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Jamaica heads to polls as Covid-19 cases soar

Jamaica's Prime Minister Andrew Holness has come in for criticism that he put politics over public health
Jamaica's Prime Minister Andrew Holness has come in for criticism that he put politics over public health AFP/File
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Kingston (Jamaica) (AFP)

Jamaicans head to the polls for a general election Thursday amid soaring coronavirus infections and rising criticism over the government's handling of the pandemic.

The ruling Jamaica Labour Party is widely expected to retain power in the vote, which kicks off at 7:00 am, with 1.9 million people eligible to cast ballots.

Still, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has come in for criticism that he put politics over public health with his decision to call the election more than six months before it is constitutionally due despite the island's spike in Covid-19 cases.

"He called the election at a time when Covid cases were climbing, not going down... and after he called the election, we started seeing the cases rise by hundreds a day," Dwight Brown, a security guard from Kingston, told AFP.

Holness, defending his decision during a debate last weekend, said: "The pandemic will only end when there is a safe and widely-distributed vaccine."

He added that the timeline for that vaccine was expected to be "well outside the constitutional limits to call an election."

He also argued that Jamaica is still considered to be one of the countries that has managed the pandemic "extremely well."

"We must move on with our society," the prime minister said.

Jamaica has recorded just under 3,000 coronavirus cases. The death toll stands at 24.

The Caribbean island initially won plaudits for keeping the virus in check, but infections have tripled since early August, when the country celebrated its Emancipation and Independence holidays.

The government has been accused of ignoring expert advice by failing to impose restrictions during the celebrations, which have been partly blamed for the soaring caseload.

- 'Strong message' -

Amid increasing concern and rising criticism that election-related activities would further fuel the spread of the virus, Holness suspended his own campaigning activities.

Jamaican Health Minister Christopher Tufton said the prime minister wanted to "send a strong message to the country that this is the responsible thing to do."

But critics argue the measure was too little, too late.

"The prime minister would have to accept the responsibility, knowing the culture that exists within the political environment and knowing that it would be very difficult to contain the enthusiasm that surrounds election campaigns, which would contribute to a spike in Covid numbers," Julian Robinson, the general secretary of the Opposition People's National Party, told a press conference.

The outbreak, which has battered the island's tourism-dependent economy, is expected to significantly affect voter turnout Thursday.

Some experts are predicting participation below the all-time low of 47.7 percent recorded at the last polls in 2016.

All voters are required to wear a mask, submit to a temperature check, wash or sanitize their hands before entering polling stations and maintain social distancing.

Voters infected with Covid-19 will only be allowed to leave isolation and cast their ballots between 4:00 pm and 5:00 pm, when the polls close. They are required to wear a mask, face shield, gloves and a disposable gown.

Despite the strict preventive measures, some members of the public remain skeptical.

"I don't think people with Covid should vote because the protocols won't work," Brown said.

"Not everyone will wear their masks and gloves or even say they have Covid."

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