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The frailty of democracy is exposed by Covid-19 and social media

Can a small democracy like Jamaica withstand the onslaught of conspiracy theories and rumours?

By Ricky Browne

Can a democracy work if its citizens consistently try to undermine the authority of the government and its ability to lead?

This is not a problem faced to a great extent by the United Kingdom, but it is increasingly looking like an issue for a small and struggling democracy like Jamaica and its population of 2.8 million people. The coronavirus pandemic seems to be bringing conspiracy theories to the fore, as every action by government seems to be ridiculed and questioned by people on social media.

Eddie Seaga, former Prime Minister of Jamaica

Jean Anderson, the sister of Eddie Seaga who was Prime Minister of Jamaica in the 1980s, told me recently that her brother had said “Jamaica is ungovernable.” But he was governing at a time when social media did not exist, when the only way that people got to expound on their conspiracy theories was via the radio talk shows or letters to the editor – both of which had limited access.

In the United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson got his AstraZeneca vaccine with little comment. He waited until his tier came up, which happened to be about two days after I got my vaccine and after about 26 million other people had received theirs.

CAPITAL OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES

But in Jamaica, which is fast establishing itself as the capital of conspiracy theories, it was another story.

First, people complained on social media about Prime Minister Andrew Holness not getting the vaccine.

“Why other people must get, and he doesn’t take it himself?” was a big question on social media.

So last week he comes out and explains why he hadn’t yet had the vaccine – that there were people who were ahead of him, and he was trying to respect the process. Medical staff and other government officials were in the first tier. And that if he’d taken the vaccine early, people would have been calling him to demand that they got theirs too, even though it wasn’t their turn.

But he announced that he would in fact receive his first vaccination the following week as would his wife, who is also an MP, and the Minister of Health, Chris Tufton.

Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness appears to get his vaccination as Minister of Health Chris Tufton looks on. Photo: JIS

Then people started to say on social media, “Why is he getting his vaccine now ahead of other people? ‘Im tink sey ‘im betta than wi?” Or some variation thereof.

But he goes ahead and has the vaccine, and it is videotaped and placed on social media.

Then people start to say it was a fake video. That you couldn’t see the needle enter his arm, that the nurse blocked the view of the needle with a piece of cotton wool, that you couldn’t see her push the plunger down.

So the Prime Minister comes out with a statement to the Jamaica Observer to try and kill the rumour, stating that he had in fact got the vaccine, that the side effects of it had been minimal, a bit of fatigue, but nothing that could prevent him from doing his work.

Did he really? The rumour mill doesn’t think so. Photo: JIS

That of course has done nothing to stop the rumour mill, and if anything has fuelled it. People are now making more comments to say that it is clear from the video that he didn’t actually receive a dose, and more people are coming out with how dangerous the vaccine really is.

Tanzanian President John Magulfi recently died — but how?

The recent death of the Tanzanian president — a big Covid denier — rather than being seen as evidence of what can happen if you don’t take the virus seriously, is being seen as evidence that he was assassinated because he was against the vaccine.

You can read my take on the Tanzanian president’s death here: https://matt-haycox.com/covid-19-claims-scalp-of-one-of-its-largest-deniers-john-magulfi-president-of-tanzania/

MICHAEL SHARPE

But closer to home was the news that well known Jamaican journalist Michael Sharpe was in hospital.

So now it is being said in some quarters that Sharpe is in critical condition and is having an adverse reaction to the vaccine – and this is more evidence of the danger of taking it.

Jamaican journalist Michael Sharpe Photo: Jamaica Gleaner

It should have been impossible for Sharpe to receive a vaccine in Jamaica as he does not belong to the group of people who are now receiving it. The only people who are supposed to receive the vaccine in Jamaica at this point are medical staff, some government officials and people over the age of 75. Sharpe is in his 50s. He is in media. Even if he had a comorbidity, that would not qualify him to get a vaccine.

Now, it could be that he was able to get a vaccine anyway – either by getting one abroad, or by somehow getting one in Jamaica although he doesn’t belong to the current tier. It is believed that many people have managed to get around the system.

But even if he did get a vaccine, and even though he is now in hospital – that doesn’t mean that he is in hospital because he got a vaccine.

The Covid-19 virus is hitting the Jamaican population, and it could be that if Sharpe is ill, that he is ill because he has the Covid-19 virus. Even if he got the vaccine, the vaccine doesn’t really become effective at all until about three weeks after receiving it.

But we don’t know why he is in hospital anyway. It could be something completely unrelated to Covid-19.

But who would let such ideas get in the way of a good story?

Michael Sharpe used to be a news reader on TVJ

Michael Sharpe works for Jamaica News Network (JNN), a Jamaican cable news station, which is part of the group which also includes the Gleaner newspaper and TVJ television station. JNN has not said that he is ill because of an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Nor have the two main stations TVJ and CVM.

The respected Gleaner reported only that Sharpe had been hospitalised. “His family has released a statement saying Sharpe has thanked his friends and well-wishers for their kindness and encouragement as he continues to recover,” the report stated.

But there is a video clip from what appears to be a TV station news programme that has reported that Sharpe is currently in critical condition in hospital due to an “adverse reaction” to the vaccine.

A clip of the broadcast is flying around on social media – as more fuel to the flame for those people who are antivaxxers.

FREE MEDIA

That is the definition of irresponsible journalism and helps to demonstrate how difficult it is to govern Jamaica, where freedom of the press and by extension freedom of expression are much higher than most other countries.

Jamaica ranks sixth on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index – behind Norway in first place, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, and just ahead of Costa Rica, Switzerland, New Zealand and Portugal to round off the top ten.

Jamaica ranks way above Canada in 16th place, the United Kingdom in 35th place and the United States in 45th place.

Way down close to the lowest position on the list is Jamaica’s neighbour Cuba – ranked at 171. Now that must be an easier country to govern, US blockade or not. Its people do not question the legitimacy of every government decision – they don’t have that ability.

Jamaica is in blue

Other countries even lower on the list include Vietnam at 175, China at 177 and North Korea dead last at 180. These are not countries that anyone who respects a free media would aspire to – but for the governments in power, it does make ruling over them a breeze in comparison.

In the age of social media everyone has a soapbox (including me) to declare any crackpot theory that they want. It used to be that the only place you could spew your conspiracy theories without fear of being locked up as a lunatic was at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London.

These days everyone gets to hold their own corner online and Speakers’ Corner is redundant

But now every person with access to the internet has access to his own personal Speakers’ Corner. And where as traditional media is still the place to get authentic news, it is being drowned out by fake news that is being replicated and broadcast throughout social media.

Democracy in Jamaica is strong, and apart from the State of Emergency in the 1970s, it has been strong ever since its independence in 1962, and even from before that as a colony.

Or at least it appears to be strong. But its strength is now being well and truly tested.

With multiple voices, and with a widespread refusal to believe a word told to them by the authorities and/or government – trying to govern Jamaica must be an exhausting experience – as Seaga no doubt found in the calmer 1980s.

Meanwhile, Bruce Golding, a former Jamaican prime minister, is also ill in hospital. Conspiracy theories are brewing about that as well.

BACK IN THE UK

Back in the UK, some 30 million people have now been vaccinated at least once with either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines – more than 50 percent of the adult population. The result is that infection rates, death rates and hospitalisation rates have been plummeting.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson receives the first dose of the vaccine Photo: AP/Frank Augstein

Today, some of the lockdown measures were eased, so that a group of six people can now meet outside, and those who are crazy enough can now go swimming outside.

Next month, if all goes according to plan, people will be able to go to a pub again – if only outside, and have a drink.

Its crazy times. But the vaccine is allowing the UK to return to some level of normality, just as Jamaica is having to go into an intensification of its lockdown procedures.

With only about 65,000 vaccines available to it, for a population of 2.8 million people, Jamaica is far off from getting even 10 percent of its population vaccinated.

As the virus continues to spread, the hospitals, according to the Minister of Health, are buckling under the pressure. Only an effective vaccination campaign can protect the country from further trauma.

But if you watch social media, anyone who agrees to be vaccinated is being foolhardy.

Jamaicans will not give up on their freedom of expression or of the media. But some level of responsibility on behalf of those people with a mouth, could go a long way in helping the government to get Jamaica out of this crisis.

Keep an eye on social media

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