Beyond COVID-19, poverty must be addressed
This man sleeps on a section of the pavement in downtown Kingston Wednesday night as the curfew came into force.

As COVID-19 cases soar, the cry that indiscipline is the main source gets louder and louder.

It would be a serious mistake, though, if Jamaicans and their leaders lose sight of the socio-economic factors influencing risky behaviour.

With all due respect to the Programme of Advancement through Health and Education (PATH), the absence of a meaningful, comprehensive welfare system to support the poorest means a troublingly high percentage of Jamaicans — among them thousands newly unemployed — are at the edge of desperation.

Many of those who organise parties, in clear breach of the Disaster Risk Management Act, aren't doing so to thumb their noses at the law. It should be realised that many people feel they are left with no choice but to 'hustle' using whatever means in order to feed their families.

Likewise, the numerous over 60-year-olds who venture out every day to their places of business, farms, ad hoc jobs, etc, are very often the breadwinners in their households. They have no choice but to breach stay-at-home orders if vulnerable dependents are to eat.

And we need not be rocket scientists to know that some teenagers and younger children — previously in physical school brought to a halt by the virus and now without access to online classes — have joined those hustling to feed the household.

Which brings us to the warning from The University of the West Indies (UWI) academicians, Professor Anthony Clayton and Dr Herbert Gayle, that some children now deprived of school because of COVID-19 “...are going to end up in crime”.

Of course, poor socialisation and neglect of children in Jamaica predates COVID-19 by generations. And, as Dr Gayle has often reminded Jamaicans, such treatment of children nurtures criminality. Hence, this country's unenviable reputation for violent crime and murder.

Dr Gayle tells us that regardless of how high their intelligence quotient (IQ), children and young people from poor families will often get left behind with disastrous consequences for society.

“Poor youths get served last. Poor young women and men in a pandemic are the last persons you look at... they are always going to be the most socially vulnerable. As a violence expert, I would be concerned about the people who are left behind. The people who are always left behind are the ones who commit the most crimes,” he said.

“Any country you go to and you see... an apprenticeship and mentorship system that ensures young people have social participation, their murder rate is almost non-existent. All of those countries where especially the males are disenfranchised the murder rate is going to scare you to the grave. That is the story of Jamaica,” Dr Gayle said.

Presumably, eventual nation-wide vaccinations, buttressed by similar programmes now ongoing overseas in tourist source markets, etc, will help to bring the pandemic under control within a year or two.

But beyond COVID-19, Jamaicans and their leaders should take heed. Going forward, the society needs to come to grips with chronic impoverishment which threatens social stability at the best of times, and becomes far more dangerous in times of global crisis such as now.

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