COVID-19: Heroes, challenges and lessons

COVID-19: Heroes, challenges and lessons

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, April 05, 2020

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A villager who wants to eat bread should send bush meat to the city. — Ovambo proverb, Namibia

Our nurses, doctors, radiographers, epidemiologists, social workers, porters, laboratory technicians, ambulance drivers, indeed all categories of health workers who are on the front line working tirelessly to safeguard all of us, are heroes. So, too, are the members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), correctional officers, and all other essential staff. Jamaica owes you all a great debt of gratitude for your selflessness. We need to thank them with more than just words, though.

I believe as soon as we have been able to get a handle on the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis our country needs to begin to examine, and then gradually implement practical ways to reward our essential service workers with improved pay and conditions of work. Every well-thinking Jamaican will have to give full practical support to our essential services workers if we are to defeat COVID-19.

I was overcome with sadness when I heard last week that one of our health workers had tested positive for COVID-19. I felt a terrible pang to the pit of my stomach when I saw this headline: 'Several Percy Junor nurses in quarantine after exposure to COVID-19 patient' ( The Gleaner, March 30, 2020)

Given that it is not fully understood how the coronavirus is transmitted, it must be an emotionally draining exercise for a health worker to be confronted daily with the reality that there is always a real chance that he/she can be infected with this deadly virus, irrespective of the cutting-edge quality of personal protective equipment (PPE).

And please don't tell me nonsense about that is what they signed up for. That is hogwash!

CNN reported last Thursday that 69 doctors had succumbed to COVID-19 in Italy. They made the ultimate sacrifice to save others.

Among other things, we must abide by social distancing rules, hygiene regimen, quarantine and related lockdown orders. We have to be our brother's keeper in every way possible.

Each one help one

“No man is an island entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less,

As well as if a promontory were,

As well as any manor of thy friend's,

Or of thine own were.”

These mighty words by English metaphysical poet John Donne in his seminal poem No man is an island summarises for me one of the most critical reminders/lessons of this COVID-19 pandemic. Cooperation is key to our collective survival.

Recall that during one of the most recent outbreaks of Ebola in some countries in Africa, then president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, nicknamed the Iron Lady of Liberia, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2011 and the Indira Gandhi Prize in 2012, told the world that a global spread of the dreaded disease would only be prevented if, “Every person, in every nation, did their part to help affected countries in Africa.”

Sirleaf, along with many other African leaders, plus regional and international bodies, tirelessly lobbied for additional resources to halt the Ebola outbreak. Their collective efforts resulted in the securing of additional critical resources that helped to eventually tame Ebola.

A recognition of our common humanity is an unstoppable force. It is perhaps the best antidote to unenlightened self-interest — a persistent scourge on human society.

History is replete with lessons which show that, especially in times of great trials and tribulation, cooperation among humankind is absolutely necessary to advance the common objective of preservation of the species. Last Tuesday, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported that Germany accepted 50 of Italy's most critical patients in a show of European solidarity.

According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Germany has a remarkably low coronavirus death rate, primarily because of a culture of citizen cooperation, a very efficient health care system, and mass testing. Jamaica needs to ramp up testing. We must stick to the science all the time.

Thousands of recently retired nurses, doctors, and other health workers from all over the United Kingdom are responding positively to the SOS of their National Health Service (NHS).

Russia has sent scientists and health professionals to help Italy collar COVID-19.

Members of the European Union have increased cooperation with respect to research.

Cuba recently sent 52 doctors to Italy to help her defeat COVID-19.

Nearer home, Cuba is providing critical assistance to Jamaica by sending some 140 Cuban medical professionals. The news item said, among other things: “ 'Thank you Cuba for your quick response to our request for support against COVID-19! Thanks to the local health team who coordinated to get this mission here in just over a month,' Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton tweeted earlier.” ( Jamaica Observer, March 21, 2020)

The Andrew Holness-led Administration has made a very good decision to secure Cuba's help. Cuba is also lending urgent medical assistance to Venezuela, Suriname, Grenada, and Nicaragua. Havana has a long tradition of deploying health care workers to countries affected by diseases and other health challenges. Cooperation among all peoples is required to halt COVID-19. That is obvious.

There are also less pleasant lessons, though.

Tough lessons

Consider this: 'Countries starting to hoard food, threatening global trade'. The story said, inter alia: “It's not just grocery shoppers who are hoarding pantry staples. Some governments are moving to secure domestic food supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Kazakhstan, one of the world's biggest shippers of wheat flour, banned exports of that product along with others, including carrots, sugar, and potatoes. Vietnam temporarily suspended new rice export contracts. Serbia has stopped the flow of its sunflower oil and other goods, while Russia is leaving the door open to shipment bans and said it's assessing the situation weekly.

“To be perfectly clear, there have been just a handful of moves and no sure signs that much more is on the horizon. Still, what's been happening has raised a question: Is this the start of a wave of food nationalism that will further disrupt supply chains and trade flows?” ( Bloomberg.com, March 24, 2020)

COVID-19 has caused massive disruptions in the global supply chain. We need to take careful note of this reality. The home-grown supply chain must be a priority for the country. Additional steps are needed to expand and further safeguard local food security.

We should at least be growing most of our own food. Jamaica's major imports include food and other consumer goods, industrial supplies, fuel, parts and accessories of capital goods, construction materials, machinery, and transport equipment. Our major exports include alumina, bauxite, sugar, rum, coffee, yams, beverages, and wearing apparel. It is not a secret that we import massively more than we export.

This reality leaves us in a very vulnerable and precarious position. In our region, Jamaica is not singular in this unfortunate respect. Last Tuesday, Forbes magazine published a very informative article entitled 'Five ways that COVID-19 has changed what food insecurity looks like in the Caribbean'. The piece noted, inter alia: “Caribbean countries are familiar with the risk that comes with a lack of food sovereignty. It has long been the case that between 80 and 90 per cent of all food consumed in the region (in the amount of about $6 billion according to the latest numbers) originates from foreign countries, creating greater uncertainty between the months of June to November when there is an elevated risk of hurricanes.” ( Forbes, March 31, 2020)

This is a frightening reality which must concern all in this region.

Here in Jamaica, information in the public domain says there are no shortages of critical goods at this time. In the immediate term, this is reassuring, but we must prepare for worst-case scenarios.

We must heed the advice of rural folks who warn us to “tek sleep and mark death”. No country relies on herself for all goods and services which it needs, but common sense tells us that when the import versus export equation is severely lopsided we are in trouble.

Jamaica needs to become the workshop of the Caribbean and Latin America. We must learn some crucial lessons from the current supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19. We need to rekindle the vision of Jamaica's foremost industrialist and statesman, the late Robert Lightbourne. He served as the minister of industry and trade while Hugh Shearer was prime minister.

Recently I heard a news item on the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) which noted that, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a further escalation in the trade war between China and America was imminent. According to ABC, China, in retaliation for US President Donald Trump's pronouncements that the coronavirus comes from China, has said it has information that the virus comes from the southern part of the United States and is threatening to withhold vital supplies of medicine and equipment which America needs to fight the pandemic.

Check this: “Chinese pharmaceutical companies have supplied more than 90 per cent of US antibiotics, vitamin C, ibuprofen, and hydrocortisone, as well as 70 per cent of acetaminophen, and 40 to 45 per cent of heparin in recent years, according to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. ( New York Times, March 11, 2020)

I read an interesting article in Politico entitled 'US policymakers worry about China 'weaponising' drug exports', which noted, among other things: “In a rare high-profile public comment, one former central bank adviser suggested that China could curb its exports of antibiotics to the United States as a trade war retaliation tool.

“ 'We are at the mercy of others when it comes to computer chips, but we are the world's largest exporter of raw materials for vitamins and antibiotics,' Li Daokui, a professor of economics at Tsinghua University, said in March 2019 while speaking at the National People's Conference.” ( Politico, December 20, 2019)

The Kikuyu people, in Kenya, maintain, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

Purveyors of misery

At the time of writing this article, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the United States was reporting 951,901 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 48,284 deaths, across 180 countries. The BBC reported last Thursday that just under 203,000 people had recovered. COVID-19 has left a trail of misery across the globe. At present, these countries have the most horrific battle scars: US, 216,722; Italy, 110,574; Spain, 110,238; China, 82,431; Germany, 77,981; France, 57,780; Iran, 50,468; and United Kingdom, 29,872.

One expert said on the BBC last Sunday that the COVID-19 pandemic might well cause as many as four million deaths globally.

In the midst of local, regional, and international adversity, benighted and depraved busybodies are fixated on how they can trigger national panic and hardships through the spread of misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19. These people are drunk on implacable self-promotion. Fortunately, technologies are available which can pinpoint who these culprits are. We need to ramp up our technological capabilities. Other countries are cracking down hard on those who spread fake news.

Here are some examples:

• Infractions in countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, among others, can lead to jail sentences and hefty fines. If you are found guilty, the prison terms range from a minimum of 3-5 years, and in the United Arab Emirates up to life imprisonment.

• France passed two anti-fake news laws last year to rein in false information during election campaigns following allegations of Russian meddling in the 2017 presidential vote.

• Germany passed a law last year for social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, to quickly remove hate speech.

• Chile, in February 2019, the Chilean Senate introduced a Bill that would punish politicians nationwide for “the dissemination, promotion or financing of false news”.

• India citizens can be jailed in the state of West Bengal for posting misinformation if it causes fear or alarm in the public. West Bengal has just over 98 million inhabitants.

I think we need to massively tighten the legal screws on the creators, purveyors of fake news and especially those who fund the two here in Jamaica.


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