Sound reasoning not visible in recent restrictionsSunday, March 07, 2021
ON various occasions in this medium I have expressed the view that, as a nation, we have not fostered a culture for dialogue on issues of nation import. Instead, we have tended to opt for taking fixed positions and looking at those who have opposing views as enemies, while those genuinely searching for answers or for understanding the issues find it hard to locate the kind of forum to which to look for meaningful dialogue. The current situation with regard to the appropriate steps to take in tackling the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought the issue to the fore once more.
The recently announced changes to the regulations under the Disaster Risk Management Act have raised issues and questions which require further national dialogue. For those who seek to monitor the daily statistics as they relate to the rate of infections, the daily upward movement in the statistics has caused some to be gripped with a sense of concern, maybe even alarm, and wondering when would some action be taken to cauterise the movement. On the global stage, the rate our infections has reached in recent days would have been a source of alarm and would nullify the accolades which our nation received for the initial handling of the outbreak of the virus.
More troubling is the concern that our failure to act in decisive ways and the prolongation of the high rate of infection, and in a context in which we have not yet started a programme of vaccination, opens the option for the entry and spread of variants which would complicate the situation. While we may have arrested the first entry of the English variant, we must bear in mind the fact that none of the recent variants have been nurtured or cultured by the nations in which they have come to light, and therefore we could see a variant form appear in our nation.
Like those Jamaicans who have taken the matter seriously, as I drive around the country I pay attention to how the protocols are being observed. In recent weeks I have travelled through Trelawny, through the towns of Santa Cruz and Old Harbour, and the many communities along the way, and I see the absence of masks, disregard for social distancing on the streets and in public transportation, and have heard the stories of people berated in public places of business because they brought to the attention of the staff or customers that they should be wearing a mask.
As the leader of a religious community, I have issued instructions concerning the conduct of services and the observance of protocols to all clergy and congregations, have paid attention to this every place I visit, and have used every opportunity to speak to congregations regarding the observance of the protocols in their daily lives. I am also aware of the fact that the Ministry of Health and Wellness has had representatives visit several of our congregations which have not been cited for breaches of the protocols.
As it relates to funerals, I must confess that I have been brought up in the old school, as well as being fully aware that I am ageing, and so I read the death columns every Sunday. There I see the many funerals announced without any mention of protocols. I pay attention to the announcements and observe those that make reference to the observance of the protocols with clarity, as well as those who appear to offer an open invitation to all and sundry to attend funeral-related occasions. I have also been involved in several funerals and memorial services and have seen the way in which several funeral homes pay attention to the protocols and work along with the families and the clergy to this end. I am also aware that, in the context of a largely unregulated funeral industry, there are others who pay scant regard to protocols and should be brought to account for breaches, inasmuch as the clergy and the family members who flaunt the law should also be held to account. I am also aware of the gatherings associated with funerals and know of the ways in which these have been breached as these have deep cultural roots which are difficult to suppress or regulate.
Now that the rate of infection has reached unacceptable limits action has been taken, as announced by Prime Minister Andrew Holness. At the centre of the new measures is the closure of churches to public worship, with provision only for online delivery of worship services; schools to confine their educational reach to online teaching, though to an extent lacking in clarity; those over 60 years of age are to stay at home with limited opportunity for entry into the public space; while those in the workforce who can work from home should be allowed to do so; there are to be no funerals for a period of two weeks; and weddings are to be allowed with up to 25 individuals present.
One of the issues surrounding the pandemic, globally and locally, is misinformation and distortions facilitated by international politics, social media, and sheer ignorance. In this context it is important that there be accurate data and correct information to keep a right perspective on the engagement of the pandemic. As a representative of the religious community I am concerned that, given the priority of place given to churches in this decision on stricter regulations, our community and the nation have not been provided with data to support the notion that churches constitute “hot spots” for infection, as well as our schools, and are primary sources of the soaring rate of infection. In fact, it is made more difficult to grasp when the churches are, at the same time, being affirmed for the general observance of the protocols – which leads one to ask if there are any in violation, why have they not been sanctioned, rather than have all others closed? Indeed, it was only a few days ago that the St Ann police demonstrated what should be done with recalcitrant clergy and congregations.
It becomes somewhat troubling when the Government has to take decisions regarding the religious life and expression of its people, and one must tread carefully as it touches the heart of what gives people's lives meaning on a daily basis. Religious expression takes diverse forms, even among Christians. A church which has a central act of worship of a sacramental nature is not one that is just transposed to online delivery as would be one that is primarily centred on preaching. Additionally, the concession to online services does not give acknowledgement to the fact that the vast majority of congregations are not in a position to offer such facilities — neither is the membership possessing the competence nor the technology for reception — as in the case with our children and online schooling.
On a matter of such importance to the churches there has to be consultation that is broad-based and representative of the entire Christian community. To that extent, I have not been party to the consultations regarding the steps taken to arrest the situation, and have only been accessing second-hand information and clarification. At the time of writing I received feedback from one of the clergy who had interaction with the prime minister and who reports that the decision to close churches was based on the fact that over 70 per cent of individuals who “move about” attend (or are connected to) church, and thus the ideal way to address the spread of the novel coronavirus is to restrict movement among churchgoers. I leave you to be the judge, even as I wonder what would be in store for us next if it is established that 90 per cent of the population goes to the supermarket or to the shop.
No less challenging, to my mind, in terms of logic is the decision to allow weddings of up to 25 people, many of which still take place in church, while at the same time preventing that number and less from gathering for worship.
The messaging regarding the status of schools during the pandemic has been most confusing. It appears that Education Minister Fayval Williams has been bombarded by various interest groups and institutions who want to see changes to every position that is taken. As one who has oversight of approximately 200 educational institutions in this nation, ranging from early childhood to tertiary levels, the position espoused on the closure of schools is a matter of concern. The data which has been circulated globally is that schools are not hot spots for the spreading of infection of the coronavirus when protocols are observed. It is true that there have been occasions when a child may test positive and which should be handled with contact tracing. It should not be necessary for a school to close each time a positive diagnosis is made. The nation has not been provided with the evidence of a rate of infection in schools which warrants taking schooling to online platform as the sole mode of delivery for most students.
As a nation, we must be very concerned about the loss of a year's education for a significant number of our children. It should be a worrying thought to learn of the number of children who teachers will tell you they have not had any contact with since the beginning of the pandemic. We can always augment the process with online teaching, but we do not have an adequate supply of tablets for our population so that each child, especially in households with multiple children, can have access to ongoing education online.
There is no magic to online education, and not all students adapt and learn well through this medium. My wife, who has taught chemistry for 11 years, is currently involved in doing voluntary extra lessons with several students preparing for Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations who are attending leading high schools, and has discovered that they are not understanding much of what is taught online, are left to pursue things on their own — much of which they do not understand — have not completed fundamentals for preparation for the exam, and will not be anywhere near completing the syllabus in time for examination.
As an antidote to the current high rate of infection with the coronavirus which the nation is experiencing, it is not clear how the closure of churches as well as the position taken in relation to schools can make a significant difference in the absence of data to this effect. On November 6, 2020 I participated in a meeting between representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the archbishops of the Anglican Communion. In that meeting Dr Sylvie Briand, one of the WHO representatives, sought collaboration with the religious community in partnering with them to promote resilience while correcting misinformation and engaging in assisting in the empowering of communities in working towards ending the pandemic. She made the point that, as the scientific community, they do the research and they work at developing vaccines, but it is community mobilisation that ends a pandemic. They were soliciting our support in being credible voices that can inform, as well as correct the misinformation that is being circulated, about the virus and the vaccines. In that light, the recent actions taken in relation to churches and the seeming lack of meaningful consultation send a different message to the Church and the Jamaican public from our local authorities.
We know that the economy and the effect of any lockdown have been foremost in deliberations, and that the commercial sector has been a major driver in the decisions taken in relation to the pandemic, but admit that we are unaware of any economy which has had to go that route for a specific period of time, where deemed necessary, that is not impacted negatively by a lockdown.
A lockdown, if it becomes necessary, is never a joyride, but an initiative which is intended to contain the rate of infection, prevent the overwhelming of the health services as we are currently experiencing, and accelerate an early return to a measure of normality. In our case, we must wonder if the infection rate remains as it is, whether the strategy being pursued, while keeping the economy limping along, may not only be a route to delaying further the return to a level of normality in the economy with, for example, the return of tourists to our shores. That which sustains a people in a pandemic is not just the economic indicators, which is probably the message some voices beyond the commercial interests, such as the sporting institutions and the performing arts, may be citing also. We must take whatever step is necessary to bring an early return to some level of normality.
Those who travel through Cross Roads in the Corporate Area will be aware of the lack of observance of the protocols at the tax office, even as we are aware of the complaints and abuse of individuals in places of public business when matters of compliance to distancing and mask-wearing are raised. In a recent conversation I enquired as to how the Government intends to deal with the situation at the tax office in Cross Roads and got the very cynical response that nothing will be done as the Government stands in need of money flowing into its coffers.
While we may not all agree on the recently announced steps by the prime minister, we are all in this pandemic together and want to take the most expeditious route towards containing this virus as we yearn for the day when we can have the targeted level of the population vaccinated. In the meantime, the Government must set the example at the facilities which are designed to serve the public, and be prepared to exercise discipline and apply sanctions where there are violations, because identifying easy targets will not address our national interests.
Howard Gregory is Anglican bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands as well as archbishop of the Province of the West Indies, primate and metropolitan.
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