Improving decision-making during COVID-19 crisis

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Improving decision-making during COVID-19 crisis

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

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When dealing with complex issues such as presented by the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis it is unavoidable, even desirable, that highly qualified, technically competent, very experienced, and completely patriotic people have disagreements. On the question of constitutionality of actions from the Government, Dr Lloyd Barnett (Jamaica Observer, March 27) and Michael Hylton, QC (Sunday Observer, March 29) disagreed. On the extent of testing for COVID-19 infection, Dr Alfred Dawes and Jamaica's Chief Medical Officer Dr Jacquiline A Bisasor-McKenzie have had somewhat differing views, as does the Government and the Opposition. Now on the critical question of whether or not the Government should declare a national lockdown, once again, responsible Jamaicans hold different opinions. Disagreements are natural and do not constitute a sign of hidden agendas or that one or the other has “bad mind” or “don't have any sense”, but rather, that these are difficult questions.

In a context where decisions on parish or national lockdown may well amount to life and death matters for some, what is needed is not the wisdom of a few, but “all hands on deck” or, more precisely, all sectors represented around the table. In relation to the lockdown matter, businessman Peter Melhado put it this way: “[A]t the very least, I sincerely hope the private sector has a seat at the table as these momentous decisions are being considered.” I couldn't agree with him more. And note, not a seat prior to decisions or after decisions, but “as these decisions are being considered” and taken.

May I also add, not just the private sector, but by the same reasoning the Opposition, the trade unions, the churches, and civil society groups. There is no better way to avoid one-sidedness, or to get the most well-informed input and the most effective outcomes during a crisis in the national interest. Consider the following: Were workers (or their representatives) from business process outsourcing (BPO) entities who were calling talk shows pointing to violations of COVID-19 guidelines at many entities at the table, would the Alorica breaches and consequent coronavirus infections not have been discovered before the horse had gone through the gate? Even now, as tighter regulations are being applied to the BPO entities, should not employee representatives be around the table, or at the minimum “whistle-blowers” safeguarded under Jamaica's Protected Disclosures Act? Instead, hitherto the opposite has been the case.

As the president general of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) Senator Kavan Gayle put it, “There has been no consultation between the management of the BPO outsourcing entities and any of the trade unions.” ( Sunday Observer, April 19, 2020). Clearly, whatever short-run gains these entities have derived from excluding employee representation, staff associations, or trade unions, they now risk devastating loss to the firms themselves, to the workers and Jamaica from possible closure, even temporarily.

What about the initial two-day only, Wednesday and Saturday, shopping days ordered overnight in relation to the St Catherine lockdown? Would that have been the decision had local government representatives, supermarket owners, or food manufacturing and distribution companies been at the table as these decisions were being considered? As it turned out, to his credit, the prime minister reversed this decision and is expanding opening days during the lockdown. But this reversal only came after “chaos”, much inconvenience, and incontrovertible experience convincingly established the incorrectness of the initial decision. I suggest that greater stakeholder engagement at the decision-making table, under appropriate conditions, might have generated a wiser decision with less cost in terms of chaos and inconvenience.

Bad decisions, such as this, or another, such as the now-reversed order that the media should only have access to St Catherine on Wednesday and Saturday and thereafter only on permission from the ground commander, often do not result from evil intent or bad mind. Rather, they often derive from good intentions. But most of us, I believe, recall the saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Or, as Chief Justice Bryan Sykes put it in his written opinion handed down in the national identification system (NIDS) judgement in November 2019: “The road to State control of the lives of persons usually begins with small imperceptible steps. It is usually clothed in the garb of some perceived greater good, such as national security, economic growth, and the like. There begins one slight trespass and then another, and another, and before long the trespass becomes the norm and the right, the exception.” [Paragraph 143]

To be fair, the Government's management of the COVID-19 crisis has not been exclusively by the prime minister and the Cabinet. There are elements of inclusiveness. Amongst others, there is a broad-based advisory committee, the National Disaster Risk Management Council, the technical advisors at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, and most recently the parliamentary committee on COVID-19. Of course, there is also the regular press briefings, but by and large these are informative but come either before or after decisions are considered and made. In that context, they function fairly well. However, I believe that with this spike in virus infections and, God forbid, a surge in COVID-19-related deaths, in the discussion of a national lockdown there needs to be a strengthening of stakeholder engagement at the top and on the ground “as momentous decisions are being considered”.

I would urge that three steps be taken urgently:

1. The National Partnership Council be reconvened. Around the council table, chaired by the prime minister, sits Cabinet ministers and representatives of the parliamentary Opposition, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA), the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, the Umbrella Group of Churches, the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, and civil society groups, including representing youth and women, and academia.

2. On the ground, I recommend a similar inclusive structure. Section 22 of the 2016 Local Governance Act provides for “participation mechanisms” and states “each local authority shall...establish and utilise appropriate mechanisms to facilitate participation of and collaboration or networking with all relevant stakeholders which exist or operate within the area of its jurisdiction...Members of Parliament representing constituencies within the area of its jurisdiction; parish development committees, development area committees, community development committees and other bodies or entities within the public, private and non-governmental sectors...and any association of residence, businesses or other interested parties”. Their specific terms of reference would be to discuss and implement actions related to the COVID-19 crisis in an effective and orderly manner.

3. The parliamentary Opposition needs to be more “at the table” than is allowed by the parliamentary select committee. Perhaps this may take the form of past Vale Royal talks. Interestingly, in a previous crisis caused by Hurricane Gilbert in September 1988 — up until that point the biggest natural disaster emergency facing Jamaica — then Prime Minister Edward Seaga integrated the Opposition, which at the time was not even represented in Parliament, into Governmental decision-making relating to the crisis. I have it on impeccable authority from two leaders at the time, from opposite sides of the aisle on my inquiry a few days ago, that they recall “seeing Opposition members in and out of Jamaica House which was effectively the operation centre”. COVID-19 now demands enhanced national and community decision-making going even beyond the Hurricane Gilbert precedent.

Since this is indeed a war having to be fought by all the Jamaican people against COVID-19, would not good governance suggest a government of national unity for the duration of the crisis?

Professor Trevor Munroe is head of National Integrity Action.


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