Sowing seeds of suspicion in a miasma of distrustSunday, February 28, 2021
In his seminal work The Prince , Niccolò Machiavelli, Italian renaissance political philosopher, posited that a political leader should always have a deputy to do the dirty work. In 1532, when Machiavelli published that political prescription, formal schooling was the preserve of a privilege class, and Europe was dominated by monarchical rulers. Today, we live in a totally different world. There is nearly universal global access to formal schooling, democracy has dethroned most political systems which were riveted in the undivided rule of a single person, and the pervasiveness of the Internet — plus numerous other forms of modern electronic communication tools — have redefined the responsibilities and obligations of those with whom the political buck stops.
Nonetheless, it is very tempting for some people, particularly many in political leadership, to keep clutching Machiavelli's matrix. It is the human thing to do, but clearly not the most politically prudent in these times.
This Andrew Holness-led Administration needs to grasp this reality. Unlike Machiavelli, I believe political leaders must step out front when there is a national crisis.
These are especially lean times. Folks are fetching hell with mounting financial and related responsibilities/obligations, while our resources are diminishing. Bills, unlike most of us, are not fatigued by the merciless assault of the coronavirus pandemic. So, understandably, there was an immediate backlash, particularly on social media, when in early February some traditional media reported that approximately $422 million had been budgeted for a marketing campaign to be spearheaded by a company on behalf of the Ministry of Health and Wellness to reduce vaccine resistance on the island.
Predictably, public outrage quickly turned into a simmering cauldron. It was allowed to boil for nearly two weeks before Dunstan Bryan, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, emerged from his bunker on February 16, 2021 to tell us that a mighty misinterpretation by the media had happened.
Bryan's bunker must be a very comfortable place. Is that the reason, he did not emerge sooner to douse the flames? Or is it that he was forced because the blaze was threatening to become an inferno? For how much longer are we going to carry on public business in this uncertain manner?
Straight away someone is going to introduce a red herring, namely that my comment here constitutes an attack on a public servant. There can be no sacred cows where public accountability is concerned. Some among us need to understand that a permanent secretary is protected by law. The permanent secretary's role rests in the fact that he/she is the chief policy advisor to the relevant portfolio minister, a role defined in the Constitution of Jamaica (Sections 93(1), 93(2), and 126). The permanent secretary is also the chief accounting/accountable officer.
In an interview on Nationwide News Network, Bryan revealed that $22 million of the reportedly budgeted $422 million was earmarked for contracting a marketing firm. Bryan also informed that $200 million had been budgeted for the paying of workers, such as nurses — this as part of the overall COVID-19 Vaccination Programme. He told us that the remaining sum was designated to address infrastructure and related matters.
Again, this information came two weeks after sustained public pillorying. In today's fast-paced media environment this is not helpful, and, in fact, such delay creates suspicion and fertilises seeds of distrust in the minds of taxpayers.
Last Monday, Dr Christopher Tufton, minister of health and wellness, dismissed as incorrect news reports that $422 million had been allocated by the Government for a marketing and public education programme relates to COVID-19 vaccines. Why did Tufton wait nearly three weeks to begin to extinguish a fire that was visible to all — except those who suffer with political cataract in both eyes?
A mere five months into its new term, the Andrew Holness-led Administration is already depleting its political capital by, among other things, sowing seeds of suspicion. This in a political environment which is already polluted with the miasma of distrust.
Number 20 Belmont Road needs to remember not to forget that political popularity is a greasy pole.
'Tufton defends $422-m vaccine marketing budget' ( The Gleaner, February 12, 2020). The news item said, among other things: “Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has defended the signing of the $422-million emergency vaccine communication contract, even before eyebrows are raised about the massive budget. The one-year contract, which has been awarded to One Integrated Group, will see the company earning $22 million, with the balance going towards advertising spend, such as radio, television and newspaper advertisements, as well as on-the-ground activation and deployment in various communities, plus the development of content and securing talent.”
The double narratives that have come from the Holness Administration on this $422-m vaccine marketing budget kerfuffle are unnecessary political fog. I think the Administration should have simply admitted that it bungled, then apologise. Thereafter, it would be able to set out a clear and decisive path for the way forward.
Trust is indispensable
Lee Kuan Yew, in his book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965 – 2000, notes that he and pioneer leaders earned Singaporeans' trust the hard way — by trusting them with the hard truths and leading from the front.
That is still one of the crucial pillars of the “Garden City” — 56 years after Singapore separated from Malaysia to become an independent and sovereign state. In a recent address at a conference, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat made this important remark: “The best way for the current and next generation of leaders to earn the trust of Singaporeans is to trust them with the truth; no matter how unpopular.”
Previously, I said in this space that we can learn many things from Singapore. I stand by that.
Note, I did not say, ape what Singapore has done and how it has done it. Undoubtedly, rock solid trust between Singapore's leaders and her people played a crucial role in the meteoric rise of that nation. For those who wish to learn, the lessons are available.
If Jamaicans cannot trust their Government then all the sounding off about “Jamaica, the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business” by 2030 is but a pipe dream.
When is a breach a breach? And when is a vulnerability a vulnerability? A good portion of last week was spent debating whose definition was correct. Quite frankly, I don't think the average citizen cares two hoots about which expert is most au fait with the technology lexicon.
Folks are seeing the Jamcovid-19 website breach/vulnerability as a 'tek sleep and mark death' omen. The website trip will have serious negative implications for buy-in of the national identification system (NIDS). Only those who live in la la land do not realise the obvious.
Those who continue to raise all kinds of phony red flags about NIDS have been given credible fodder to binge. Their penchant to titivate themselves with weird fixations and debilitating conspiracies will increase.
It must concern all well-thinking citizens that there has not been a rejection and rubbishing of a news item entitled 'US journalist disputes date the Government discovered Jamcovid-19 website data breach', that was aired on Radio Jamaica on Thursday, February 18.
It noted, among other things: “Information is emerging that the Government of Jamaica was notified of the data breach on its Jamcovid-19 website before the date stated in a media release on Wednesday.
“The TechCrunch reporter who worked on the story says the exposed data was discovered during an investigation into COVID-19 apps.
“He says the publication reached out to the Ministry of Health and Wellness on Saturday, February 13 and got a response from spokesperson Stephen Davidson asking for more information.
“He says details of the exposed server were sent that evening and Davidson did not respond.
“ TechCrunch then reached out to Amber Group's CEO Dushyant Savadia two days later and a short time after the exposed data was secured.
“About an hour after the story went out Jamaica's Ministry of National Security issued a statement the security lapse was discovered on February 16.
“The TechCrunch reporter says that date is untrue as the health ministry knew about it days earlier.”
As local people say, 'If it nuh guh suh, it nearly guh suh.' This cultural appurtenance did not disappear when Internet service was commissioned here, or when Jamaica confirmed its first case of the novel coronavirus on March 10, 2020.
I think the Administration needs to guard against the damning pitfalls of real and/or perceived mendacity. We all know that in times of tremendous adversity the truth is often the first casualty. The Administration's actions “must be above suspicion”, like Caesar's wife.
Is all, part, or none of the Radio Jamaica news item factual? The country should be told.
Silence is not always golden. In fact, silence will only multiply seeds of distrust and an existing view that the Government does not have the capacity to protect the personal data of our people or, worse, that some rotten agenda is being hatched by the Government in concert with external forces.
Recall that on March 8, 2020 I wrote in my The Agenda column: “I believe the effectiveness, or lack thereof, with which this Andrew Holness-led Administration manages the inevitable arrival of COVID-19 on our shores will weigh heavily on the outcome of the upcoming general election. If the Administration does a poor job, that could well turn out to be the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) Achilles heel for which the People's National Party (PNP) desperately searches.”
The Government did a very good job, and for that and other good reasons which I discussed previously the JLP was rewarded handsomely with a 49-14 trouncing of the PNP. But that was then.
Today the shine from the Administration's management of COVID-19 is rapidly disappearing. And other troubles are swelling like a river in spate.
With just 55 days gone in the year 225 Jamaicans have been murdered, this according to statistics compiled by the police. The Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) told us last week that the economy “contracted by 9.4 per cent in the September to December quarter” ( Jamaica Observer, February 24, 2021).
History has shown us that in social, economic, political, health, and related crises great leaders step to the front and take the hard shots and make it obvious that they steer the ship and conduct activities like an orchestra conductor.
Recall US President Franklin D Roosevelt and his famous fireside chats? This was a series of evening radio addresses on the state of the nation between 1933 and 1944. President Barack Obama, specifically and prolifically, used web-based media to constantly update the American people on the steps which were being taken to improve their lives and livelihoods during the 2008/9 financial meltdown. I think it is time Prime Minister Andrew Holness steps out in front and begins to direct the management of the country's coronavirus vaccine effort. Things look way out of kilter right now.
If the vaccination programme continues to stumble, “build back stronger” is dead in the water.
One of my readers sent me this story 'Political ombudsman steps up campaign for more power' and has asked me to comment. This was the headline for a news item published in this newspaper on February 5, 2021. Well, I have heard this tune from Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment Brown before and I was not convinced to join with her in song.
If my memory serves me right, the previous Political Ombudsman Bishop Herro Blair also campaigned for the office to have increased powers. I did sing along either.
As I see it, the functions of the political ombudsman are embodied in the electoral process, which is overseen by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ). I am not convinced that the expenditure of the Office of the Political Ombudsman is justified and it should be abolished in short order.
Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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