In his message marking National Heroes’ Day, which is celebrated today, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has paid tribute to the front line workers, several of whom have died from COVID-19, describing their service as akin to the sacrifice of Jamaica’s heroes.
Following are excerpts from his message:
National Heroes’ Day is set aside as a public holiday each year to honour those great Jamaicans, who by their work and often ultimate sacrifice, revolted against slavery, secured our freedom, fought for equal rights and justice, guided our Independence, resisted oppression and, in so doing, inspired a revolution and an awakening of self-pride and consciousness not only in Jamaica as a nation, but as black people all over the world.
Today, as well, we recall the work and contribution of our front line workers, particularly our public health workers who have worked tirelessly to keep us safe. Many have become ill in the execution of their duties and, unfortunately, some have died. Our front line workers have been heroes in this pandemic, and we express our gratitude to them.
The pandemic would not be the first outbreak of a dangerous disease to cause a public health crisis in Jamaica. In fact, the struggle for our freedom and independence happened alongside our struggles for better public health.
In 1851, Jamaica had a serious cholera outbreak which killed more than 40,000 persons, a tenth of the population at the time. The conditions of living in Jamaica at this time would have contributed to the severity of the outbreak. The lack of basic health care for the population would have formed part of the general discontent with living conditions over which heroes like Paul Bogle would have protested.
Diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, influenza, and pneumonia were all rampant at the time and were leading causes of death and contributed to low life expectancy. A Jamaican living at the turn of the century to the 1940s, on average, had a life expectancy of 38 years. All these communicable diseases and the deaths they caused were preventable with better health facilities, better personal and public health practices, and most effectively through vaccines.
By the 1950s and 60s, Jamaica started to introduce regular vaccination programmes in our public health system for diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis. During this period our life expectancy increased to 53 years. In the 1970s and 80s, Jamaica started to develop a more systematic and robust vaccination programme which significantly reduced or eliminated infections from most of the communicable diseases I mentioned earlier.
This robust system of vaccination was put to the test in 1982 when there was an outbreak of polio in Jamaica. Jamaica now had the expertise, systems, and capacity to deploy an islandwide vaccination programme, which has been hailed as an example in public health vaccination responses. We rapidly brought this outbreak under control, and the last reported case of polio in Jamaica was in 1982. The last reported case of local measles was in 1991, diphtheria in 1995, the rubella in 2000, and new-born tetanus in 2001.
How did we eradicate all these diseases from our land? It was through mass vaccination. In 1986 the Government of Jamaica passed regulations to support the full vaccination of all children and made it a condition of their admission to school. Today, every mother, routinely and dutifully, now takes their precious babies, toddlers, and adolescents to their local clinic for their first shots and booster shots. No questions asked! Because of vaccines, preventable diseases are no longer the leading cause of death in Jamaica. Our life expectancy on average is 75 years; we now live longer to enjoy our freedom.
But what are we doing with our freedom? Unfortunately, we have grown complacent with our health attitudes and behaviours, we have forgotten our history and how we got here, to the point where we can take our health and the role vaccines have played in securing our personal and public health for granted.
Your freedom as a citizen and your right to choose, guaranteed by the constitution, are not free. Our heroes gave their lives to building a Jamaican State that would provide better conditions for our people…better health care, education, security, justice, and a better economy. The pandemic has placed all of this at risk, the longer we have to institute crude measures such as lockdowns and no-movements to keep you safe from infection-spread and prevent our health-care system from collapsing. And, in order to control the pandemic, we have to divert significant resources from other critical areas such as crime, garbage collection, and roads.
My fellow citizens, my Jamaican family, our heroes did not give their lives to gain our freedom for us to squander it on false information on social media, conspiracy theories, and utter nonsense being espoused by pseudo prophets and rumour-mongers. Our heroes, expect us to learn from our history, to be responsible citizens, and take wise decisions for our personal health and protect the collective health of the society. Our history has shown that we have overcome health crises before; we can overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Inside each of you there is a hero telling you to cast your fears aside, telling you not to wait and see, our history has already shown us how effective vaccines can be, telling you about your survival, about your livelihood, about your children being able to go back to school. Be the hero, do what is right, do what is smart.
Let’s get vaccinated so that we can return full focus to continuing the mission of our heroes and founding fathers to build a just, progressive, and prosperous society.