COVID-19 — crisis, conduct and opportunities

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Columns

COVID-19 — crisis, conduct and opportunities

Christopher Burns

Sunday, April 26, 2020

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There is no denying it, this 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a pandemic that is rapidly resetting centuries-old, sociocultural norms, political traditions, religious customs, and time-tested economic arrangements. It is very apparent that we are in a global crisis the likes of which this generation has never seen. Predictions are rife, COVID-19 will leave sirens of death, painful grief, socio-political tensions, and economic hardships, which could give rise to episodes of political ferment.

The tentacles of this invisible, 'equal opportunity' enemy are devoid of sensitivity and have no regard for colour, creed, race, or national origins. COVID-19 brings the commonness of our humanity into stark contrast. It disproportionately kills people living on the periphery of poverty. It targets those who are vulnerable and are most likely to succumb to the paroxysms of the coughing it causes, even as it violently cements its other asphyxiating characteristics in the human frame.

COVID-19 knows no boundaries; it is completely removed from the nuances and bitterness of geopolitics; it cares not a rat's behind about distinctions between developed, developing, underdeveloped, or poor countries. It reaches the highest echelon of power and remains an enigmatically debilitating virus, whose exact pathogenesis may take quite a while to understand, successfully isolate, and eventually conquer.

According the World Health Organization (WHO), up to April 23, 2020, COVID-19 was spreading ferociously. It had already impacted 225 countries, infected 2.7 million, and killed over 185,000 of our fellow human beings.

This disease requires a well-orchestrated and coordinated global response as small dependent island states, such as Jamaica, buckle under the burden of economic and social dislocation. As the International Labour Organization (ILO) warns in its latest bulletin, “…the economic fallout from coronavirus could cause job losses in the tens of million…” And, as if that were not bad enough, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in its April statement, predicted that the global economy could contract by three per cent in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic: “…It is very likely that this year the global economy will experience its worst recession since the Great Depression, surpassing that seen during the global financial crisis a decade ago…the 'Great Lockdown' is projected to shrink global growth dramatically…”

The World Travel and Tourism Council predicts that the global travel and tourism market could see a loss of several million jobs worldwide in 2020.

There are dark days ahead for the global economy, and Jamaica is not inoculated. According to an April 22, 2020 World Bank bulletin, “Remittance flows are expected to fall across all World Bank Group regions, including Latin America and the Caribbean, by 19.3 per cent. The bank's projections suggest the number of people pushed into extreme poverty will be between 40 million and 60 million. In the more pessimistic scenarios, global poverty in 2020 would be close to the level in 2017, meaning that the world's progress in eliminating extreme poverty would be set back by three years…”

Surprise! Surprise! The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best and worst qualities in many of us. More than anything else, COVID-19 has exposed the ugly dichotomy and rigid differences between “…being human and being a human being…” to borrow from and paraphrase the late Steve Jobs, who died in 2011 leaving an estimated US$10 billion in net worth.

Using the pandemic to score political points is a downright “John Crow” behaviour. There are no excuses for such conduct, and those who exploit the disaster in that way should be made to pay for their dastardly comportment. Issuing flyers with partisan caricatures showing 'orange-coloured' citizens suffering under the heavy weight of the coronavirus, while 'green-coloured' citizens gleefully watch is unconscionable and offensive. Distributing hand sanitisers is generally a positive endeavour, but going out of the way to remind constituents from whence it comes, and doing so in an unartful way, creates more division than it solves problems. Using social media and employing classless astrosurfers (think influencers) to sow discord and create political mischief in the middle of a global health crisis exposes the sordid and corrupt parts of the society.

“Tan a yuh yard” is not a synonym for practising and advancing political opportunism, as temptingly easy as those traits be for some. Threatening and verbally attacking people by way of the most inglorious and indelicate adjectives to describe them and their mother, simply because they happen to either question or disagree with Brogad's (Prime Minister Andrew Holness's) Government's handling of the country's preparedness and response to the COVID-19, is not just benighted and morally bankrupt, it is also criminal. Still, we need to understand that leaders are not sacred cows.

Similarly, to use the current COVID-19 maladies as shovels to widen the chasm of intolerance between “the haves and the have-nots”, on the basis of sociocultural and economic stratification, is categorically cruel. The handcart men downtown, hustling to feed their children, are no less human than the latte drinking, “speaky-spokey” upper St Andrew clique, who view his resistance to quarantine as a nauseatingly “ole nayga” behaviour. The fact is, handcart men and snow cone vendors have personal economies unlike anything the uptown set could imagine, let along adjust to within 24 hours. We have to develop a better understanding that not everybody knows how to organise their priorities. As a result, compliance to sudden edicts may require skilful application of moral suasion — the type of cajoling Damian Crawford delivers with great aplomb.

We know COVID-19 will eventually retreat. However, we don't yet know is how quickly. We don't yet know how the virus will respond when treatment and vaccine will be available. There are too many “known unknowns” for anyone to feel confident in predictions of the future — to quote former US politician Donald Rumsfeld.

As bad as things are, and may still become, I draw strength and faith in our capacity as a people. Yes, Jamaican people tend to overcome; and they do so in a bigger, better, braver, and bolder way. Central to accomplishing such outcomes is immediate development, articulation and steady implementation of a national strategy; one that requires unity, volunteerism, tolerance, peace, creativity, and commitment. This national strategy must synchronise active responsiveness from citizens to the things the leaders do or fail to deliver.

Yet, there are some fundamental fault lines, such as income inequality, food insecurity, shelter inadequacy, insufficient access to potable water, poor levels of productivity, high reliance of imported food, lack of economic opportunities, poor self-nationhood, etc, that we must either replace or repair post haste. This strategy has no Pollyanna-ish inclinations; neither does it mean we can undertake everything in one fell swoop.

Before we set expectations or begin to evaluate our response to the Government, we must also commit to ourselves to accepting personal responsibility for our own actions and inactions. The biggest reset comes with certain attitudinal adjustments: Our behaviour and reactions toward one another must change — that change will help to engender a switch in how we view the Government and the authority that comes with the exercise of the power it sways.

To that end, let's accept as a basic proposition that governments exist to do for those who, individually or collectively, cannot do certain things for themselves. Things such as building and operating hospitals, roads, schools, bridges; or managing national security, law enforcement, judicial activities, the political economy, etc. To the extent that a Government can deliver on those responsibilities effectively, efficiently, transparently, and equitably, the people will respond. The Government should produce the best outcomes without expecting choirs of praise and festoons for their overgrown egos because governments are elected to govern and elections have consequences.

Truth is, governments must learn to quickly acclimate, because they cannot govern on the basis of the 'hand' they'd hope for, but on the hand they are dealt. If a Government appears to voters to be responsible, effective, honest, enabling, empathetic, transparent, and generally contributing to the greater good, then such a Government is more than likely to be handsomely rewarded.

The present Jamaica Labour Party Government continues to perform admirably under the current challenges wrought by COVID-19 — the 'right royal' Alorica business process outsourcing (BPO) mess notwithstanding. The Administration has done well in staying ahead of the communications curve. It has effectively operationalised the “bully pulpit” and has been keeping citizens informed and educated. More needs to be done, however, to arrest the regrettable incidents of discrimination. Kudos to the many front line health workers, members of the security forces, emergency responders, the Opposition, private sector, the Church, members of entertainment fraternity, and everyday Jamaicans who continue to give of their resources. The unity of purpose is encouraging.

Creditability is paramount in moments of crisis, because believability begets consensus. Make no bones about it, although the current economic and social zeitgeist requires a combination of transformational, crisis, and visionary leadership, it also demands strict adherence to transparency, truth-telling, and empathy. Success will not come if the Government cannot get its story right about the 42 Jamaicans at sea who are being treated like pariahs. And victory will elude us if we cannot get simple facts right about compliance issues at Alorica in Portmore.

Wide angle lens

In a recent conversation with Melissa, a human resource professional and life coach, she remarked: “It may take a full two years before we ultimately say vamoose to COVID-19. Her prediction is that normality may likely come after people have had the chance for emotional catharsis as they share experiences and mourn the deaths of loved ones and friends. She asserted a salient observation about hidden opportunities for families to reconnect; engage comity, humour, and gain spiritual rejuvenation. For her, these are little things — hidden opportunities of sorts — that were easily overlooked by a great many hitherto COVID-19. She believes that COVID-19 will provide opportunity for people to resuscitate elements of cottage industries, as well as to advance cooperation and creativity between families and neighbours — albeit from a distance.

There are opportunities to start seeing ourselves less as part of the problem and more as part of the solution. Nothing will happen overnight, but if we ride this crisis out smartly we would have begun to position ourselves and country for a great leap forward. All we need is the leadership.

This is the perfect time to start the process of diversifying our economy — community by community — whether it is through agriculture, animal husbandry, horticulture, arts and crafts; for local consumption and export. There is no shortage of innovative and creative skills. We can use our ingenuity and commitment to help arrive at the “We are in this together” declaration.

The change requires fixity of purpose, public-private sector partnerships, and willing venture capitalists. We have to make changes in the way our economy and society are organised. This transformation rests on the bottom-up approach towards sustainable economic development and social advancement. Do these things and watch the crime and murder rates fall.

Since we are all in this together we must put partisan politics and prejudice — be it socio-economic or class — aside, and put extraordinary demand on the Government to launch, or resurrect, a multi-sector National Economic, Social-Infrastructure Rescue Team with clearly defined terms of reference with a mandate to identify bankable short-, medium- and long-term programmes to fix the problems COVID-19 has brought into focus. Any programme of recovery must pull on existing social capital — enormous capital exists among past leaders P J Patterson, Bruce Golding, Portia Simpson Miller, retired judges, teachers, economists, and business leaders. This team should include members of the Church, security forces, trade unions, civil society groups, political parties, academia, formal and informal private sector, media, entertainment, and community-based organisations.

Because these are extraordinary times, the approaches must match the seriousness of the times. This is the time for private sector, Government, and trade unions to agree on labour market reforms, unemployment insurance, continuing health care coverage, sufficiently funded training and development programmes, access to loans at reasonable rates without regard to how individuals speak or dress. We must begin to give real meaning to the participatory model of governance and include Jamaicans from all walks of life at different stages of the planning process, then watch Jamaica grow.

Christopher Burns is chief finance officer and vice-president of Finance for a multinational. Send your comments to the Jamaica Observer orburnscg@aol.com.


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