Fear of the invisible enemy

Fear of the invisible enemy

Staff reporter

Thursday, January 21, 2021

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This is the latest in a series by our reporters on how they managed to cover the news at the onset of the novel coronavirus in 2020.

MANDEVILLE, Manchester — On March 10 of last year, news broke that Jamaica had recorded its first case of COVID-19 and suddenly there was panic everywhere. There were no detailed guidelines, no clear road map to follow as health experts here and abroad were still researching the new coronavirus.

Should we wear a mask or not, do we need to wear gloves? There was a great deal of uncertainty even as the Government tried to reassure us all that there was no need to panic… yet.

Still a student at the Northern Caribbean University (NCU) then, I had recently returned from an exchange programme in Atlanta and I was really worried about how to deal with COVID-19, the invisible enemy.

Then came news of Jamaica's first death from the disease, a 79-year-old Clarendon man who had been admitted to the Mandeville Regional Hospital.

The panic worsened.

The streets of Mandeville emptied and it became a ghost town. I recall a conversation with a taxi driver as he stood outside the hospital compound which was usually teeming with potential passengers, but that day was deathly still. He was mulling over whether to look for another line of work.

It was then that I realised that the worst was yet to come in a year that I had hoped would be rich with my many successes, including graduating from NCU and becoming a full-time staff reporter at the Jamaica Observer.

It was supposed to be the culmination of my seven years in media covering various beats in Portland and Manchester as a writer for the North Coast Times newspaper, Portlanders News and a correspondent for IRIE FM.

My eagerness to finish NCU and enjoy my passion for journalism was under threat as the world changed in a matter of months.

Like many others I continued on an uncertain path. With classes no longer face to face, the usual camaraderie among classmates sharing the same space, breathing the same air, was replaced with the void left by physical distancing requirements.

My dream of travelling across Manchester and St Elizabeth to discover and share the stories of different people and places was tempered with movement restricted because of the invisible enemy.

When I did venture out, I was shocked to note that, despite numerous warnings from health officials, there was often a disregard for COVID-19 prevention protocols. I reported on what I saw and sought answers. For example, on April 7, I filmed a cluster of people attempting to enter the Mandeville tax office, clearly in breach of physical distancing rules.

Police had to be called in to do crowd control. After the video went viral measures were implemented to facilitate physical distancing at the location. I also found, while covering the news in deep-rural communities within Manchester and St Elizabeth, some residents who claimed COVID-19 did not exist so there was no reason for them to change their way of life.

But for me COVID-19 meant a new approach to covering long established news beats. Covering court was different, with changes in how we were allowed to access courtrooms that were inadequate even pre-COVID-19. Some were poorly ventilated, which made wearing a mask for hours particularly difficult. It was also a challenge hearing clearly the mask-muffled voices of attorneys and judges.

Covering crime scenes, though, remained the same in one very important aspect: the pain that came with them. I recall a case of domestic violence in Heartease, Manchester, that left 36-year-old Shanalee Bailey dead, allegedly murdered by the father of four of her five children. As family members grieved, residents and passersby disregarded COVID-19 guidelines, their curiosity displacing any earlier notions of personal safety against an invisible enemy.

And who could forget the coverage of political events?

In the lead up to the September 3 General Election I was posted in Manchester Central and the crowds still came despite warnings of the risk of contracting COVID-19 during mass gatherings.

With election excitement in the air came a clear disregard for safety guidelines when Jamaica Labour Party supporters lined the streets of Mandeville to get a glimpse of party leader Andrew Holness and newcomer Rhoda Crawford during a motorcade.

When the Observer broke the news with video and photo evidence of the line of vehicles and the crushing crowd it drew, Holness quickly banned all political motorcades.

On election day I hit the road early, working alone I started my coverage in Manchester Central then onto Manchester Southern. My next stops were in Manchester North Western and North Eastern.

The picture was the same everywhere: people went out early to vote, some not adhering to the COVID-19 prevention guidelines, their fear of the invisible enemy apparently not as great as mine. That fear is still with me, but I will not allow it to paralyse me into inaction.

I have to live with my fear in order to survive this pandemic. It is what pushes me to keep safe.

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