Face mask-clad Jamaicans head to polls as coronavirus surges

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Jamaican voters faced stringent hygiene protocols as they cast their ballots on Thursday amid a resurgence of coronavirus infections in a general election that the ruling party looks set to win thanks to its stewardship of the economy.

FILE PHOTO: Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness meets Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street, in London, April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Summers/File Photo

Polls show Prime Minister Andrew Holness’s center-right Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) 12 to 19 percentage points ahead of the center-left People’s National Party (PNP).

Face mask-clad supporters of each party, wearing trademark green or orange, dotted the streets of Kingston. But the mood was far from festive.

When Holness called the elections on Aug. 11, authorities appeared to have successfully contained the coronavirus outbreak in the Caribbean island nation of some 3 million.

Cases have more than doubled since, after borders were re-opened and lockdown restrictions eased, to 2,683 as of Sept. 1, and 24 deaths.

Polling stations were manned with police officers, volunteers and electoral workers, who took temperatures and directed people to sanitization stations.

For the most part, voters wore masks or face shields and appeared to adhere to social distancing, although lines were tightly packed at some polling stations.

Voters who are confirmed COVID-positive were due to cast their ballot between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.

“My personal observation is that it is very safe, and so I encourage everyone who has not yet done so, come on out and vote for the Stronger Team, the JLP, as we look to build back stronger!” Holness said in a post on social media after voting at mid-day in Kingston.

While some voters were nervous and questioned the decision to hold the election, others were sanguine.

“I have voted so many times, I didn’t think much of it,” said Grace Sinclair, 90, despite being at high risk.

Analysts said the prime minister likely called the election six months before it was constitutionally mandated to get ahead of the brunt of recession due to COVID-19.

Holness credits his administration’s tax cuts and other reforms with bringing unemployment down to an all-time low and sharply reducing poverty. He also highlights the construction of affordable housing and new roads.

Analysts say the previous PNP-led government’s implementation of IMF-mandated austerity measures, which reduced debt and inflation, also paved the path toward growth.

But the pandemic has sent Jamaica, like the rest of the heavily tourism-reliant Caribbean, reeling. The Bank of Jamaica last week predicted the economy will contract 7% to 10% this fiscal year.

The JLP manifesto outlines a 10-point plan, including a $98 million package of loans, grants and support for agriculture and small business, as well as social reforms like unemployment insurance.

Other issues at play in the elections are high levels of crime and violence, corruption and education.

The JLP captured the polls in 2016 with a one-seat margin, winning just 32 seats out of 63, and gaining one more seat in November 2017.

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