Wed | Oct 21, 2020

Call for area leaders to mount COVID fight

Published:Thursday | September 24, 2020 | 12:15 AMAndre Williams/Staff Reporter

Grass-roots activists have urged the Holness administration to enlist community leaders in enforcing coronavirus compliance, using their outsize influence and, perhaps, muscle, to maintain health and public-safety laws.

Despite painstaking pleas by the prime minister and others in officialdom, there is widespread apathy, resistance even, to the wearing of face masks and the observance of social distancing to curb the virus’ spread.

Some citizens also pay scant regard to the islandwide curfew, which takes effect at 8 o’clock nightly. That bane is not exclusive to poor urban communities, but such densely populated areas make residents ready vectors of the virus.

Milton Tomlinson, a senior member of the Peace Management Initiative (PMI), backs the engagement of community leaders whose street cred has a force of nature that can stretch beyond the State’s capacity. He said that there were once agents called “local consultants”.

“They had a team of people who would arrange meetings for the ministry to come in and talk to residents ... . That way, they carry the message, and it would make the situation much better,” Tomlinson said.

The recruitment of community organisers has been mooted before as crucial to citizen engagement. When dengue-fighting mosquito fogging teams were stoned by resistant residents in 2019, Audrey Mullings, a Jamaica Red Cross executive board member, proposed bringing onside influencers in volatile areas.

“We have to sensitise the community or get people who are in the community to do it – not our people going in,” she said last year.

But the PMI and other groups involved in anti-crime activism have been sidelined by the Government in recent months, purportedly because of their failure to rein in the lords of violence. Area leaders and strongmen who often cross the margins of the law have been labelled as collaborators or violence producers.

Tomlinson, however, said that state agents like the police were many times themselves offenders of COVID-19 protocols. He charged that grass-roots leaders were being marginalised except for the convenience of corralling support during election campaigns.

“The same policeman, or someone they respect, if they not wearing any, then they gonna put down theirs,” he said of residents’ reactions.

PEOPLE DON’T CARE

Martin Nelson, 45, a resident of Whitfield Town in southwest St Andrew, agrees. He acknowledged that many residents in his community were not wearing masks or staying six feet apart.

“These people don’t care about corona. If dem nuh si certain people a defend it, dem nuh into it,” he told The Gleaner on Wednesday.

And he delivered a feisty quip to the Government, which has been blamed for a spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths linked, first, to relaxed restrictions during the Emancipendence holiday in August, and second, a three-week election campaign that climaxed on September 3.

“Dem say the Government nuh fraid a COVID-19 when dem keep election, so why nobody fi fraid a it? Is a mindset,” said Nelson.

Dunstan Bryan, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, emphasised that community health aides were important agents of public education.

“We have started to roll out and will continue. We were in Gordon Town two weeks ago and will go to other areas,” Bryan told The Gleaner on Wednesday.

Jamaica on Tuesday recorded one additional COVID-19 death along with 126 new cases. Deaths now stand at 76 amid a total of 5,395 infections. Nearly 3,800 of those cases are active.