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2021 YEAR IN REVIEW

NEWS |Part 1: Glimmer of hope amid darkness

COVID, crime, corruption took centre stage last year

Published:Monday | January 3, 2022 | 12:05 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter
Kelvin Peart, a Ferncourt High student, teaches children in Queenhythe, St Ann. Kelvin juggles his own online classes while schooling children from his rural community.
Kelvin Peart, a Ferncourt High student, teaches children in Queenhythe, St Ann. Kelvin juggles his own online classes while schooling children from his rural community.
Kevin O. Smith died a week after presiding over a deadly ritual at the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries he led in Montego Bay, St James.
Kevin O. Smith died a week after presiding over a deadly ritual at the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries he led in Montego Bay, St James.
Members of the Jamaica Defence Force on patrol in the Ricketts Street area of Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland, during a short-lived state of emergency last year.
Members of the Jamaica Defence Force on patrol in the Ricketts Street area of Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland, during a short-lived state of emergency last year.
Hundreds of Jamaicans joined members of the security forces in combing the bushes in sections of St Thomas to rescue two young girls who were abducted from their homes in separate incidents within days.
Hundreds of Jamaicans joined members of the security forces in combing the bushes in sections of St Thomas to rescue two young girls who were abducted from their homes in separate incidents within days.
Patients on oxygen in a driveway at the University Hospital of the West Indies in St Andrew in late August, as the medical facility ran out of space to treat patients amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Patients on oxygen in a driveway at the University Hospital of the West Indies in St Andrew in late August, as the medical facility ran out of space to treat patients amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Dr Grace McLean, acting permanent secretary in the education ministry.
Dr Grace McLean, acting permanent secretary in the education ministry.
Minister of Transport and Mining Robert Montague.
Minister of Transport and Mining Robert Montague.
Westmoreland Central MP George Wright (left) and his attorney, Able-Don Foote, reporting to the Montego Bay Police Station.
Westmoreland Central MP George Wright (left) and his attorney, Able-Don Foote, reporting to the Montego Bay Police Station.
Nzinga King, whose dreadlocks were allegedly trimmed while in custody at the Four Paths Police Station in Clarendon.
Nzinga King, whose dreadlocks were allegedly trimmed while in custody at the Four Paths Police Station in Clarendon.
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The last year around the sun was quite turbulent for Jamaica, punctuated by adversity, anguish, resilience, goodwill and a Government dogged by corruption scandals, while at the same time soaking up harsh criticisms for its policy shift that had been blamed for the merciless onslaught of the third wave of COVID-19.

Several incidents left a blot on the year 2021, including the savage machete slaying of five street people and the injuring of another in Kingston in January. Days later, there was the spine-chilling murder of bank executive Andrea Lowe-Garwood while she worshipped during a church service in Falmouth, Trelawny.

Also during the year, the third wave of COVID-19 – powered by the highly infectious Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes the illness – left a trail of death in its wake; parliamentarians were reported for illicit enrichment; and 120,000 students were reportedly unaccounted for since online schooling commenced.

Amid the stark realities of crime and violence, corruption, and the unrelenting pounding by COVID-19 in its various strains, a glimmer of hope shone through in some areas.

For example, the residents of St Thomas and the police coalesced to form a formidable search party and vowed not to rest, or relent, until they rescued a nine-year-old who was abducted for two days.

And while the education sector grappled with virtual classes during the year, 14-year-old Kelvin Peart, who has been hailed a hero of sorts in Queenhythe, St Ann, took on the full-time tutoring of community children while attending online classes himself.

In March, Kelvin and his dad, Kevin, converted an old bar at the front of their premises into a classroom, from which the youngster taught children of Queenhythe, near Discovery Bay, who were out of school and could not access learning online.

Kelvin wasn’t the only child that led them, as 16-year-old Jaheim Brown of Yallahs, St Thomas, opened the gates of his home to children of the community, hosting them as part of his summer school programme.

Jaheim has a passion for kids and hopes to one day become a teacher.

On the economic front, despite a severe battering from the pandemic, there was a resurgence of Jamaica’s tourism sector and the wider economy registered gross domestic product growth over the April to June and July to September quarters. Meanwhile, the Planning Institute of Jamaica forecasts further growth for the October to December quarter.

Bloody church saga and its many twists

One of the most memorable and chilling events of 2021, however, unfolded on October 17 in Montego Bay, St James, where Kevin Smith, the messianic pastor of Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries, led a service in which three members of his flock paid the ultimate price with their lives.

Smith, who assumed several grand titles, including ‘His Excellency’, had reportedly designated his church building an ark, symbolic of the biblical Noah’s ark, and invited about 144 of his congregants to enter the facility for a cult-like sacrificial ceremony, which reached a bloody crescendo with two congregants killed.

Smith had reportedly handpicked accused murderer Andre Ruddock, one of two ‘archangels’ given a knife to perform a sacrificial ritual. He allegedly carried out Smith’s order, slitting the throat of 39-year-old Taneka Gardner. Thirty-eight-year-old Michael Scott reportedly died after Smith disconnected medical tubes from his person, causing him to bleed to death.

The quick intervention of the police prevented what could have been a sacrificial bloodbath of dozens, although a third victim was shot dead after reportedly attacking the cops.

In a bizarre turn of events, Smith, while being transported by the police to Kingston to face murder charges, died when the car he was travelling in crashed in Linstead, St Catherine. A policeman – Constable Orlando Irons – who was in the vehicle was also killed in the collision.

The incident drew extensive coverage from local and international media.

Rising crime, SOEs

But long before Smith’s evil scheme left the nation in shock and despair, grabbing headlines for days, a dastardly and inhumane crime was unleashed on the most vulnerable members of the society in January. The senseless killing of five homeless men left an indelible stain on the minds of many Jamaicans, who lamented the brutal and unwarranted attack on them.

The scale of the carnage against the street people appeared to have been telltale signs of a year in which wanton bloodletting would be the order of the day. Indeed, the country recorded upwards of 1,400 murders, a more than 10 per cent hike over the 2020 figure.

On March 9, residents of the New Town district in Hanover were jolted by the shocking discovery of a beheaded pastor. Forty-year-old Kenniffe Andre Reid, who was originally from Lucea in the parish but resided in St Catherine, was reportedly in the community to clear a plot of land on which he intended to build a house when he was slaughtered.

The reputation of the Jamaica Defence Force took a massive blow in March when two of its members were charged with serious sexual offences, including rape, at the army’s Up Park Camp Headquarters in St Andrew. Two male privates were accused of ambushing a female colleague near an abandoned building on March 11, raping her and forcing her to perform other sexual acts.

Calls from various quarters in the society later in the year for the Government to rein in the galloping murder rate forced the Andrew Holness administration to dip into its toolbox for a familiar ‘remedy’. In November, the prime minister declared states of emergency (SOEs) in seven police divisions to cramp the rampant criminality that had increased by up to 57 per cent in some of the affected areas. It was the first time the measure had been resurrected following a Supreme Court ruling in September 2020 that the months-long detention of five men without charge was unconstitutional.

However, the extension of the crime-fighting strategy that the Government had come to depend on in quelling violence in crime hotspots was short-lived, as the parliamentary Opposition in the Upper House refused to support the measure, which needed a two-thirds majority vote for its continuity.

The Opposition argued strongly that the SOEs were never intended to be used as a long-term crime-fighting measure and that it was still in breach of constitutional provisions as it relates to detentions, despite amendments to the law by Parliament.

Oxygen crisis, shortage of beds

In August, the third wave of COVID-19 came with a huge tide of infections that overwhelmed Jamaica’s health system.

The twin challenge of inadequate bed space in hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients and dangerously low supplies of oxygen in the height of the third wave had been blamed for the deaths of many Jamaicans, including health workers, during the heartbreaking period.

A dying nurse’s final words still haunt her husband and left a nation heartbroken, as cries grew louder for the Government to conduct a probe into the number of deaths linked to the oxygen crisis.

“Baby, when is the oxygen coming?” – The last urgent appeal by Diagrea Cunningham, 37, a nurse at the Savanna-la-Mar Hospital, to her husband, Rayon Cunningham, that reverberated across media platforms at the peak of the oxygen shortage.

Calls for an independent enquiry into reports of deaths blamed on the shortage of oxygen went unheeded by the Holness administration.

Rescue of two abducted girls

Shouts of jubilation, scenes of ecstasy, and tears of joy spread rapidly across the country in early October as Jamaicans rejoiced when news broke that nine-year-old Phylisa Prussia, who was abducted for two days from her home in Bath, St Thomas, was found in good health.

With unwavering determination, residents and members of the security forces in St Thomas set out to search for the child, refusing to rest until Phylisa was rescued from her alleged abductor.

A man suspected to be Davian Bryan was reportedly seen on CCTV taking away the child. He remains at large, but the country breathed a collective sigh of relief that the young girl was returned safely to her family, bringing a happy ending to a frightening incident that too often end in despair.

But even before the celebrations subsided, hours later another child from the same community went missing. Residents again feared that Bryan had carried out a second abduction.

However, an unrelenting search party from Bath rescued 13-year-old Winshae Barrett, who was found in bushes just outside the community of Spring Bank in the parish.

Public-sector accountability

Heads rolled in November as the boards of the Airports Authority of Jamaica (AAJ) and the Norman Manley International Airport Limited (NMIAL) were dissolved in the wake of a half a billion-dollar investment in start-up FirstRock Capital Holdings, in contravention of government laws.

Finance and the Public Service Minister Dr Nigel Clarke declared in Parliament that the AAJ and its subsidiary, NMIAL, breached the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Regulations when it invested in the start-up company.

Some members of the board who had been reappointed, resisted calls for them to step down after the breach was uncovered by The Sunday Gleaner.

Things came to a head in November when portfolio minister Robert Montague was forced to break his months-long silence on the issue, as questions posed by the parliamentary Opposition became due for answer in Parliament.

Montague first sought cover behind a terse statement that the country’s single anti-corruption body was investigating the matter and as such, he could not comment on it.

He received full backing from Speaker of the House Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert who ruled, at first, that he should not answer the questions.

Pressure, however, mounted from civil society groups and the Opposition, who charged that the Speaker’s ruling was not supported by the rules of Parliament.

Montague later addressed the issue in Parliament, announcing the dissolution of the AAJ and the NMIAL boards, and the Speaker reversed her earlier ruling, without giving a clear basis for her about-face.

Scandals continue to bedevil the Holness administration in 2021 with revelations that the Ministry of Education was unable to account for how $124 million in taxpayers’ money was spent by the Cecil Cornwall-chaired Joint Committee on Tertiary Education (JCTE).

The stunning finding in an auditor general’s probe of the JCTE prompted Pamela Monroe Ellis, the country’s chief guardian of public expenditure, to recommend that Minister of Education Fayval Williams ask the police or an anti-corruption agency to further investigate the matter.

Acting Permanent Secretary Dr Grace McLean had to proceed on leave as Williams called in the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency and the Financial Investigations Division to conduct a probe into the sums unaccounted for.

Monroe Ellis also recommended, in her special report to Parliament, that the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service institute surcharge action against Dean-Roy Bernard, the in-limbo permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education, and McLean, on the basis that both officers failed in their fiduciary duty.

George Wright brouhaha

On the parliamentary scene, first-time Member of Parliament George Wright resigned from the ruling Jamaica Labour Party in June after increased public outcry over a video in which a man was seen viciously beating a woman with his fists and a stool.

On April 6, both Wright and Tannisha Singh made separate reports of a physical altercation that day. Singh made a report to the Anchovy police, while Wright gave a report to the Ramble police.

Wright has not denied or confirmed that he was the man in the video.

After being kicked from the JLP caucus, the political neophyte applied and was granted leave of absence from Parliament. He later returned as an independent lawmaker and sat on the Opposition benches, igniting a chorus of protestation from Opposition members, who called him a “stranger”.

A raging debate ensued over Wright’s seating with the Opposition arguing that he was still a full-fledged supporter of the policies of the Andrew Holness-led administration and, therefore, belonged on the government benches.

Speaker Dalrymple-Philibert defended the new seating arrangement, saying that Wright was an independent member and as such, was appropriately seated on the opposition side.

Cops allegedly cut teen’s dreadlocks, cabbie thrown into hellhole

It took much assurance from the Police High Command that a thorough investigation will be done into allegations that a female cop forcibly cut the locks of 19-year-old Rastafarian Nzinga King, while she was in a police lock-up in Clarendon, to assuage flaring tempers, especially among the Rastafarian movement, across the country.

In early December, the Independent Commission of Investigations reported that it had completed its probe into the allegations and had submitted its findings to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for a ruling.

The Rastafarian community and other members of the public were teeming with anger over reports that the young woman’s hair was cut against her will. As a religious imperative, Rastafarians do not cut their hair.

And in what could be described as one of the most extraordinary acts of clemency, 66-year-old George Smart said he had forgiven his abductors after a horrific encounter in which he was forced down a 55-ft hole.

Smart, a Portmore cab driver, was held at gunpoint in the Jones Avenue area of Spanish Town after dropping off a female passenger.

The elderly man said he was taken by gunmen up a hill into bushes and forced to go into a hole that appeared to have no bottom.

He bounced from side to side of the hellhole, clutching in despair until he landed at the bottom.

The taxi man was eventually rescued by the police after a torturous encounter.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com