My fellow Jamaicans,
With giant leaps in science and technology, mankind may sometimes have a false sense of invincibility about the global civilization we have created. The COVID-19 Pandemic has exposed just how fragile we are and how vulnerable our connected world can be, ironically, by virtue of that same connectedness.
We know that disruption is part of the natural order of things. We have experienced hurricanes, conflicts, and economic down-turn, but most of us have never experienced disruption of this magnitude and over such an extended period, in our living memories. Nevertheless, we are resilient, and we will adapt, change and evolve; together we will overcome the pandemic and create a new normal way of living.
Every cloud of crisis carries a silver lining of opportunity. Crisis focuses the national consciousness and clarifies positions. Things we thought impossible, which we were just simply reluctant to incorporate, are now imperatives.
The pandemic has exposed just how inefficient and risky cash based transactions are, not just from a security point of view but from a public health point of view, especially when large numbers must gather at transaction points to collect transfers or make payments in person. However, governments have been slow to transition the economy to online platforms. I believe most Jamaicans would now understand the efficiency, convenience, and safety of transacting online. To live with COVID-19, we will have to rapidly transition our economy to online transactions as the new normal. This means intensification of the programme of financial inclusion to ensure every Jamaican has access to easy- to-use, reliable, and affordable financial technology services.
This pandemic has highlighted the need for a comprehensive national system to identify each Jamaican. In a time of crisis and disaster, especially when the threat is individualized, where:
- the individual gets sick,
- the individual must be treated,
- the individual must be contact traced,
- the individual gets laid off,
- the individual requires care packages,
- the individual requires government compassionate grant and,
- the individual requires exemption to move within curfew hours
the government must be able to ascertain, and verify the identity and account for the benefit provided to each person, not only to ensure the entitlement to the individual but also to protect the general public good. Aside, from ensuring that the government can plan, provide and account for the service to the individual, having a standardized system of identification significantly reduces transaction costs and processing times, which increases efficiency of the public bureaucracy, reduces waste of resources, and increases convenience to the individual. Having standardized identity for each citizen is imperative in the post-COVID-19 new normal way of life.
While the technology to enable working virtually has been available for quite a while, the pandemic has now forced us to use it. Some employers and employees have discovered that the technology actually works quite well. Many meetings which we previously physically convened, adding to traffic, pollution and stress could have been done virtually with the same or even better results. As part of the initial response to the pandemic the Government implemented work from home orders which encouraged firms to reconfigure their operations to allow employees to work remotely where possible to reduce the risk of exposure in the workplace setting. While we have announced that we will not renew the measure when it expires on the 31st of May, we are encouraging firms to continue to reconfigure their work modalities and follow the work place orders already in place, along with new protocols being developed.
Almost 6 years ago, we passed the Flexible Work Arrangement law, which facilitates some of the same changes we have had to make during the pandemic but which we had not fully utilized before. We now see where, with greater coordination and use of the flexible work arrangement measures, we could possibly increase efficiency. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to look at work and productivity through a different lens.
More than a third of the BPO industry is now working from home conducting business seamlessly. It is clear that even in the economic downturn, workers in industries that can reconfigure their business process to work virtually, will have a better chance at faster recovery. The pandemic has reinforced the need for Jamaica to rapidly move towards creating the digital society.
I know, that as you watch this message, you or someone in your household or someone you know may have been laid off, or worse, lost their job and would now have no income and depleting savings, if any. We are well aware of this economic impact of the pandemic, as your bills pile up, your mortgage falls due and you worry about where the next meal will come from. Your government cares about you and your household, which is why we have put in place the CARE programme to assist you through this difficult time. However, it is not a feasible prospect or solution to believe that our fiscal situation would allow multiple rounds of this programme.
The real solution is to get the economy up and running again to full capacity, while we limit high risk and non-essential activities that would cause the spread of the virus without any productive gain and put more stress on our health system and our dedicated front-line workers who have been working so hard to contain the spread of the virus.
We have to balance lives and livelihoods. We have to go back to work, work smart and work safe. We have continue to use the medical and public health infection control science to inform our personal behaviour and workplace practices to control the spread of the virus while we pursue our livelihoods. Wearing masks, staying 6ft apart, not gathering in groups of more than 10, staying home if you are ill, and sanitizing hands regularly will be part of the new normal not just at the workplace but in all public places.
To this end the COVID Economic Recovery Task Force along with the Ministry of Health and Wellness are working assiduously to develop protocols to allow for, as quickly as possible, the reopening of businesses that have been closed or badly impacted by the pandemic, such as travel, tourism and the food and restaurant industries.
We have done well to keep our curve flat and our death rate low for the last 2 months. This has given us time to prepare and educate the public about the disease, so that each and every Jamaican can be a ‘strong fence’ against the spread of the virus. This empowerment with knowledge, personal responsibility and continued sound public health measures, will allow us to return to full productive economic activity.
Our Labour Day theme, this year, calls on us to “LABOUR AT HOME, CLEAN UP, FIX UP, PLANT UP”. This pandemic has also exposed the need for greater food security. Now more than ever, I would encourage you to start your backyard garden, I have started mine. Let’s do productive things to improve our community; garden by garden; home by home.
Paying special attention to our homes at this time is especially important since the annual hurricane season starts on June 1, and the forecasters are predicting an active season. As Chairman of the National Disaster Risk Management Council, I will be convening a virtual meeting this week to officially signal the commencement of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season and move our preparations into high gear. Let us use Labour Day to prepare our homes – check the roof, check your windows, prune that overhanging tree and ensure that your house is ready for the hurricane season.
Someone commented to me recently that they so appreciate the peace and quiet in their community. The measures undertaken to control the spread of the virus, have given us an opportunity to reflect on the more important things in life – our spirituality, our family time; our personal health and peace of mind, away from the normal everyday stressful, hustle and bustle.
The pandemic has no doubt disrupted our daily lives, and it has threatened our livelihoods, but it has also given us an opportunity to change our lives for the better, to do the things we should have been doing but just could not find the motivation as a society to get done, to reconfigure our work arrangements and digitize our business, to live healthier and more productive lives in peace, working smarter and safer.
As we return to work, may our labour contribute to the increase in the well-being of our households; the wealth of our nation and the glory of God.