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Don’t turn pandemic into ‘Panic Dem’

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comments on pandemic issues by Renwick Rose – (Note to readers: In light of the ongoing COVID threat, I crave your indulgence in postponing the second part of the Black Power series, begun last week, for next week in order to accommodate these comments. Thanks for your understanding)

With so many countries seemingly stuck in gear, not sure how to shift from lockdown to open up, it is more than useful to be reflective of the situation we find ourselves in, or have placed ourselves in many cases, in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.

First though, as we have a May Day like none other in recent memory, save 1979, post-volcanic eruption, let me pay tribute to the selfless sacrifices and dedication of our frontline workers in battling this threat to our health and welfare. The COVID team led by the Chief Medical Officer and the Medical Officer of Health has been doing a fantastic job in trying circumstances. Hats off to them, to all our doctors, nurses, medical staff, security personnel and police officers who often have to put up with abuse, and to the embattled Prime Minister and his government!

So far we have avoided falling into a state of panic that can lead to rash decisions which one may later regret, or from which it is difficult to extricate oneself. The clamour for “lockdown’, partly fuelled by the media which feeds us a daily diet of doom and our own susceptibility for sensationalism, had many of us early screaming “blue murder” that the government didn’t rush to shut in us all and shut out those outside, Vincentians and all. The case with our stressed out cruise ship workers has forced a new rethink.

Yet there are those among us who seem to know nothing else but sowing confusion, spreading unfounded accusations and even downright lies. Such behaviour leads down a very slippery slope to the extent that there are persons among us who have now reached the depth of objectively taking positions against the best interests of our country. How could you excuse them for not only distorting reality in regard to the negotiations to bring the cruise ship workers home, but end up virtually giving the billionaire operators a free pass by insisting that it is government which must bear the bulk of the expense in getting our sons and daughters back home? It is the same sort of unpatriotic behaviour which led some of those persons to try and influence foreign countries not to assist in the building of the international airport and even to try and block our country’s election to a prestigious and valuable seat on the United Nations Security Council. What manner of persons are these?

Grave though the COVID threat is, it is important to keep it in perspective and not panic. Yes the health threat cannot be underestimated and we must remain ever vigilant. But the world has faced pandemics which have been far more fatal. Thus far, more than 211,000 persons have died from COVID. The combined death toll from SARS and MERS totalled over 1,620,000; the Hong Kong Flu (1968/70), Asian Flu (1957/58) and the dreaded Spanish Flu (1918/19) each claimed more than a million victims worldwide. HIV/AIDS is still with us having claimed more than an estimated 25 million lives since 1981.

So in terms of fatalities, while we must never underestimate the threat, many, many more people die from heart diseases, cancer, diabetes and kidney diseases each year. But we are not driven to fear from these facts. What is even more dangerous is the post-pandemic effect, leading to increased poverty, hunger and starvation, especially in poor developing countries. Even before COVID, it is estimated that almost 3 million persons have already died from hunger-related causes this year. That is why how we come out of the lockdown and the economic recovery is so important. It calls for level heads and clear vision.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), itself facing rabid attacks by those who do not have the welfare of the world’s peoples at heart, has appealed for an approach which goes like this: “let science, not politics be your guide”.

Within this approach, my heart goes out particularly to our nation’s youth. It is not easy to keep children in lockdown, it is dangerous not to do all in our power to keep them on the education track. This is especially important now in the exam season. It is all well and good to speak about and to implement plans for e-learning and even doing exams electronically, but there is already in-built inequality in our society with different levels of access to the learning tools. Even when access is possible, some children at home do not have the advantage of parents to assist and to guide. What would their level of confidence be in writing exams online, for the first time in their lives? Our education authorities have a big challenge before them.

Finally, our students abroad, in tertiary institutions have extra challenges of their own. I understand that parents are making efforts to try and get those students in Jamaica to come home but that the cost is exorbitant. Those in Cuba have special problems as well and one can read comments in the social media. It is not an easy situation, but we must draw on our experiences. Students of the early nineties in Cuba faced unprecedented hardships in the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union put the Cuban economy in freefall. Cool heads prevailed and today those students, having overcome the hardships are among our best professionals.

We must seek collectively to try and make our way out of the COVID wilderness, but we must do so, TOGETHER, with COOL HEADS and CLEAR VISION. Let us not succumb to panic and cheap politics!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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