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Reality of COVID-19’s one-year impact

ON March 10, 2020 Jamaica had its first case of COVID-19. One year after, Jamaica has had an accumulated 28,273 cases, 463 deaths, 12,934 active cases and 277 persons hospitalised.

It has been a roller coaster ride, with local shutdowns, Disaster Risk Management Act measures, curfews, and a shutdown of the tourism and entertainment sectors, our primary sources of foreign exchange and informal economy earnings.

In an April 2020 article I estimated the economic fallout, depending on how we reacted to the virus. In other words if we took an extreme measure to lockdown the economy, that could have caused one extreme but at the other end we could limit the economic impact by carefully balancing “lives and livelihoods” and keep the economy going. No doubt we were always going to effectively see a shutdown of tourism and entertainment, but it was always important to keep the local economy going.

I projected that we could see tax revenues up to $151 billion below budget for 2020-21. I expected that unemployment could come in at a range between 19 – 25 per cent by the time the epidemic ends and real gross domestic product (GDP) could decline between 2-15 per cent. All these outcomes of course depended on our reaction.

One year after, in the recent presentation by the finance minister, tax revenues are expected to come in around $94 to $100 billion below budget, unemployment as at July 2020 at 12.7 per cent and will more than likely increase, and real GDP decline for the fiscal year is projected at just over 10 per cent.

Throughout the last year the decisions, as reflected by the measures, have been between finding the right mix of restrictive measures while allowing economic activity to take place.

During the early days of the pandemic the Governmentm, in my view, went too far with the restrictive measures which culminated in shutting down St Catherine for three weeks between April and May 2020. The impact was devastating on productivity, as we discovered that most of the working force came from that parish. The result is that productivity fell significantly. In addition, there were lockdowns in the areas of Clarendon and St Thomas, and a continuing curfew ranging from as early as a 3:00 pm to an 11:00 pm shutdown.

I think that we could have found a more optimal mix. As for me, we went too far in curfew hours (10:00 pm seems to be the ideal) and the St Catherine lockdown was an overreaction, as even with all these measures after a year we still have a positivity rate of over 30 per cent, and I suspect that 50 to 60 per cent of the population either has had or has the virus. My estimate is as such because if we assume at least the same amount of people are asymptomatic as those that show symptoms and we test mainly persons with symptoms, then we can assume that up to two times more have been infected. Additionally, we see the active cases being just under half of the total number of cases, thus we can assume that some persons tested have recovered and would not test positive.

So my view is that we have seen more negatives from the measures than positives as we have witnessed significant negative economic impacts, with the virus still impacting most of the population.

With that said, the Government would have acted based on the medical advice recieved and so one can understand the desire to err on the side of caution, and maybe being in the same situation would have made the same decisions.

My view has always been to enforce the protocols of mask-wearing, facilities in businesses for sanitisation, and social distancing – which was always going to be impractical, especially with tighter curfew hours, because of the informality and economic reality of “hand to mouth” for many in our population. So the most efficient tools (for managing the virus and economy) was always going to be mask-wearing, enforcement, and expanding hospital capacity.

Mask-wearing has not been strictly adhered to, and I think primarily because of weakness in enforcement. The truth is that many persons early on discouraged enforcement, as when the police started prosecuting persons in Half-Way-Tree for not wearing a mask there was an outcry from the public that it was oppression. There also has been a lack of enforcement in stamping out illegal parties and with the traffic situation in Jamaica, enforcing strict curfew times at 8 pm was always going to be impractical.

This is supported by a recent publication which shows that approximately 30 per cent of the spread was at work and 25 per cent was on public transportation, with approximately 8 per cent at parties. This number shows us two things. First, that there was a lack of proper enforcement and secondly, that our focus on parties and gatherings was only addressing the smaller risk while the taxis and bus drivers, who seem to be the real law and do what they want, pass us full with little or no mask-wearing.

Last year also the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) said they expected around 1.5 million persons to be infected. Knowing that this was always going to happen we failed to build out the hospital capacity and so 200 persons being hospitalised has put pressure on the hospital system, with the result being that persons are being turned away from hospitals and are returning home to die, such as my brother-in-law.

So could we have handled the COVID-19 reaction better. Yes, I think so. But then hindsight is 20-20 and maybe being in the same position as the Government I may have made the same decisions because of a need to save lives and the rhetoric from the health experts.

Looking on after a year, however, I believe that there has been a global failure in the way we have reacted to the virus, as the economic impact will have a more long-term negative impact on countries. In Jamaica, for example, we can’t entertain the measures of developed countries as in the US where they have approved US$1.9 trillion (J$285 trillion), or $890,000 per person, as a continuation of aid. In Jamaica we were able to give one-time care packages between cash and goods maybe valued between $10,000 to $15,000.

The prime minister, we can see, is obviously trying to balance “lives and livelihoods” and must have a difficult time in making the decisions. As we go forward we will need to develop strategies that are more in keeping with our reality and minimise the impact of both the virus and economic fallout.

This for me means enforcement of the protocols of mask-wearing and sanitisation; enforcement against illegal parties, gatherings and overcapacity on public transport; curfew times moved back to 10:00 pm to allow small businesses and the informal economy to stand a better chance; and increased hospital capacity. 

Dennis Chung is the author of Charting Jamaica’s Economic and Social Development and Achieving Life’s Equilibrium . His blog is dcjottings.blogspot.com.

Email: drachung@gmail.com