The scary coverage of a general election during a pandemic
Prime Minister Andrew Holness after he voted on September 3. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

This is the first in a series by our reporters on how they covered the news during the coronavirus pandemic. 

If anyone ever told me that I would cover a general election with no mass meeting in Half-Way-Tree or at Bustamante statue in downtown Kingston, no half-naked women gyrating to the music while not hearing a word being said on the stage, and men not walking around with green plants shouting “hi grade” in front of the police, I would have told them they were mad.

Just over one year earlier I had covered a party's internal leadership election, which included a massive meeting at the Manchester High School, and I fully expected similar meetings for the next general election which I had confidently told my colleague would be held in 2020.

But then came the coronavirus pandemic and suddenly covering a general election was like no other I had done before.

My first general election as a reporter was in 1989 while at the Jamaica Record and with it a baptism of fire, a week-long trip around the island with the Edward Seaga-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) as the two major political parties embarked on what were dubbed “peace tours”.

After leaving Tivoli Gardens, west Kingston, on the first day an early sign of trouble came in the vicinity of Poor Man's Corner, St Thomas, where a group of People's National Party (PNP) supporters blocked the road.

I saw Pearnel Charles Sr and the late former Prime Minister Hugh Shearer quickly exit their vehicles and advance towards the PNP supporters, all smiles. Before long they were dancing with the Comrades, the road was cleared, and we were back on our way.

I reported that the next morning, only to be summoned to breakfast by Seaga who declared that I did not understand politics as he was the one who had instructed Charles and Shearer as to what to do to defuse the situation, and chided me for not giving the credit where it was due.

Seaga also taught me a valuable lesson that morning as I had reported that hundreds of people were in Tivoli to see off the motorcade. In a most caustic tone Seaga told me that it was thousands of people who were there to see off the motorcade, and questioned my ability to count.

I have never again attempted to estimate the size of the crowd at any political event.

I was out of the media for the 1993 general election but returned to cover every general election, six, since then.

But with Jamaica recording its first case of COVID-19 in March, the 2020 general election was announced in Parliament by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, something I had never seen before.

Like Holness I had pulled out and cleaned my election shoes, a plain leather thing designed to brave any weather conditions and not in any way as fancy, or expensive, as his green Desert Clarks.

I had also made provisions to follow the JLP around the island for all of its major meetings, and told my family that on many days I would just sleep at the Beechwood Avenue headquarters of the Jamaica Observer rather than go home only to head to another rural community the following day.

In addition, I had dusted off my personal safety manual, having seen my colleague Durrant Pate “stabbed” while covering an election. I also witnessed armed men laughing as they pointed their guns at me and warned about what would happen to journalists if their party lost.

Then came the ban on mass meetings, which was among several COVID-19 protocols implemented to prevent the spread of the virus during the campaign.

Suddenly, I was heading to many political events with my mask, gloves and bottles of sanitisers. I found myself trying to stretch to avoid getting too close to anyone I was interviewing.

Among those I interviewed was the PNP's candidate for St Andrew South Eastern, who days later tested positive for COVID-19. Talk about fret! I quickly rushed to photographer extraordinaire Joseph Wellington to confirm that we all had on our masks during the interview, that we had observed social distancing and that he was not feeling any symptoms. I chuckled as I told him I knew I was safe because I had a drink of white rum immediately after the interview

That was not the only scare. While for the most part I avoided the crowds, there was no escaping the horde on Nomination Day. The Comrades and the Labourites simply refused to follow the rules.

I found myself in the middle of massive crowds as I waited to capture the nomination of Holness and the PNP's Patrick Roberts in St Andrew West Central and had to run from former neighbours who were adamant that I should stop for a drink while they partied.

Even media colleagues were found wanting as the scrum following the nomination of Holness saw me just handing over my recorder to a colleague and avoiding them.

Election Day was just as scary, a massive street dance on Olympic Way, with masks almost non-existent and journalists ignoring the protocols as we struggled to get a reaction to the PNP's defeat from its then vice-president Philip Paulwell at the party's Old Hope Road headquarters.

Then there was the victory speech by Holness, and the scary coverage of a general election during a pandemic was finally over.

There was another PNP presidential race to follow shortly after, with Mark Golding emerging the winner, but covering that under COVID will have to stay until another time.

Mark Golding addressing supporters after hewas elected the new president of the People'sNational Party. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
A PNP supporter and a JLP supporter enjoy the vibes during animpromptu street dance in St Andrew West Central on election day.(Photo: Joseph Wellington)
BY ARTHUR HALL Editor-at-Large

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