Fri | May 29, 2020

Coronavirus rewrites political culture - Veteran politicians say COVID-19 has created a new way of life in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | March 29, 2020 | 12:00 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
Delroy Chuck
Dr. Fenton Ferguson
Delroy Chuck
Dr Fenton Ferguson
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Motorcades and mass meetings, two of the major arteries of Jamaica’s political culture, may forever be altered by COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease that has shut down world economies and caused the deaths of thousands.

Two of Jamaica’s multiple-term political representatives from either side of the aisle have agreed that the culture of flesh-pressing, hugging and kissing may have permanently disappeared because of the disease, largely transmitted by human-to-human contact.

Delroy Chuck and Fenton Ferguson believe that the politics practised pre-coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is now good old days.

“There is no doubt about that. The fear of mass gatherings and other such events will change the political culture enormously; and has already changed it. The truth is, people will have to do more electronic meetings. Digital town hall meetings will become a fact of life,” said Chuck, a five-term Jamaica Labour Party member of parliament for St Andrew North East, in an interview with The Sunday Gleaner.

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives and current justice minister is in the age group ordered by the Government to work from home, except where exemptions are given, as part of the measures to curtail the spread of the virus, with 32 confirmed cases now on the island.

In the past, political mass rallies set for Half-Way Tree Square by a ruling party have proven to be the unchallengeable proof of date-setting for a general election. COVID-19, he believes, may change that.

Tremendous fear

“I can see that if an election is called in the near future, mass meetings will be impacted, because even if you get rid of COVID, the fear will linger. There is tremendous fear right now because we really don’t know a lot about this virus. But whenever an election is called, we will be under COVID constraints,” Chuck theorised.

“The virus does not care that I am a political representative. The good thing about that is that my constituents understand the dangers of social contact. So social media use via WhatsApp has become very important in the new way of politics since the virus.”

He added, “Many constituents look forward to social gatherings by the party. It’s the politics we know and it’s the politics we have practised. So we now have to find new ways to still reach the constituents while adhering to issues of hygiene and space.”

Ferguson is the six-term People’s National Party (PNP) representative for St Thomas Eastern. He was first elected in 1993, a full electoral term before Chuck.

Both are 69 years old.

“The medical advice is that we should not go into communities to meet and greet, which usually happens and which is an indelible part of the culture. You can’t touch or hug. And even after this, if we go in and use sanitisers after, persons may think it’s a disrespect to them,” said Ferguson.

Role of Technology

Chuck’s constituency has a technological advantage over Ferguson’s rural domain, sections of which have no Wi-Fi coverage. More than 60 per cent of Chuck’s constituency has coverage.

“It is a huge challenge. Modern technology has helped me personally, but people still want to see you. The truth is, we are living in special times, but I suspect and hope that the constituents understand,” Ferguson said.

“My constituents know me to be a hugging, kissing MP. It’s an involuntary action for me, and now I have to be psychologically and physically careful. So a lot of what I do now is carefully thought out. It’s a complete rethinking.”

Recounting a recent incident in which his elbow greeting was gate-crashed by a constituent who shook his hands instead, Ferguson said he was caught unaware, exposing the vulnerability of representatives and their constituents.

“By the time I realised he was shaking my hands, I followed through. So if that was the only opportunity for me to become infected, I would have been. So for me, with my own training as a medical doctor and former minister of health, it’s almost a turmoil,” he said.

Giving his take on the pending general election, the PNP MP added, “Elections cannot be in the air in the middle of COVID-19. The country and our political leaders must take into consideration that the health of the nation comes first. There will be no forgiveness for anything otherwise. The way persons are scared now, I don’t know who would come out and vote.”

RESILIENT PEOPLE

Ferguson also expressed similar sentiments as Chuck for the future of politics in the wake of the public-health crisis.

“It will affect the way we practice our politics. Handshakes have made a world of difference in the lives of many parliamentarians. Politicians don’t survive if you are seen as stand-offish,” said Ferguson.

“When you have a battleground seat like mine, you have to do everything to make the people know you are there with them. This crisis will bring a consciousness for many of us, because if you use it as an excuse to pull yourself from your people, you will pay a political price, if you don’t have a garrison.”

Chuck’s fears were more national.

“One of my greatest fears is that with the lockdown in North America and Europe, we are going to be affected badly economically, so the economic expansion and development we are hoping for will be delayed,” he explained.

But Chuck expressed faith in the Jamaican people.

“Our people are resilient. One of the things I certainly hope we can do is to look out for our neighbours. Some of the things that Jamaicans should really try to focus on now is to buy and eat local produce so that our farmers can benefit. We must start eating more yams and bananas, instead of rice and flour,” he expressed.

“My great hope is that if we can control the community spread of the coronavirus, we will be better off in a shorter time.”

The Government is tracking scores of persons suspected to be in contact with those infected, even as several measures have been put in place to help contain and control the dreaded disease that has now infected some 650,926 persons, with approximately 30,299 deaths in over 202 countries. So far, approximately 139,555 persons have recovered.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com