Sunday 9 August, 2020

Fuming Holness labels critics of reopening economy 'armchair experts'

Prime Minister Andrew Holness (file photo)

Prime Minister Andrew Holness (file photo)

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has dismissed critics of the Government's decision to reopen the island's borders and essentially, the economy, amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, describing such critical commentators and media practitioners as "armchair experts".

At a press conference last Sunday, Holness announced that for non-Jamaicans entering the country as of June 15, testing upon arrival will be subject to the result of public health screening at the ports of entry. All persons entering Jamaica, however, will be encouraged to undergo voluntary testing at the ports of entry, or they can make an appointment on the Jam-Covid App to be tested.

The prime minister and Health Minister, Dr Christopher Tufton, also warned a rise in cases of the coronavirus locally is expected to come with the opening of the borders to nationals and overseas visitors.

Since that announcement, there has been widespread criticism of the decision across sections of the media landscape, with concerns mainly about whether the healthcare system can manage a surge in critical COVID cases.

Amid criticism also from the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) and stakeholder groups about the Government's decision, the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) too expressed "grave concern" that tourists and other non-nationals coming to Jamaica as of June 15, will not be required to be tested for COVID-19.

But on Friday, Holness argued passionately and sometimes fiercely, that the Government has strategically planned the reopening of the economy, citing that there will be risks, but measures have been put in place to mitigate any major potential challenges.

"The Government of Jamaica you know, did not just get up one day and say, 'We're going to open up the borders. Let's be clear. The professional advice from the CMO (chief medical officer) and others is that you know, there will be risks in reopening the borders, and the numbers will rise, and we have been advised on the risk," Holness stated.

"The Government of Jamaica under the Disaster Risk Management Act, has to take that risk into consideration and put in place the measures to mitigate it. There is no riskless activity in life," he declared.

A seemingly incensed Holness lashed some commentators, describing them as 'armchair experts', for what he said appeared to be their wish to have the Government keep the economy closed.

"And sometimes when I read the commentary and the articles that are written by armchair experts, it is as if the Government has a clear pathway with no risk. It is as if the Government should keep the economy closed and not have to worry about the farmer in St Elizabeth or in Westmoreland or in Manchester; by the way who I saw today (Friday) at the farmers’ market, who pointed out to me that they are not able to sell their eggs (and) sell their vegetables," argued Holness.

"Many of them have trailer loads of goods that they buy from the small farmers. And what was sad - even one said to me - 'Prime minister, if we don't do something now, then we will likely have a food problem because the farmers are not going back into the fields to plant unless they have an understanding of where their produce will be sold," he added.

Holness asserted that over 300,000 Jamaicans benefit from tourism, whether directly or indirectly.

"And somehow we believe that tourism is foreign to Jamaica. Many of our farmers depend on tourism. Over 300,000 Jamaicans in some way, shape or form, benefit from tourism in working," he said.

The prime minister also rubbished what he said was "the false notion" that the decision to open the economy was made to benefit an elite group in the society.

"So this false notion that the Government is making a decision to reopen our economy for an elite group for tourism is the greatest insult to me as a Jamaican, and to the 300,000 people who depend on the industry for their survival, that brings in over 50 per cent of our foreign exchange," said an emotional Holness.

"The same people who are criticising are the same people criticising why is (it that) our dollar moving. Get real!" he stated.

"Let me take off my mask," he said, with the audience at the press conference breaking into laughter at the remark.

But while the audience found humour in those few words, there was no hint of laughter from Holness, who said he wondered if commentators analysed where Jamaica was in relation to the battering the economy has been facing from the coronavirus pandemic.

"You know there is a sense as if as politicians we don't care for the people. Every day I go out and look the vote of the people. I go (to) their yards. I get the messages (and) I get the calls, and none of them (the commentators) have any greater care for the people than I do," Holness suggested.

"I reject the idea totally that somehow they can pontificate about the care of the people, and none of them go down to the inner-cities to experience the suffering and the hurt of the Jamaicans who don't have a job (and) who are worrying where will their next meal come from," added Holness.

In relation to balancing the lives and livelihoods of Jamaicans, the prime minister said "it's not a task that is neutrally exclusive; I do one and then can't do the other. We have to do both, and I believe we have struck a compromise that can work."

Holness, however, clarified that the compromise is not one that is "blind".

"It is not a blind compromise. We have sat and analysed the risk. And I am not hiding anything from the Jamaican people. I have projected it here to tell you what the risk is likely to be," he said.

Holness said the Government and health officials have gone through an intensive process of managing the re-entry of over 2,300 Jamaicans into the country, which has not been without cases of the coronavirus.

"And... after testing 2,300, we have identified about 54 (COVID-19) cases. That gives us an idea of what to expect if you were to bring in other numbers, and we are planning to bring in the numbers of Jamaicans who have applied on the Jam-Covid App," he revealed.

On the issue of testing all Jamaicans, the prime minister said he trusted the citizens he was elected to govern, based on the experiences in March when some 7,000 of them who re-entered the country could not be initially located, but eventually co-operated.

"And you know the discussion comes again about testing every Jamaican that comes in and everyone that comes in. Somehow we forget that between the 18th and 24th of March, 7,000 Jamaicans came in untested and quarantined. We couldn't find them (and) we couldn't find where they were, and we had to go on a very intense public education campaign to get them to follow the rules, follow the orders, and to stay home," Holness added.

"I dispatched the commissioner of police to try and find them. The addresses that they gave were incorrect; many of them we couldn't find them. But luckily, through the good conscience of Jamaicans, many of them registered on the app. So I trust my Jamaican people," he stated.

Holness also took a jab at the Opposition for its criticism of the decision to bolster and renew economic activities on the island.

"So there are those who pretend that they are defenders of the faith of the people, who if it were up to them, I wonder what would be the management of the epidemic.

“Well, we know how they managed epidemics in the past, and we have managed this epidemic in such a way that Jamaicans overseas and other people overseas want to come back home," Holness insisted.

While admitting that there had been a number of glitches in the repatriation of Jamaicans, the prime minister said the Government would continue to manage the process of re-entry of citizens in "a safe way".

He added that "We have brought home almost all our cruise ship workers now. A few glitches; logistics issues and resource-stretched issues, but we have brought them home. And now, we are turning our attention to bringing home the over 7,000 Jamaicans who have registered (on the JamCovid App) and I'm certain that after today's press conference, another three or four or five thousand (Jamaicans) will register, in addition to non-Jamaicans who live here, and then there might be a few tourists who will come."

Holness reiterated that the re-entry of citizens and the opening of the island's borders to international visitors were part of the Government's wider preparations to fully reopen the economy in the future.

"The conversation has been swamped out to just say that as of June 15, we will see a 100,000 tourists coming to the island. What world do you live in? What we are doing is preparing for the reopening of our economy, to give the farmers hope that they can now start to go back out into the fields to start to plant, because many of them saying well if we don't get a date, then why would I go out and plant," Holness indicated.

He was quick to emphasise, however, that the Government would not have made the decision to repatriate its citizens if the recoveries of persons with the coronavirus had not accelerated.

"We made the decision to move to the accelerated repatriation when we saw that the beds being utilised were low. That the number of persons in critical care or having serious to critical illnesses were low. And I think we are that point now," he said, adding that, "We would not have made the decision if our recoveries now were not accelerating... Now is the time to take the risk... I want to bring them (Jamaicans) home and that is their constitutional right," stated the prime minister.

On the flip side, he said with the re-entry of Jamaicans, there could possibly be an additional 250 COVID-19 cases.

"So based on our projection, if we continue as we are now, and then if we bring in Jamaicans, we are expecting that there could be as much as 250 additional cases; a percentage of that would require critical care and therefore, we would have the capacity to treat with that," he suggested.

In arguing that there is "no easy pathways" in the management of the reopening of the island's economy, Holness said “false criticisms” had made his job even more difficult.

"I am not someone who is afraid of criticism, but I don't like people who make false criticisms. That's not, in this epidemic, necessary, and for good reason, because it confuses the narrative and the conversation, and it takes up my time that I have to be using to make sure we get the protocols right, to spend trying to (put) out all kinds of fires because people who should know better, keep coming to say why this and why that," he posited.

He assured that the Government is following key advice in order to make the right decisions.

"This is not a 'fly by night' Government, or a Government that does not have leadership and control and deep understanding of the issues. The hours I spend informing myself, not through social media or Facebook and reading all sort of articles that turn up, but by consulting with people who are professionals (and) by reading some of the academic articles and asking the pertinent questions so we can make the right decisions, and we will continue to do so in the interests of the people of Jamaica and not some, but all the people of Jamaica," Holness stressed.

"We will recover from the pandemic and we will recover from the recession," he emphasised.

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