It scared the hell out of me

Covid-19

It scared the hell out of me

BY MARK CUMMINGS
Editor-at-Large
cummingsm@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, January 28, 2021

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This is part of a series by our reporters about their experiences in covering the news at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

MONTEGO BAY, St James – “Mark, come and look man, come and look in the isolation ward. And you mustn't be scared of the virus, you know, don't be scared,” Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton urged.

I guess the look of trepidation on my face confirmed my reluctance to enter the newly built isolation unit for COVID-19 patients at Cornwall Regional Hospital, a little over a month after the first case of the coronavirus virus was detected on the island last March.

The scenery had changed.

The doctors had on scrubs, gloves and masks and other protective gear, while journalists including myself also donned masks while some wore gloves. That was what the preparation looked like on the outside of the isolation ward to combat the dreaded virus, dubbed by many as the invisible enemy, which threatened our health in a very serious way.

Flashback to the anxiety and discomfort I felt being tear-gassed in the inner-city community of Flanker in 2003 when residents clashed with members of the security forces.

At that time the irate residents were protesting the shooting death of a popular taxi operator and the injury of market vendors from the area who were allegedly fired on by members of a police party while they were on their way to the Charles Gordon Market in Montego Bay early one Saturday morning.

A few days before, I was dodging bullets in Canterbury – another inner-city community in St James.

I recalled being pinned down in a small shop as gunmen and members of the security forces traded bullets.

A fairly inexperienced reporter then, I vividly recall the small shop in which we were huddled being pelted with bullets – presumably from the armed thugs who were firing M16 and AK4 assault rifles – and a senior cop shouting to seemingly terrified reporters to 'Get flat, get flat!'

And how could I forget when bullets hit the building with such ferocity that a fluorescent bulb that was firmly fixed in a socket in the ceiling came crashing to the ground?

Needless to say I began to wet myself, luckily not in my underwear but elsewhere on my body, as my pores opened up and released copious amounts of sweat.

Those two nerve-racking experiences, though were nothing compared to the frightening thought of contracting a virus by the simple act of touching or being in close proximity to someone who has a cough, or through some other means.

At least when I was dodging bullets and being tear-gassed my Jamaica Observer identification card offered me some form of protection.

In the case of the tear gas experience I was given a bottle of water to wash my itchy red eyes and taken to a place of safety by a sympathetic motorist, knowing that I was a reporter.

At Canterbury, senior cops on the ground showed reporters, including myself, how to take evasive action and how to reduce the chance of being hit by bullets.

But the stark reality is that my Observer ID cannot protect me from COVID-19.

The truth is, being a journalist for many years, I have been exposed to several life-threatening situations, but those experiences pale to working during the pandemic.

There was a paradigm shift, and it was evident.

The mere thought of touring an isolation ward with COVID-19 patients – even though I wouldn't have access to their rooms – scared the hell out of me. That morning when I was invited by Dr Tufton to tour the ward my head began to hurt, then the dry cough came, all said to be symptoms of the dreaded disease.

I tried to console myself, however, that it was my mind playing tricks on me.

My assumption was correct.

On June 15, 2020 the island welcomed six international flights from Sangster International Airport after the facility was shut down for about three months due to the pandemic.

Early that morning I grabbed my masks, hand sanitiser (which I now can't leave home without), my camera and recorder and arrived at the airport at 8:00 am, eager to interview passengers who were on the first flight to the port since the lockdown.

Based on releases from the Ministry of Health and Wellness, the passengers would undergo a thorough process with strict protocols to minimise the transmission of the virus. It turned out to be a very long day. Not only were passengers being whisked away by hotel transportation as they completed the process, the ones who came through the 'regular arrival doors' were irritable due to the protocol process and had no desire to speak to me.

And while I was eager to get the interviews, I was also fearful of contracting the virus, as there was little adherence to the protocols aimed at slowing the spread. For example, social distancing was almost non-existent, few people had hand sanitisers, and not all wore face masks.

Fast-forward about eight hours later, I finally found a passenger who was excited about her first trip to Jamaica.

I was somewhat relieved.

After chasing her to the car park for the interview, which she gave reluctantly, I discovered that she was an American doctor who was treating COVID-19 patients. According to her, she was “exhausted” and was looking forward to her getaway in Jamaica.

“From here on out we're gonna have a good time. I'm setting up good vibes. Right now, I just wanna eat,” said Dr Tobitha Locklear, who spoke to me without donning a face mask.

Considering that she had been taking care of COVID-19 patients and was speaking to me without wearing a mask, I was scared. I tried, however, to focus on getting my story, as I prayed silently that I would not be infected.

Soon after, another visitor who walked through the arrival doors agreed to be interviewed. He was happy to see his spouse who lives here and was not hesitant in showing affection. Social distance and masks who?

“A long time mi nuh si yuh! Mi miss yuh so much!” exclaimed the obviously excited lover to the spouse, totally abandoning all protocols.

After witnessing several other 'close' exchanges I felt even more nervous, though cognisant though that I had to get the story and staying true to some advice from a senior journalist many years ago that, “Readers are not usually concerned about how you go about getting the story, getting it to them is what matters,” firmly fixed in my head.

To be honest, I was already anxious going to the airport but what heightened my anxiety even more was how close the greetings were between the visitors and the individuals who were picking them up in a supposedly 'socially distant climate', especially since they were coming from a country with climbing COVD-19 numbers.

My airport journey would be one of the few and scattered face-to-face events that I would cover in months to come.

My phone and laptop were already my best friends, but the pandemic has made us even closer.

Verifying a story via the telephone or email meant that more due diligence had to be done. It meant covering all bases even more carefully to protect myself and the Observer from libel and, even more importantly, limiting exposure to the invisible enemy which many believe will be around for a while.

If it is one thing I am sure of now, though, it is that I am not numbered among the more than 15,000 reported cases of COVID-19 Jamaica has recorded and the roughly 100 million globally.

Certainly, I have learned to better protect myself, and I intend to continue to be COVID-free as I gather information, write news pieces and present the news in an honest and balanced manner to readers.


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