What should a prime minister do?Thursday, March 04, 2021
In light of the spiralling rise in novel coronavirus cases on the island, and the consequent strain on our already beleaguered hospitals and medical personnel, questions have arisen regarding the Andrew Holness-led Administration's response to the unfolding crisis. Specifically, some people have been criticising what they describe as the prime minister's absence or relative silence on the pandemic. The operative question is whether the prime minister and, by extension, the Government, cares.
Those who see an opportunity to score political points are chomping at the bit to identify any concern that will put the squeeze on the Government. Those with a less political agenda are also concerned, but are willing to give the Government the breathing room that it requires to continue to address the crisis.
Let us be clear, what has been unfolding with our hospitals under siege is a frightening experience. We have never been in this position in living memory. It is a frightening situation when people get sick and they are being told that it might not be possible for them to be accommodated at a hospital. Bed space is limited and critically sick people suffering from COVID-19 have to be attended to. The health ministry has given assurance that no one will be turned away from any of the hospitals, but this is cold comfort in the context of the reality that one might not get treatment because the resources — personnel or otherwise — are just not there to render this service. And this is a real problem, notwithstanding any assurance from any Government.
What is a Government to do in situations like these? First, it must be transparent and open to the people and not try to give the impression that the situation is not as dire as it may appear. This is the Trumpian approach to crisis management. So far, the Ministry of Health has been quite open in reporting on the crisis, but there is some indication that fatigue is setting in, even at the ministry. We are now approaching a full year in fighting the virus and one can well understand that those who have been at the forefront of the fight will get a bit tired. After all, they are human beings.
What may give this sense of fatigue is the frustration that too many Jamaicans, especially in the younger age group, are not obeying the protocols or the pleadings of the Government regarding them. It is very frustrating to see people not wearing masks or openly defying the authorities by keeping parties at which many patrons do not wear masks. I understand that people will get tired after having been restricted from the things that bring them pleasure; from the freedom to interact with others as they wish to; being told by any Government that their freedoms have to be restricted. Many worked well with the Government when the pandemic just broke on the scene, whether out of fear or wanting to do the responsible thing as citizens. But this no longer seems to be the case at a time when such cooperation is most needed. The virus never tires and will continue to do what it has done over these months if we openly allow it.
In this context, what must a prime minister do? With all the goodwill in the world, governments are limited in the options they can adopt to fight this peculiar crisis. The Holness Administration has announced a raft of measures to arrest the present surge, but these will only work if people are prepared to comply to make this happen.
I believe that the ban on funerals must be revisited. People must be buried, and prolonging such burial will cause hardship on families. Not to mention the prolonged grief as long as the deceased remains outside of the grave. There is nothing to prevent a body being moved from the funeral home to the grave, where a pastor or minister that understands his work can give a dignified and spiritual “send-off” to the deceased while comforting the family. There can be a subsequent memorial service at which family members, especially those overseas, who could not attend can now participate. We are in a crisis, where conventions of the past are no longer applicable.
Quite apart from locking down the country there are not many options open to a Government other than appealing to people to continue to observe the protocols that have worked in the past to contain the spread of the virus. If the surge continues, and the hospitals become completely overwhelmed, more drastic measures than we have seen to date may have to be adopted. If this should happen you will hear a new set of wailing and bawling about the wickedness of the Government.
No self-respecting Government wants to legislate behaviour in situations that are so obvious in terms of how people should behave. There must be a point at which personal responsibility towards one's self, family, and neighbour must be the watchword.
No prime minister, however well-intentioned, can save people from themselves. So, instead of criticising the prime minister for being absent, we should spend some time urging our fellow citizens to be responsible.
While we are grateful to the Indian Government for its gift of vaccines, we must do our part in containing the virus. Vaccines are being sourced. One can be sure that there are activities that are taking place behind the scenes which are not obvious to most of us.
Should the Government be talking more to the people about these efforts? Definitely. This would let people know that silence does not mean lack of care or concern for their well-being. It must be understood, however, the challenges that poor countries face in purchasing vaccines, given the grievous matter of vaccine nationalism, wherein the richer countries are able to hog available supplies.
Politicians face a peculiar dilemma. Political posturing during political campaigns lead people to expect that those who they put in public offices can and should deliver on the promises they proffer, and politicians are known to promise more than they can actually deliver. So, when they appear to be failing at this task, people will haul them over the coals. This is precisely what is happening to Prime Minister Holness and his Government at this time. But we all have to be realistic. Part of this realism is to examine one's own contribution to the persistence of the problem that we criticise the Government of taking a vacation from. We must examine any criticism against the template of our own intransigence in doing the basic things that can keep us all safe.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the book WEEP: Why President Donald J. Trump Does Not Deserve A Second Term . Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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