Two-mouthed games on one side...bungling on the nextSunday, October 10, 2021
Political flip-flopping, it seems, has become the modus operandi in the Mark Golding-led People's National Party (PNP). The chasm, for example, between the positions espoused on the novel coronavirus pandemic by the Opposition spokesperson on health Dr Morais Guy and that of Golding, the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, is conspicuous.
Flip-flopping on crucial national issues is never a good sign of a Government-in-waiting. It says to the electorate that the Opposition has not found its marbles. Flip-flopping is also more than a hint of deep divisions within the Opposition's ranks.
In Western liberal democracies, the Opposition — at a minimum — has to impress the electorate that it is ready to take the reins of leading and administering the country's affairs. To do so, among other things, it must demonstrate cohesiveness in its pronouncement on policy. In doing so, it needs to present a bankable set of strategies, not mere holding patterns. Its strategies must address the pressing matters of citizens. An Opposition, which speaks out of both sides of its mouth effectively sounds its own death knell.
Recall that in February 2021 Opposition Leader Mark Golding's response to the presentation of Prime Minister Andrew Holness in Parliament emitted evidence of an obvious and profound difference between Golding's prescriptions for dealing with the then surge in novel coronavirus cases and that of his Opposition spokesperson on health and wellness Dr Morais Guy. Many Jamaicans were left wondering whether Golding and his health spokesperson were on the same page, let alone in the same book.
In June, Golding came out in support of Prime Minister Holness's decision to reopen the entertainment and creative sectors. Among other things, Golding said this in Parliament on June 22, 2021: “Thank you for your presentation. I think that many people will be relieved to see and hear some easing of some of the restrictions under which all of us have been living for a very long time now. The adjustment of the curfew hours — I think it's effective July 1 — I know many people will feel that it's overdue, but it's very welcome.
“I want to say how much I appreciate the gestures that are being made towards the entertainment sector, which has been really very, very hard hit by this pandemic. Many of them, the practitioners, people who depend on entertainment, and you alluded to some of the different industries, subsectors that depend on it, from the fashion industry right round to security and so many other things, food and beverage. The idea of giving them a break with the 50 per cent discount on some of the statutory fees that are payable in applying for events. Minister [Desmond] McKenzie, I think you have a role in that, and I think that is a very good thing.”
In the face of the mentioned endorsement by Golding, sections of the media reported on July 21, 2021, that Dr Guy had warned of a spike in novel coronavirus cases following the reopening of the entertainment sector as evidenced in this headline, for example: 'Opposition spokesman on health predicts spike in COVID-19 cases following reopening of entertainment sector' ( Nationwide News Network, July 21, 2021. The news item noted these and other details: “Opposition spokesman on health Dr Morais Guy says reopening the entertainment sector and other activities that require mass gathering will cause a spike in COVID-19 cases.”
Golding and Dr Guy are like ships going in opposite directions. I hope their divergent positions on this critical national issue of the pandemic is not at all related to the fact that Dr Guy supported Dr Peter Phillips in the bitter leadership battle between Golding's close friend and long-time business partner, Peter Bunting, in 2019, or the fact that Dr Guy supported Lisa Hanna in the severely contentious leadership race between Member of Parliament for St Andrew Southern Mark Golding and Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern Lisa Hanna.
One does not need to light a lamp, as is said in the rural parts, to realise that the PNP is still supremely divided. A recent squabble outside its headquarters at 89 Old Hope Road, followed by the expulsion of long-time PNP campaigner Karen Cross, and several claims about loyalists belonging to the RiseUnited faction replacing acolytes of the OnePNP crew, do not augur well for the PNP.
The PNP continues to be in a state of political free fall since it was kicked from Jamaica House on February 25, 2016.
Mark Golding has been trumpeting the reopening of the economy for many months. He says this is necessary to protect especially the poor and vulnerable. Recently, Prime Minister Holness began an islandwide tour to encourage the vaccination of our citizens. Holness has said on numerous occasions that vaccination is a prerequisite for a return to pre-COVID-19 normality.
Dr Guy came out swinging against this initiative as evidence in this headline: 'Opposition calls on prime minister to discontinue vaccination tour' ( Nationwide News Network, September 1, 2021). The news item noted, among other things: “Opposition spokesman on health Dr. Morais Guy is calling on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to discontinue the vaccination tour.
“According to Dr Guy, the People's National Party has vocalised their concerns about the tour becoming a super spreader for the virus. He says the Government's decision is ill-advised.”
To date the Opposition has not presented any evidence that the prime minister's trek across the country is a super spreader of the novel coronavirus.
Vaccination has been identified as the best escape route out of the pandemic by globally renowned virologists, immunologists, public health specialists, epidemiologists, and various medical experts. These include the head of the internationally respected University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) Professor Michael Osterholm, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to US President Joe Biden, Anthony Fauci. I could list dozens of other world-renowned experts who support vaccination as the best escape from the pandemic.
Here, in Jamaica, public health expert of global stature Professor Peter Figueroa; noted health leaders; associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) Dr Alverston Bailey; and Professor Winston Davidson, former head of the School of Public Health at UTech, have all been championing the ramping up of measures to fast-track the vaccination of our people.
National effort needed
Many months ago I said in this space that, if we are to return our economy to anything resembling what it was before the novel coronavirus landed on our shores on March 10, 2020, a national effort and agreement on public health measures and strategies to guide our escape from the pandemic would be absolutely necessary. We are still lagging behind in that critical respect.
All the verified evidence compiled by global medical experts confirms that vaccination levels in a population determine how soon there is a return to an existence resembling pre-COVID-19. Some among us just don't seem to understand this straightforward reality.
Last week sections of the media carried a news item in which Dr Guy was quoted as saying the Opposition does not support mandatory vaccination at this time. This position flies in the face of common sense, given our high levels of vaccine hesitancy and vaccine resistance and very low levels of vaccination. At present just under 10 per cent of our population is fully vaccinated, while slightly under 20 per cent has received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
At the time of writing, 4.8 million people have died from COVID-19. There were some 240 million confirmed infections in 221 countries. Here in Jamaica we are approaching 2,000 deaths. What time is Dr Guy and the Opposition waiting for? How is the country going to get out of the economic doldrums caused by this pandemic if we do not achieve herd immunity, Dr Guy? Quite frankly, I don't think it is unreasonable to conclude that some of Dr Guy's positions border on being obstructionist.
All well-thinking Jamaicans want to see a strong Opposition. We do not want the continuation of fractiousness and factionalism in its ranks. An effective Opposition is crucial for the optimal functioning of our democracy. At present, the Opposition PNP is anything but effective. Its divergent positions on the pandemic shows it to be a house that is hugely divided against itself.
Bungling by the Administration
Just over five months ago I pointed out in this space that the national COVID-19 vaccination programme was being thwarted by confusion. I noted, too, that, in some instances, it was being dwarfed by a blatant lack of foresight that bordered on incompetence. In my The Agenda piece on March 21, 2021, I noted, among other things: “Hours after the country was reminded that hospitals were bursting at the seams, supplies of medical-grade oxygen were dangerously low at many public health facilities, we had passed 31,000 novel coronavirus infections, recorded 806 new cases, seven additional deaths increasing the tally to 492, Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton tells the country that Jamaica is still doing 'fairly well'.
“Tufton reasoned that, while there had been a rise in hospitalisations, our death rate was 1.6 per cent of total infections, which he said was below the global average of 2.2 per cent. It seems Dr Tufton just does not get it!
“The healthy credit which the Andrew Holness-led Administration amassed during the initial months after the contagious novel coronavirus landed on our shores is all but depleted. The Administration would do well to literally act as if it is starting from scratch. It has a very uphill task to win back squandered political capital, bruise confidences, injured trusts, and meet mighty large expectations which multiply with each passing day. That is the reality!”
Well, “story come to bump”, as we say in the rustic parts. The consequences of bungling, slow action, and a whole lot of confusion in the administering of the national vaccination programme are now 'slap bap' at our doorsteps. This was foreseeable and, in my estimation, largely preventable.
If the Holness Administration does not get the national COVID-19 vaccination programme back on track it will pay dearly at the polls. The half-measures, mix-ups, starts and stops, actions which resemble the movement of a snail, and the obvious confusion in the country's vaccination programme has got to be halted.
What is the real story?
Consider this headline: 'Juliet Holness breaks ranks, criticises Gov't's vaccine management' ( Jamaica Observer, September 5, 2021). The story quoted Holness as follows: “ 'I had to be encouraging people [to] take AstraZeneca instead of Pfizer, which was designated by the Government for children. And I was quite surprised to see individuals from the Ministry of Health comfortably dispensing Pfizer, knowing that we had AstraZeneca coming up with close [expiration] dates, one and two, knowing that we would not have enough Pfizer to do the second dose for our children. Somebody needs to explain that to us first and foremost,' Mrs Holness stated.”
Thereafter, this bombshell was dropped: “ 'Because what we dumped in AstraZeneca we could have comfortably used to give persons their first dose, and we would have been in a better place to be able to give the second dose required to persons who should have gotten the Pfizer vaccine,' she argued.
“According to her, 'One of the things that need to be done…when a policy direction is set, it needs to be adhered to, because it causes a lot of confusion afterwards.' “
Mrs Holness made these scathing comments before Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) last Tuesday. I think her criticisms were very appropriate. On Wednesday, Dunstan Bryan, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness shot back. He told the country, in his delivery at the PAAC, that the actions carried out by the civil service were in accordance with policy directives.
The immediate question here is: Were the directives from the Cabinet, or from the Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton? The country deserves a prompt answer.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness was given a second mandate just over a year ago. It was a historic trouncing of the Dr Peter Phillips-led PNP. A resounding triumph could quickly turn out to be a double-edged sword if extremely high expectations are not met. Landslide political victory must result in landslide representation and results at all levels. The Holness Administration has not only slipped with regard the delivery of the national vaccination programme, it has fallen badly. It does not have the luxury to pick itself up, dust itself off, and start from scratch at this point. The Administration needs to quickly plug the gaping holes and prevent further flooding.
The clock is ticking.
Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.