Embarrassment of riches?
Prime Minister Andrew Holness (right) thanks chargé d'affaires at the US Embassy in Kingston ScottFeeken for the American Government's donation of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines on their arrival at NormanManley International Airport in Kingston recently. (Photo: Karl Mclarty)

“The Government continues to act in the best interest to preserve lives and to preserve livelihoods as best as possible. We are being very cautious in reopening and, just to be clear, we are not going to shut down again,” said Prime Minister Andrew Holness in a recent statement to Parliament.

He makes eminent sense here.

Lockdowns have had a devastating impact on especially the abject poor and working poor. We just could not continue with the 'cutting off our noses to spite our faces'.

In the mentioned address, Holness also said: “The Government will ultimately have no choice but to allocate a finite set of resources to managing COVID-19-related hospitalisations, including a fixed number of beds. We cannot continue to dedicate virtually the entire capacity of the health system to dealing only with COVID-19 to the detriment of other health system users.”

I agree! For many months I have been advocating in this space for the taking of several tough decisions regarding the management of the novel coronavirus pandemic by the Holness Administration. I am happy for this start.

Wata more than flour

Given our very limited national resources I don't see where we really have much of a choice. As we say in local parlance, “wata more than flour”.

Yet, some — for reasons best known to them — refuse to recognise that Jamaica has a huge public health crisis on her hands.

Recall the reports in sections of the media some months ago that many hospitals across the island had run out of bed spaces for COVID-19 patients. Recall also the numerous reports about oxygen shortage at hospitals across the country and the pictures on social media of patients sitting on benches and lying on mattresses in the corridors of some hospitals.

The Government was pilloried for inadequate preparations relative to the predicted second wave of the surge in novel coronavirus infections. I was one of those who criticised the Administration, particularly Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton and his team. To their credit, Tufton and his team have made huge strides, as evidenced in the good management of the third wave of novel coronavirus cases in late July to September of this year.

Some who suffer with convenient amnesia will not recall that right up to about June 2021 the cry in many quarters was that we did not have enough COVID-19 vaccines. We now suffer with an embarrassment of riches in that respect, so much so that, in September, Jamaica dumped thousands of AstraZeneca vaccine phials because they had expired. At the end of October we repeated this tragedy. Tragic because thousands in countries, near and far, cannot get timely access to the life-saving vaccines. If there were ever a classic case of “waan ti waan ti cyaan get ti and get i' get i' nuh want i',” this is surely it.

Most of the COVID-19 vaccines that we have received so far are gifts from friendly countries. Here I have to give earned plaudits to Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, who has played a pivotal role in securing thousands of doses.

I am sad that we have had to be dumping gifts which we graciously accepted. It is an indictment on all of us.

That being the reality, we can no longer sit idly and pretend that we can merely carry on in the 'same ole same ole'.

Rewarding responsibility

Those who refuse to take steps to afford themselves a fighting chance against the terrors of the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19 must face the consequences of their actions or inactions.

Our health authorities say, 98 per cent of those in hospitals and afflicted with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. This should be straightforward enough, even for those who did not make it beyond basic addition and subtraction.

I agree with Holness that, “[I]t is unfair to many the Jamaicans who have been waiting to undergo surgery for other types of chronic illnesses, but had been in limbo owing to the number of bed spaces occupied by persons who contracted the virus.”

I maintain that we must quit worrying about hurting the feelings of those who are adamant that they will not take any COVID-19 vaccine, come hell or high water. Let us never confuse vaccine hesitancy and vaccine resistance. And, of course, those who cannot take the COVID-19 vaccine for medical reasons are a special case. Those who are resistant, must be allowed to resist at their own peril and not to the disadvantage of the rest of us who have done the responsible thing and got fully vaccinated.

Those who continue to say they are “waiting to see what will happen to those who take the vaccine” must not be waited on any longer. I have not heard or read of any unprecedented medical or other side effects.

Those who take their daily bread from individuals who spew religious fanaticism and superstitious claptrap, along with those who drink poisons from conspiracy theorists, must be held accountable. All of society should not be made to pay for their continued folly. There is overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that vaccines have saved millions of lives and many more millions have died in pandemics because of the absence of and/or the unavailability of vaccines.

Some among us who called themselves anti-vaxxers, aided and abetted by mongerers on social media, conveniently have stuttering episodes, voluntary amnesia, and rose-tinted memories — sometimes all at once — when they are presented with verified data which prove that vaccines work. I repeat those of us who have done the right thing to help protect ourselves and families must not be held hostage any longer.

On November 21, 2021, Bloomberg reported, among other things: “The biggest vaccination campaign in history is underway. More than 7.63 billion doses have been administered across 184 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg. The latest rate was roughly 33 million doses a day.”

This pandemic is rapidly eating away the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Jamaicans. I maintain that I don't think it is a matter of if, it is one of when Jamaica will have to walk a similar road as Caribbean Community (Caricom) member Guyana, an oil-producing country situated on South America's North Atlantic coast. Guyanese nationals wishing to enter any public buildings, including banks, restaurants, supermarkets, schools, etc, are required to show proof they have been vaccinated. This became effective Saturday, September 4, 2021. Those who refuse to be vaccinated are required to have a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test done every week.

Nationals who exercise the option not to be vaccinated will have to spend up to US$40 for a PCR test every week. They will have to keep on their person a negative result in order to enter establishments.

In Guyana 42.3 per cent of her people are fully vaccinated. Guyana has a population of just under 787,000. (United Nations, 2020)

Our population is just under 3,000,000. At the time of writing, just under 20 per cent of the population was fully vaccinated, albeit that the rate of local vaccination has increased in recent weeks. We have one of the lowest vaccination rates in the entire Caribbean region.

It is crystal clear to me that some among us — owing maybe to voluntary ignorance, advanced and sinister-type motivations, variant forms of fanaticisms, or a combination — seem hell-bent on enabling the uncontrolled spread of the novel coronavirus in our country. We must not become their hostages.

Up domestic production

On the point of hostage-taking, Jamaica is effectively being held hostage because we are importing nearly every darn thing and exporting far, far too little of our own world-class agricultural produce and other products.

Items like car batteries, water boots, and many basic farm tools that were made in Jamaica in 60s, 70s and 80s are all imported now. Recently, I had to change my car battery. While the change was being effected I asked the technician whether the particular popular brand of car battery was still being made in Jamaica. He chuckled, then said, “Jamaica, dem nuh mek dem yah ah Jamaica again, mi general.”

As I pointed out three Sundays ago, we need to make full advantage of the opportunities encased in the troubles which have come about because of the global supply chain crisis. The respected The Economist two weeks ago described the global supply chain crisis as a “global labour crisis”. I agree. Most Jamaicans are feeling the brunt of this global labour crisis at the gas pump, in the supermarkets, markets; in fact, the consequences are ubiquitous.

We should begin taking and/or rapidly advancing meticulous steps to secure at least our basic subsistence with respect to agricultural food items. All Jamaicans need to become strict localvores/lacavores — ones who eat locally grown food.

Some years ago I recommended in this space that the then minister of agriculture establish a substantial public orchard in every parish. If that idea had been implemented just imagine how it would have greatly enhanced the present thrust to have Jamaicans, once again, set up backyard gardens and support the 'Eat Jamaica, Buy Jamaica' campaign that has started and stopped more times than a car with a very bad gas pump.

Just imagine, too, how public orchards would complement the lagging school gardening programme which I believe was first started in the 1970s and relaunched numerous times since then, including during the 2016-2020 Holness Administration.

As I noted in my The Agenda column three Sundays ago, the idea of self-reliance made popular in Jamaica by former Prime Minister Michael Manley was a brilliant idea. Its execution was a disaster.

We should not discard a great idea because it was popularised by Manley's socialist Administration.

The present skyrocketing of food prices is another opportunity to re-examine where Manley and the PNP executed wrongly. Then we discard that and reconfigure the programme and tailor it to the needs of today's Jamaica, add the application of modern technology with the help of the Chinese and the Israelis, and get on with the business of being masters of our food security.

This is common sense survival.

Doubtless some bright person is going to say, you want the poor lady in Riverton City to subsidise farmers and producers in Jamaica who are not competitive globally? To those individuals I say two things. Firstly, the biggest subsidisers of agricultural production globally are the developed economies. And, two, if countries like Japan, China, Israel, and India took the attitude that some other nation needed to control their basic food subsistence they would not be where they are today.

As I pointed out some weeks ago, I am saddened that with thousands of hectares of arable lands we are importing food items such as red peas, onions, lettuce, etc. This is madness!

Last week I heard a member of the private sector advancing the view that we needed to up domestic production. Let's take heed!

Doubtless some are going to say we are doing very well in the service industries, like tourism and the business processing outsourcing (BPOs). Some will quip, “We are world leaders in sports, entertainment and some creative industries. Let us stick to those.” And a few will say, “Let us focus on existing technology start-ups and/or possibilities in what is being called the blue economy.”

I think we need to get out of the straitjacket of that binary thinking. Simultaneously, we need to recognise that no matter what industries we lead in globally, if we have to depend on others for most of our food we will forever be on our knees.

Jairam Ramesh, noted Indian economist and politician, pointed out that, “A country that cannot feed itself cannot have self-pride. And, in the mid-60s, 20 per cent of all the wheat produced in America came into India. We were agriculturally a basket case. And, 15 years later, 20 years later, we have become an agricultural power. This is the famous Green Revolution.”

It is time for us to straighten up and fly right.

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness trying to convince a Grant's Pen resident and anti-vaxxer that COVID-19 vaccines are safe. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)
Senator Kamina Johnson Smith (centre), minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, fist bumps Dra Laura Elena, executive director of Mexican International Cooperation Agency, Amexcid, after receiving 65,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines from Mexico. Dr Christopher Tufton, minister of health and wellness, looks on.(Photo: Garfield Robinson)
Nurse Kibbia Moulton Cunnigham fills out a COVID-19 vaccination card at an administering site. (Photo: Akera Davis)
Garfield Higgins

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