Allow us, once more, to discuss and place COVID-19 into perspective as it relates to the local reality in Guyana, as we learn from press reports and other sources. This idea occurred during the good fortune we had to listen to a public forum on the Implications of COVID-19, a Public and Private Law Perspective, hosted by the Faculty of Law of the University of the West Indies (UWI) on May 19, last. We are but laymen in legal parlance but were enlightened by the presentations in general, and particularly one by Dr. Tracy S. Robinson, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Mona, Jamaica. She posited that, “in times of crises, there is a shift in our thinking and behaviour”.
She alluded to Prof. Sigal Barsade of the Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania, USA, in an article she published titled, ‘Emotional Contagion in Organizational Life’ in the Journal of Research in Organizational Behavior, who concluded that “one of the things we know from research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision making. We are not creative; we are not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions. Emotional contagion affects everyone, which means that it can also affect leaders. It can also affect policymakers.”
Experts may provide factual advice and recommendations, but many are oblivious to the effect emotional contagion has on their decision-making process. Indeed, press reports from around the world on decision making processes do not appear to have been based on facts or reality.
Emotional contagion connotes feelings of fear, anxiety and panic spread and impacts how we perceive and respond to risk. The same can be applied to one who is awaiting the result of a test, for which there is no specific treatment and the outcome is unknown. These persons and their families are all at risk and the outcome can range from being asymptomatic to death. We do not recognize it, but everyone is tense, their gait is affected, speech becomes slower, and the normally jovial type becomes quiet. That was the situation with HIV infected patients in the past and is also now true of patients infected with the COVID-19 virus.
Dr. Robinson further posited that we value action over deliberation. The government’s ability to act swiftly and decisively often becomes superior to limitations on governmental powers and individual rights, so the latter are trampled upon. She referred to Prof. Owen Gross’ book, Laws in Times of Crisis, 2006, in which he suggested that “crises (pandemics, national security threats, citizen insecurity, natural disasters etc.); produce an expansion of governmental powers and the concentration of powers in the hands of the executive”.
She went on to quote Prof. Anne Twomey of the University of Sydney, Australia, who stated that, “In an emergency, maintaining public confidence in the government is essential especially when you are asking very hard things of people, especially when you are restricting their civil liberties, their ordinary day to day freedoms and taking decisions that affect them economically…and to do that you need some kind of level of parliamentary scrutiny. Parliamentary committees are a good way of doing that.”
This now brings us to press reports of May 21 last, which noted that 1269 tests were done so far with127 persons being tested positive and 10 have died because of the virus in Guyana. This begs the question whether the number of tests have been sufficient and covers all the regions. In comparison with the wider Caribbean, there have been 84 deaths; Barbados tested 4322 persons, identified 90 cases and reported 7 deaths; Trinidad and Tobago, 2720 tests with 116 positives and 8 deaths; Jamaica 520 positives and 9 deaths and Suriname 11 positives with 1 death.
We need to reflect on the number and places where tests are being done in Guyana. Our population, although concentrated along the coastal belt, covers a much greater area and given the land size, poses a greater and more difficult challenge to our planners, whoever and wherever they may be. The population needs to be made aware of the guidance of the National Task Force, regarding the location of at-risk sections of the population, the need for self-identification and criteria used for testing. There are reports that in Guyana, Georgetown is the epicenter of the disease but, as the proverb goes, ‘seek and you shall find’.
It is worth highlighting that Barbados, with approximately one third of our population and five hundred times smaller than Guyana, has done three times the number of tests. In Barbados, everyone is near a laboratory. This should not be an excuse but our challenge. This crisis is a good opportunity to identify the need for expansion of testing capability of various diseases in the country.
It is reported that the Regional Democratic Council is the supreme Local Government in each region, with responsibility for the overall management and administration of the Region and coordination of the activities of all Local Democratic Organs within its boundaries. Its main functions are to administer all services required within its boundaries (services such as health, education, public works etc.). We now learn, however, that the National COVID-19 Task Force (NCTF) denied a request by the Regional Executive Officer (REO) of Region Nine, Mr. Carl Parker, for a total lockdown, based on a recommendation from the Regional Health Committee (RHEC). We understand the request was because the Rupununi residents are considered extremely vulnerable to importation of cases on two fronts: persons coming from Georgetown as well as those crossing the border from Brazil. It should be emphasized that on May 20, last, Brazil reported approximately 300,000 cases of COVID-19, the third highest in the world and 19,000 related deaths. In Roraima State, bordering Guyana, there are 2,170 cases with 68 reported deaths.
We now wonder whether the National Task Force acted too swiftly albeit decisively in considering the request from the Regional Health Committee for a total lockdown, and if this is a good example of emotional contagion leading to a poor decision. On the other hand, it could be that in Guyana we are unfortunate to have never had a natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake, during which responses must be made at the local level.
As we come closer to the results of the National Election (of March 2nd), we ponder whether the Task Force is affected by the emotions of fear and anxiety and have lost the ability to be creative and analytical policy makers, assuming, of course, that the policymakers do have good knowledge of the facts. Georgetown may be the epicenter of the disease, but the Task Force cannot focus only on Georgetown. We have not yet seen any reports in the press of the deliberations and/or policies emanating from the Task Force.
As stated during the public forum, ‘Extraordinary situations call for specific solutions to ensure appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. New Zealand’s parliament was exemplary in this respect when it established a Response Committee on matters relating to the government’s management of the COVID-19 epidemic. Notably, that committee was chaired by the Leader of the Opposition.’
We hope the results of the elections will break the current impasse with the installment of a new parliament and tamper partisanship inclinations so that we can follow the New Zealand Parliament’s example of establishing a COVID-19 Response Committee. It would consider and report on any matters relating to the government’s management of the COVID-19 epidemic to the house.
When COVID-19 becomes history, we would recommend that a Committee on Epidemics and Outbreaks be established by Parliament, and chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, as a first step of an inclusive government in Guyana about which we hear much talk.
Keith H. Carter, MD
Raj. N. Mungol, MA
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