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Carolyn Cooper | Science, high science and the war on COVID-19

Published:Sunday | January 16, 2022 | 12:07 AM

When I listened to Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ press briefing last Sunday, it struck me that he doesn’t appear to understand Jamaican culture to dat.

Holness’ mentor, Edward Seaga, seems to have failed to teach his protégé the basic principles of anthropology, a field of study that focuses on human nature and culture. Seaga certainly knew how to apply his formal training as an anthropologist in the political arena. He immersed himself in African-Jamaican culture and used it to his decided advantage.

Andrew Holness’ Bachelor of Science in Management Studies and his Master of Science in Development Studies appear to be quite inadequate for negotiating the complexities of political leadership in Jamaica. Management theory is one thing. Actually managing is another matter. And studying development is no guarantee of success as a politician in a supposedly ‘developing’ country.

Our prime minister just does not seem to be able to manage the extraordinary health crisis that the society is facing. Admittedly, the pandemic has challenged political leaders across the globe. But Holness’ response has not always been appropriate. In a surprising outburst at his press briefing, Holness issued this command: “Go and get vaccinated! Argument done!”

Holness didn’t make it clear exactly who he thought he was done arguing with. He just said, “You”. Perhaps, he was actually arguing with nobody in particular. This would be most unfortunate since people who usually quarrel in this unfocussed way tend to be of unsound mind. You see them on the street all the time in animated conversation with phantoms.

To give Holness the benefit of the doubt, I’m assuming that he thought he was addressing all those stubborn people who simply refuse to get vaccinated.

ABUSIVE TACTICS

The prime minister’s imperious tone was not likely to result in compliance with his vaccination order. Instead, it was bound to provoke mutiny. Human nature resists domination. And abusive tactics are not persuasive.

I suggested an alternative approach in my column, ‘No Vaccine For Protection From Ignorance’, published on April 1, 2021: “My recommendation to the minister of health is to commission a national survey to learn exactly why people are afraid of being vaccinated.”

Since the column was published on April Fools’ Day, my advice was probably dismissed as folly, if it was even seen by the minister. To the best of my knowledge, this survey has not been done.

Instead of bullying, Holness needs to have a conversation – not an argument – with the unvaccinated to understand their position. This is not a homogenous group.

First of all, there’s a whole heap of people who have absolutely no confidence in what politicians say. Then, there are Fundamentalist Christians who are depending on God to heal them. And there are believers in alternative medicine; obeah practitioners; conspiracy theorists; vaccine sceptics. On and on!

If Holness truly understood Jamaican culture, he would know that there’s a world of difference between science and high science.

In 1961, the Caribbean Studies journal at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras published an article by the anthropologist Donald W. Hogg on “Magic and ‘Science’ in Jamaica”.

This is his opening sentence:

“Despite stringent, vigorously enforced laws against it, magic thrives among the lower-class people of Jamaica, in the West Indies. It takes [the] place of medicine for these uneducated peasants and labourers who believe implicitly that most sicknesses have supernatural causes and who distrust the few trained doctors available to them.”

Hogg notes that another kind of ‘magic’ of European origin is also popular in Jamaica: “It comes largely from illegal occultist books smuggled into the island from the United States.”

PURE IGNORANCE

Six decades later, not much has changed. And, it’s not just lower-class Jamaicans who believe in obeah and distrust Western medicine.

In the case of the war against COVID-19, many of us who are invested in science have become disillusioned. There is so much competing advice about how best to deal with the virus and its many variants.

Even those of us who have willingly accepted vaccination know that it does not provide complete protection against infection. So it’s pure ignorance for Andrew Holness to insist that vaccination is the end of the argument.

Reggae singer/songwriter and dancehall DJ Tanya Stephens wrote a compelling column that was published in The Jamaica Observer last Friday with this headline, ‘Why hasn’t the government responded to these questions?’:

1) Why have we abandoned protocols applied to new illnesses which affront us?

2) Why is the Ministry of Health and Wellness insistent on spreading misinformation?

3) If the benefit of the shot is individual, why is there such an aggressive thrust to jab the entire collective?

4) Why is there a one-size-fits-all approach to this phenomenon?

Why is there no mention of exceptions for illnesses which may be exacerbated by the injections?

5) Most importantly, why is there no visible engagement with contending views?

Stephens concludes her argument in this way:

“All of these questions and more are on the lips of the populace, but nobody from the Andrew Holness-led Government seems to think it’s important enough to take the time to respond.

“That leads me to my final question for today: Does the Jamaica Labour Party miss its position as Opposition? This is a lot of confidence to invest in the electorate, especially when 60 per cent have made it abundantly clear in previous elections they find you vapid!”

Instead of calmly responding to the legitimate concerns of the majority of Jamaicans who are refusing vaccination for a variety of reasons, Andrew Holness appears to be losing his grip on reality.

He should not talk to even his children in the disrespectful way he addressed the nation at his formal press briefing.

If the prime minister can’t manage di work, it’s time for him to resign. Argument done!

Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.