We are our best defense

Upon receiving reports that some Jamaicans were being subjected to attacks and social exclusion on suspicion of having COVID-19, the country’s health and wellness minister urged Jamaicans not to “allow fear to override reason”.

It was a pivotal admonition, particularly in our mass media age which has near limitless potential to whip nations into a state of panic that can give birth to irrationality and abuse.

If we in The Bahamas want to wage the best possible battle against an unmanageable spread of COVID-19, we cannot allow fear to spur inhumanity against those who may become infected, and we must compassionately appreciate the stress that mass layoffs, business closures, curfews and extraordinary restrictions place on the average individual.

Evidence of fear overriding reason came to light when Kristy Ferguson, the daughter of the country’s first confirmed COVID-19 patient, told her and her family’s story on the nightly news program Beyond the Headlines.

The young professional and her sisters were victims of viral falsehoods and cyberbullying in the aftermath of their mother’s diagnosis.

Ferguson spoke to claims by Bahamians who traveled on a recent flight with the sisters, who reported being shunned at their workplaces by coworkers who feared they had been infected.

She and her sisters all tested negative for COVID-19, and she raised concerns which mirrored those raised in this space last week, that stigmatizing the disease can have the counterproductive effect of pushing those suffering possible COVID-19 symptoms to refuse to seek medical care or advice for fear of being targeted.

If we look at every resident through the lens of fear — seeing them as a potential disease-carrying enemy — instead of seeing each other as partners in this battle, we would make it that much harder to achieve the goals set out by our public health officials.

In that vein, much has been said about panic buying at grocery stores, and the incomprehensibility of it all.

From a psychological perspective, hoarding is actually a natural human response to scarcity, whether real or perceived.

In a time of crisis and fear, people motivated by protecting their self-interest seek to minimize risk by trying to stock up on essential items — a motivation that might be most pronounced in segments of the society who fear that their lack of resources or social connections might put them at a dangerous disadvantage if shortages were to ever occur.

Fear is contagious and with the impact of social media, images of long lines, bare shelves and full trolleys at food stores can transmit a message to residents that they’d better get what they can before there is nothing left to buy.

For some, panic buying allows one to gain a sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation, and help one to feel he or she has worked to safeguard themselves and their family against having to go without.

Though it can be aggravating to be subjected to long lines due to panic buying, we should seek with grace to understand that this experience is new for every partner in the COVID-19 fight, and will test our individual and collective wills in uncharted ways.

Curfews and confinement, meanwhile, are immensely stressful in a free society, and the restrictions on access to standard options for relaxation and socialization can trigger feelings of angst and frustration on top of resident fear, even though most understand the rationale for such regulations.

This mixture of emotions no doubt factored into the irresponsible response by Nassuvians who flooded the island’s beaches over the weekend in a manner that threw social distancing and necessary caution to the wind.

In that moment, many residents failed to look out for one another, and failed to hold one another accountable for actions that could have put so many at risk.

Though it is government that imposes emergency regulations, we must all keep at the forefront of our thinking that this is not merely a government fight in which we are powerless actors.

On the contrary, it is each and every one of us who are on the battle lines of the COVID-19 fight, and we all matter equally in this process regardless of age, disability or pre-existing medical condition.

Understanding what each other is feeling, showing empathy in the current struggle and encouraging each other to follow the rules of engagement are what will help us get through this difficult time.

We are our best defense.

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