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One of the greatest fears in managing the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is to have the prison population contracting the disease. The prison is set apart because of population density, overcrowding, ability to contain the spread and achieve a COVD-19 free environment.
Last March the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), in a Position Paper, called on countries to examine a new way to deal with the prison population given how the virus is spread. That agency warns, “COVID-19 prevention and control measures alone may prove insufficient for many prison systems plagued by overcrowding and other systemic challenges. Without compromising public safety, COVID-19 preparedness in prisons should therefore also include efforts to reduce the number of new admissions and to accelerate the release of selected categories of prisoners.” If the Government paid any attention to this advice remains unclear.
Recently Minister of Home Affairs Robeson Benn announced 140 inmates in the Lusignan Prison tested positive for the virus. In our overcrowded prisons for many it was not if it was going to happen but when. The Government has to admit, based on the very figures they are releasing, enough is not being done to allay fears the global pandemic will not become an epidemic here.
According to the UNODC prisons are hazardous environments with regards to the virus and the prisoners and prison personnel are “at-risk groups.” Government should make public the guidelines they have put in place to protect these two vulnerable populations. Though prisoners are part of the restricted population what about the general population that prison personnel are a part of and interact with daily?
Answers are needed about how many prison personnel have contracted the virus, were exposed, and what mechanisms have been put in place for contact tracing. In the first place, how did the virus get into the prison? Its origin has to be found. For the most part prisoners are isolated and not mixing with the general population. Somebody took the virus in the prison which means they are out in the society unintentionally or unbeknownst to them spreading it to their family members and people in the community. The multiplier effect cannot be ignored. We could only hope the spread was unintentional and not malicious.
Prison personnel should also be given Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and quarantine probably at work so. They need to be monitored. Unlike the Palms where the elderly has on-going medical care, given comorbidities, inmates generally do not share same conditions of living. Additionally, ours is a society not unlike some that do not care about this population, having been considered outcast but their well-being is also impacted by visitors and staff.
Government’s handling of the spread, by its sheer numbers and deaths, suggests a good job is not being done. It will do society no good if the people feel the government is not coming clean with them or not doing their best in combating the disease. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) basic guidelines are wearing masks when in public spaces, such as market, work, etc; hand washing; staying six feet apart, and minimising public gatherings. These guidelines apply to all.
There is concern adherence is selective as the outrage. Understandably, there is a view that the protests in West Coast Berbice, should there be an outbreak in the area could lead to breaking the medical system, but this concern cannot be selective. On crowd size, close proximity and wearing masks those protests shared similar characteristics with the inauguration ceremony at the Culture Centre, and close gathering of so many children around Georgetown wards at an event to launch the First Lady’s initiative, laudable though it be.
The coronavirus disease affects all. It is a national issue of epic proportion. It does not care what we look like, where we live, our political support, age or position in society. This is why the Government has to be consistent in what it sets out to do because citizens will take their cue from them. 50 deaths since August 2nd and an increase in more than 2000 cases and counting show Guyana is not flattening the curve. The government needs to expand its reach and seek the support of others in achieving better management. It remains a useful approach to include stakeholders such as the political opposition, trade union and religious organisation who have influence with their members.