Tue | Jun 2, 2020

Daniel Thwaites | Playing with corona-matches

Published:Sunday | March 29, 2020 | 12:30 AM

In one way, the Government’s mobilisation in the face of the coronavirus has been proactive and impressive. In terms of public education about this virus, it surely gets an A-plus. However, as best as I can understand, there are serious questions that have to be answered regarding the medical preparedness and response.

Let me linger on the outstanding public-education effort for a while, because it is such an important part of meeting this challenge. The first thing is to say that this public- education effort ought not be derided and downgraded as merely an exercise in public relations, as many who want to merely criticise the health ministry and minister are wont to do.

In fact, the health minister and the prime minister are saving lives with their extraordinarily energetic work to battle this virus with information. That is, when they decided to pay attention to the problem. There’s limited utility in combing over the history of why the information campaign appears to have started late. But various distractions, like buy-elections, seem to have played a role, and upon review, the country seems to have lost crucial time through all of January.

On the subject of information, I do have to pause here and say a word in defence of The Gleaner. The newspaper took some licks for printing a story last Sunday about the status of some health workers. It caused some consternation and a fair deal of unwarranted froth about the “credibility” of the newspaper nowadays.

Obviously, deep discussions that are way above the pay grade of a lowly opinioniser took place, and then history’s most flaccid non-apologetic apology by the newspaper put the item to rest. The public was assured, if none the wiser. We all carried on smartly. But somewhere along the road of the newspaper playing model citizen, I can’t help but feel that The Truth expired for want of a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit, and that there’s a reporter erroneously put in quarantine.

Now to the matter of the medical response. Jamaica was not alone in having vastly under-resourced the health infrastructure and being generally unprepared for this kind of crisis. If we compare ourselves to some of the countries that should have been far better prepared, we don’t look too shabby at all. However, if we compare ourselves to what we can do, what it is necessary to do, and what better-prepared countries have done, we’re not looking too good at all either.

Real costs

When I say we lost time in January, you have to consider that this has had, and will continue to have, real costs in terms of lives and the impact on the economy. Why, for instance, were we scrambling for critical testing capability all through March?

So when the Miami Herald lauds the swift lockdown, it’s true that the Government should be applauded for that decisive and relatively swift action. Shuttering the schools was the right decision and timely taken. Furthermore, the progressively layered shutdown was wise policy and thoughtful action, particularly given some of the peculiarities of our culture and the threadbare existence of so many of our citizens. However, when that newspaper notes that only 26 cases have been confirmed to date, that’s a number that means absolutely nothing.

That small number isn’t related to the quick shutdown so much as to the paucity of testing! If you test zero numbers of people you will get zero positive cases of coronavirus infection. And if you only test 150, the miniscule amount accomplished so far, you may only come up with 26 cases, but that’s hardly something to point to as a positive. That’s just because you’re not testing nearly enough.

A bigger problem is that, so far, the Government is only testing people who are showing positive symptoms. But this is a disease that incubates for between five and 14 days, but endures in the body of the infected for up to 35 days. You have to understand something else to see a BIG BACKSIDE problem. According to the World Health Organization, up to 80 per cent of the people who contract the virus do not show symptoms. Part of the danger of this disease is that it has a long incubation period during which someone may be symptomless, and it’s also very ‘catchy’.

So when the Government tells us that there are over 600 people in quarantine, but only those with symptoms are being tested, the obvious question is, “What about those who we know have been exposed but show no symptoms?” It turns out that these people are being released.

Potentially dire consequences

To spell out the potentially dire consequences of this mistake is hardly required. But suffice it to say that if we are releasing exposed persons merely because they are asymptomatic after 14 days, we’re still inviting disaster into our midst and upon our people. Infected asymptomatic people will be at large. If I’m right about this, I’m doing what newspapermen call “burying the lead” so that what could be/should be the headline is buried down in the body of the article.

My thinking is that I don’t want any part in inducing panic, even though I do want an honest discussion about what’s going on. So only those intelligent and persistent enough to hack through the earlier bits, who I reckon are more likely able to handle uncomfortable information, will get here. LOL. But seriously: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

As it was explained to me, this is like playing with matches in a board-house. Of course, the board-house is Jamaica’s fragile and easily overwhelmed health system.

The German example of success was achieved by extraordinary amounts of testing. The Italian counter-example of abject failure is not something we want to experience.

Minister Tufton is, to my mind, a smart and capable guy working with a dilapidated health infrastructure. That dilapidation is due to his Government’s failure and to the failure of governments over the last many decades to put adequate resources into the healthcare system. We have, in the meanwhile, found money for ample bushing, for ridiculous ‘white elephant’ projects, for sports and games, and for all manner of tomfoolery and bumfluffery.

But now the virus is coming home to roost. Some of us, particularly the old and weak and poor, are about to pay the price for the decades of nonsense and resource misallocation.

Consider this little factoid which never fails to drive fear into me: Jamaica has less than 100 ICU beds. With a population of about 3 million people, that means there’s about one ICU bed for every 30,000 souls. Do you understand? One fi every tutty-touzan’!!! The United States, which everyone with half a brain accepts is unprepared for this calamity, has about 100,000 ICU beds, meaning one ICU bed for every 3,500 people. We casually watch their experts and pundits talk about how unprepared they are. What about us? Suppose you or your mama needs a bed?

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.