Kilimanjaro proved right

BLACK RIVER, St Elizabeth — Mugabe Kilimanjaro, councillor for the Ipswich Division (People’s National Party) in the St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation, won’t readily forget that organisation’s monthly meeting in March.

Back then he was the butt of jokes and ridicule when he walked into the meeting with his mouth and nose covered by a mask.

He was the only one among councillors, municipal staff, representatives of public sector agencies, and journalists wearing protection in the wake of Jamaica’s first direct brush with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Last week, in a telephone interview with the Jamaica Observer, Kilimanjaro recalled that ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) members of the council at the March meeting openly laughed and one councillor said he looked “ridiculous”.

In an extraordinary demonstration of how fast COVID-19 is changing attitudes, a totally different story unfolded at the April meeting of the corporation.

At that meeting most councillors, including chairman and Mayor of Black River Derrick Sangster, and almost everyone else wore masks.

Kilimanjaro told the Observer that the change in April made him feel “vindicated” to some extent, even as he lamented the delay in recognition by the authorities of the “logic” of recommending protective gear to deal with COVID-19.

By early April the Ministry of Health and Wellness, which had previously suggested that masks and gloves were best used by sick people as well as health care workers, following advice from the World Health Organization, had changed its tune.

On April 6, Jamaica’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, was quoted as giving conditional approval for healthy people to wear masks, even while emphasising that due care should be taken, since the mishandling of masks could lead to contamination and inadvertent spread of the disease.

“Yes, it can be useful. It does offer some protection, especially where there are persons who are coughing and sneezing within your three- to six-feet personal space.

“…Wearing a mask continuously is uncomfortable, and you must avoid touching and adjusting the mask as, if the mask is contaminated, you will contaminate your hands and infect yourselves and others,” Bisasor-McKenzie said at the time.

Before that, and more so since then, the manufacturing of masks — ranging from large operators to traditional dressmakers — has escalated as Jamaicans, worried by the threat of the highly contagious COVID-19 and following the example of their leaders, have sought added protection.

For Kilimanjaro — who is the younger brother of the high-profile PNP aspirant for St Elizabeth North Eastern, Basil Waite — the early decision to wear a mask was “simple logic”, after closely watching and reading about the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.

He struggles to understand how others, not least the authorities, took so long to appreciate the value of masks for the public at large.

Kilimanjaro had argued strongly at the March meeting of the corporation in favour of masks after chief medical officer of health for St Elizabeth Dr Tonia Dawkins-Beharie delivered the then recommendation of the Ministry of Health that it was unnecessary for the public.

But Dawkins-Beharie had repeatedly made it clear at the March meeting that, because COVID-19 was new, conventional wisdom, advice, and recommendations could quickly change.

“This particular strain of coronavirus is new, so we are still learning about it, and I encourage you all to be flexible with the information as things we know now may change later,” Dawkins-Beharie said at the time.

As it turned out, her cautionary words were well placed, if not prophetic.

Kilimanjaro argues that, for him, wearing a mask was a logical outgrowth of wanting to prevent transmission from one person to another.

“The way we are told the virus is spread, it seemed logical to cover your face,” said the councillor.

Nowadays, Kilimanjaro says he wears a mask even while driving, since as a political representative he often has to stop for conversations.

He told the Observer that he has a “stockpile” of masks, not only for himself, but also for those around him.

According to Kilimanjaro, he was concerned last week that he was still seeing health workers and police without masks — reflective of what, he felt, seemed to be a general tendency of the Government to be reactive and not proactive in dealing with COVID-19.

He rejected suggestions that the early hesitation by the authorities — not just in Jamaica but throughout the Western Hemisphere — in recommending the wearing of masks by the general public was partly to ensure an adequate supply for health workers.

“Those concerns are unfounded and based on inadequate thinking,” he told the Observer. “This is a major emergency, and the way to solve it is to do whatever is necessary to fill the material needs. If there is a need for masks then you have to ramp up production to provide masks. In a war you can’t go in depending on existing stocks [of weaponry], you have to ramp up production…” said Kilimanjaro.

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