not sure of the dinner schedule, as we’ve relatives due to arrive tonight. Meantime, I will settle into a Thanksgiving routine that has to be based around what happens in the USA. That means tuning into the traditional Thanksgiving NFL game between Dallas (‘Cowboys’, aka ‘America’s team’) and Washington (now ‘Football Team’, formerly ‘Redskins’)—an age-old and fierce rivalry—which will be on late-afternoon, with the Detroit Lions hosting the Houston Texans around 12.30pm.

I have half an eye out for visitors from the USA who have decided to leap on planes to come to Jamaica. I understand, but I also am leery of the spread of the pandemic surging out of control there and jumping here. Truth, though, foreign visitors have reportedly been amongst the best behaved group in terms of observing COVID protocols, and we know first-hand that no one in getting on a plane to Jamaica if they have not the required negative COVID test.

Why they love to visit Jamaica (and maybe, other Caribbean countries) is clear: it’s not just the weather, but often a certain ambience, especially if seeking calm. Ironcially, an well-known friend of Jamaica, Arlene Hoffman, died this week:

As The Gleaner wrote:

‘Her love affair with Jamaica began in Port Antonio in the late 1960s. It later moved to Hopewell, Hanover, at the Round Hill, where she learned to inhale all the beautiful Jamaican elements – the cuisine, the laughter, the resort lifestyle, the butterflies and especially the art.

In the early 1970s, her much acclaimed ‘bare bottom’ print ad to promote Jamaica’s tourism found traction with consumers. The ad also found a permanent home in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And back then, Hoffman and her agency, Hoffman Mann, spoke to a new generation of American women, nudging them to let them know it was okay to throw a bikini in a bag and run away to a beach in Montego Bay.

Hoffman’s biggest impact on Jamaica came in the late 1970s when she created the We’re More than a Beach … We’re a Country advertising campaign to lure resistant American tourists to the island.’

It’s easy to get this. Just this morning, as I was walking the golf course near where we’re staying, I car came by and I heard “Mr. Jones! You’re back.” A lady waved and we chatted for a minute before she continued her ride to where she worked. She was one of the house staff who looked after us when we visited the area in August. That’s what makes many people return to Jamaica, which has a 40% return visitor rate.

Staff who cater to tourists are amongst our most treasured but perhaps underrated assets.

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