JAMAICA: In March, as the coronavirus spread rapidly across the world, Jamaica’s government closed its borders to prevent a spike in infections and deaths. The drastic move successfully limited the spread of the virus in the country, but it brought its economy to a standstill. On June 15th, Jamaica reopened its borders to tourists. After the arrival of more than thirty-five thousand people, there have been more than a hundred newly confirmed cases of covid-19 on the island. The majority of them came from the United States. Jamaica, a nation whose economy is dependent on international movement, had no choice but to reopen. Without tourism, businesses there stood to lose the equivalent of about three million dollars a day in revenue, which sustains more than twenty per cent of the country’s economy. Delroy Williams, the mayor of Kingston, said that the city’s entertainment industry, which ranges from music production to concerts to dance halls, has been shut down as well. “Its impact is huge,” he said. “The city would collapse without the industry.”
In June, Edmund Bartlett, the Minister of Tourism, announced a plan to establish a “resilience corridor” that runs from west to east, along Jamaica’s northern coast, where all travellers would remain. (There is now a corridor on the southern coast as well.) Whether the plan will be effective in containing the virus remains to be seen. The government is currently processing a backlog of ten thousand coronavirus tests. The health ministry claims that all specimens will be analyzed by the end of the month. The government also released an app called JamCOVID19, which tracks the movements of visitors and can be used for contact tracing.
Unlike elected leaders in the United States, Jamaican politicians acknowledged the scope of the threat, aggressively responded to the virus, and vanquished it. To date, only ten people have died and eight hundred and ten have been infected in a nation of nearly three million people. In order to protect itself from American tourists who might be carriers, Jamaica declared that visitors from Florida, Texas, Arizona, and New York are allowed to enter the country only if they test negative for the virus ten days or fewer before their arrival. Due to economic pressure, Jamaica has also resumed receiving flights from the United Kingdom, the country from which travellers first brought the virus to the island. British tourists must also test negative before they arrive.
On March 4th, a Jamaican woman who has dual British-Jamaican citizenship arrived at Norman Manley International, Kingston’s main airport. Six days later, she tested positive for covid-19, becoming Jamaica’s first confirmed case. Before she began exhibiting symptoms, she attended a funeral and visited at least five public spaces. Health officials immediately placed the woman in isolation at a hospital and began contact tracing. Officials discovered that this Patient Zero had infected at least five other people, who were also placed in quarantine.
The immediate use of quarantine reflected the unified approach adopted by Jamaica’s two political parties. After watching the pandemic spread across China and South Korea, elected leaders adopted the strict contact-tracing methodology that was used in those two countries. Drawing on Jamaica’s past experiences with epidemics such as H1N1 and sars, the Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, enacted a nationwide pandemic protocol. The government imposed temperature checks at markets; a ten-hour curfew for all residents except essential workers, which, if violated, could have resulted in arrest; and meticulous contact tracing across the country’s fourteen parishes. The strict measures worked. Jamaican officials kept the country’s over-all rate of infection low—about thirty cases per hundred thousand people, a fraction of the rate in the U.S., which is more than a thousand per hundred thousand. If the U.S. had been able to contain the virus to the same degree, there would have been about a hundred thousand cases instead of nearly four million to date. “Restrictions significantly slowed down the virus and allowed us to manage the spread,” Christopher Tufton, the Jamaican Minister of Health and Wellness, told me.
The government also closed the borders to thousands of Jamaican citizens who were travelling or working abroad, barring them from returning home until at least mid-May. A sixty-five-year-old health-care provider named Lin, who asked that her last name not be used, was one of the Jamaicans stranded abroad. She had travelled to Orlando from Kingston to care for a patient shortly before the pandemic began. (She has cared for several members of my family in the past.) In normal circumstances, she would have returned to Jamaica in April, after she was done providing care, but, because the borders were closed, she was stuck in Florida for six weeks. “I was terrified,” she told me. “I just wanted to go home. I was in a strange country, and I was alone.”
Audrey Marks, the Jamaican Ambassador to the United States, supervised the controlled reëntry of four thousand Jamaican nationals who were stranded in the U.S. at the time of the closure. All returnees were required to wear masks on their flights home, get tested for the virus, and quarantine for fourteen days in hotel rooms obtained by the government before seeing their families. The Jamaican government paid more than a million dollars to feed and quarantine all of the repatriated Jamaicans at hotels in Kingston and St. Ann. “It’s very expensive, but the government’s position was that it is better to take the initial cost, rather than take on the long-term costs of overwhelming the system,” Marks told me.
The health-care system in Jamaica, like elsewhere in the Caribbean, is fragile. Seventeen thousand public-health workers care for the country’s population of 2.7 million people. Jamaican health-care workers, who have a reputation for administering quality care, are often hired to work in the United States. As the coronavirus spread, Jamaica recruited Cuban medical workers to aid in caring for patients. At any given moment, there are about three hundred Cuban doctors and nurses working in Jamaica. During the covid-19 pandemic, Cuba sent an additional hundred and forty-four health-care workers.
Trump Administration officials urged Jamaica and other nations not to accept Cuban health-care workers, because of what it claimed were “labor abuses,” but several countries ignored the Administration’s warnings. Cuba, which has one of the world’s highest ratios of doctors per capita, built a field hospital in Lombardy, Italy, and dispatched more than a thousand health-care workers to eighteen countries, including eight in the Caribbean. In Cuba, the government has reported that there have been only twenty-four hundred confirmed cases and eighty-six deaths related to the coronavirus, in a nation of eleven million. Cuban officials credit the country’s strict isolation measures and mask guidelines.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean archipelago, the response to the coronavirus has varied. In the Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispañola and has a population of ten million, there have been more than fifty-six thousand confirmed cases and about a thousand deaths. Haiti, which occupies the western third of the island and has a population of eleven million, has a weak health-care system and has not been able to test widely; it has confirmed only seven thousand cases and a hundred and fifty-four deaths.
Many smaller countries in the West Indies closed their borders to mitigate the spread of the virus, but now face economic devastation without tourism. The Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda recently said that LIAT, a Caribbean airline owned by a consortium of eleven island nations, had seen its passenger traffic collapse during the pandemic. The air carrier plans to liquidate all of its assets and reform as a new company. Countries such as the Bahamas, Dominica, and Jamaica face social, economic, and health challenges that will hamper development and likely lead to what the U.N. predicts will be “the most severe” economic decline in history across the Caribbean and Latin America.
Jamaica’s largest outbreak occurred in a call center in St. Catherine, the second-largest parish in the country. “The ‘St. Catherine cluster,’ as I like to call it, is a facility that employed nearly eight hundred people,” Tufton, the health minister and an elected representative for St. Catherine, said. He told me that one person at the facility got infected through an imported case. Contact tracing showed that the single infected person set off a chain of events that resulted in at least a third of the confirmed cases in the country. “We interrogate that person’s movement, where they go, where they have stayed, who they have interacted with, and then follow up on those contacts and expand the net as wide as possible,” Tufton said. To “cauterize” the spread, St. Catherine was placed under a twenty-four-hour curfew for a week. (The call-center company has since announced that it will close its facility in St. Catherine indefinitely.)
Eight miles to the east, in Kingston, the mayor, Williams, of the Jamaica Labour Party, enforced social distancing and built facilities for people experiencing homelessness. Williams urged the metro area’s seven hundred thousand residents to comply with social distancing and other coronavirus-related orders that were issued by the national government. Eventually, residents “started to conform and the idea of social distancing started to become a part of the language of the people,” Williams told me. One solution included creating “mobile markets”: vendors drove around neighborhoods selling fruits and ground provisions. This reduced some of the density in the city’s larger food markets. Jamaica was also able to largely ward off significant outbreaks among seniors by denying visitors and new residents at nursing homes. “So far, we have not had any outbreak at our golden-age homes,” Williams said, a far better outcome than what has occurred in many American cities.
Williams told me that infrastructure projects are happening in Kingston, which will improve the city’s water supply, bolster tourism, and ultimately create more jobs. He said that the city’s entertainment sector is a key driver of the city economy, because concerts, music production, and dance halls all fuel other industries, such as alcohol production and sales, beauty, and retail.
One of Kingston’s largest attractions is the Carnival season, which the Ministry of Tourism rescheduled this year, moving it from April to October. Entertainment companies are still expecting revellers despite growing concerns of an outbreak. In response to a Carnival band’s Instagram reminder about a coming payment deadline for costumes, one customer replied, “Honestly you guys have not been good at communicating anything, and you all just hop, skip, and jump to collecting. . . . You really look like you only care about money . . . and evidently you don’t care about anybody’s health.”
Williams and some hotel owners, as well as members of the opposition People’s National Party, called for all tourists to be tested before entering the country. The Medical Association of Jamaica has also recommended that all tourists be tested before arrival. Andrew Manning, the president of the association, said that the current backlog of tests “is of great concern because if you have a person who has to wait a while for the result, and if they break quarantine and you don’t know their status, and then they turn out to be positive, clearly that’s going to have implications.”
On June 2nd, Jamaica adopted a compromise—it mandated that all visitors would be screened upon arrival, and, on June 29th, the Prime Minister announced that travellers from high-risk areas were required to test negative before they arrive. Bartlett, the tourism minister, told me that travellers from lower-risk countries should be allowed to enter Jamaica before they get tested. “We’ve developed protocol reviews, and it puts us in a position where we can be nimble and pivot as needed in the protection of the people of Jamaica and the economy,” he said.
As the hurricane season unfolds, the region faces another peril: a catastrophic storm could force residents into crowded shelters and homes, which could also fuel an outbreak. Williams said that, in his city, hurricane shelters would include the same protocols as shelters for the homeless: sanitization, masks, hand-washing stations, social distancing, and strict monitoring of who enters the facility and whether they have been tested. But, as I wrote last year, government plans for responding to hurricanes frequently unravel in the immediate aftermath of storms. Citizens are often forced to help one another before slow-moving government efforts begin having an impact. Jamaica’s successful response to the pandemic, and the remarkable unity displayed by its local and national political leaders, suggests that a new model is possible. Tufton, the health minister, said that Jamaican officials responded successfully to the coronavirus because they worked in concert. “It has shown us that we all are at risk,” he told me. “And coming together is probably the best strategy to confronting what really is a threat to mankind.”