Jamaica’s COVID-19 management debacle

Visualization of the Covid-19 virus
Visualization of the Covid-19 virus (Photo credit: Fusion Medical)

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One year ago, Jamaica was the centre of attention of the international community for its execution of COVID-19 protocols and its handling of incoming people-traffic in a world experiencing the ravages of the pandemic. A year later, and six months after vaccines have been made available, Jamaica sits with Haiti at the bottom of the table, with less than ten percent of Jamaicans at home vaccinated.  The information was gleaned from the Ministry of Health and Wellness’ website and from the Caribbean Update COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker for the Caribbean, courtesy of MJS and Associates which shows the percentage of population vaccinated by country in the Caribbean region (tracking 34 countries and territories including CARICOM members). The report paints a damning picture of Jamaica’s handling of the pandemic and contrasts sharply with what was reported in the early months after the pandemic had hit the island. At that time, returning Jamaicans were lauding the country for its coronavirus (COVID- 19) protocols for persons entering the island, despite concerns by some visitors that the measures were too rigorous.

In one report dated 12 July 2020, several Jamaicans who recently returned and had experienced the process stated how pleased and impressed they were with the ‘first-world system that has been implemented’. Numerous travelers shared their experiences with the nation during the weekly virtual COVID Conversations press briefing, lauding the programme, after traveling from United States destinations as “efficient, smooth and seamless”.

From briefings by health ministry officials, hazmat-suited medical personnel, to available forms for data collection, the testing made available at the airport, to the downloaded Jam-COVID App and quarantining process, Jamaica earned spectacularly high marks from a public-relations perspective. The Ministry of Health and Wellness and other associated government officials were gleeful with the results up to then. Soon enough, though, the programme had to be scuttled as it became increasingly clear that it was unsustainable. That notwithstanding, the appearance of a programme provided some degree of comfort in some spheres until the eventual fissures started to appear in the management of the programme.

For starters, the government, faced with a nearly 40 percent contraction of the Jamaican economy, took the decision to reopen the island’s borders in June of 2020. In doing so, Jamaica, was, in effect, pinning its hopes on tourism earnings at the expense of public health. It did not matter that the country had no bankable plan for vaccinating its population nor was there a clearly demarcated public education programme on the vaccination effort.  The result has been that members of the Jamaican public embraced the overflowing buckets of conspiracy theories on social media as sources of information, resulting in an expanding community of anti-vaxxers. Meanwhile, the Holness Administration galloped ahead with the reopening, claiming short-termed success at pushing back the virus and banking on the Jamcovid Application as its primary tool for tracking and monitoring the pandemic on the island.

A security lapse by a government contractor in charge of the project resulted in the exposure of immigration records and COVID-19 test results for hundreds of thousands of travelers who visited the island over the past year. From reports, the website was designed to pre-approve travel applications to visit the island during the pandemic, a process that requires travelers from high-risk countries, including the United States, to upload a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding their flights. However, a cloud storage server storing those uploaded documents was left unprotected and without a password, and publicly spilled out files onto the open web. Many of the victims whose information was found on the exposed server were Americans. It’s not known for how long the data was unprotected, but it contained more than 70,000 negative COVID-19 lab results, over 425,000 immigration documents authorizing travel to the island, which included the traveler’s name, date of birth and passport numbers, and over 250,000 quarantine orders dating back to June 2020, when Jamaica reopened its borders to visitors after the pandemic’s first wave. The server also contained more than 440,000 images of travelers’ signatures.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to ravage the island, accounting for 1,163 deaths from 51,408 infected cases. Jamaica remains, to date, one of the least vaccinated populations in the English-speaking Caribbean. With just under 9 percent of the population vaccinated, we are way behind countries such as Bermuda (62%), Curacao (56%), St Kitts & Nevis (49%), Barbados (34%), Guyana (31%), St Lucia (18%), Trinidad & Tobago (17%), and The Bahamas (15%).  Our situation has not been helped by the worsening global shortage of COVID-19 vaccines. The local vaccination programme has been hit with hiccups and logistical glitches, with some persons turning up to vaccination sites in the last week unable to secure their second doses.

Increasingly, a growing number of Jamaicans with the means to fly out of the island have been jetting into Florida to get the otherwise scarce jab, each case providing more deepening proof of the degree to which the Jamaican system has failed the population. What is even more amazing is that up to April this year, Jamaica was ranked 84th of 157 nations listed in the New York Times Global Coronavirus tracker.

Richard Hugh Blackford is a Jamaican creative artist residing in the United States.

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