Speaking From the Heart and the Head About COVID-19

Over the year and a half of the pandemic, I’ve kept on wondering who is the target audience for the press conferences hosted by the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW). It couldn’t possibly be members of the public who are not fully competent in English.   On April Fools’ Day 2020, Dr Tufton made a speech which would have flown over the heads of citizens whose primary language is Jamaican. That is if they were even listening!

In just the first five minutes, Tufton used this kind of language: “a positivity yield of 10%”;  “bolster our front line defence”; “an index case”; “based on the risk assessment”; and “confine ourselves to the restrictions that have been imposed by the government.” Talking about the need to lock down at-risk communities, Tufton said,  “The reality is that if we did not carry out that exercise, then those individuals would be moving around in their normal course of activity and, having become symptomatic we could see a much greater spread.”

The minister’s meaning would have been clear to speakers of English. Except, perhaps, “positivity yield.” But, even in English, Tufton’s language could have been more straightforward: “If we didn’t lockdown, those people would be going about their business as usual and by the time they started to show signs of having the virus, it would have got away.”  We now know that people with no symptoms can still spread the virus.  But, to be fair to the minister, those were early days in the management of COVID-19.


The majority of Jamaicans would understand Tufton’s message if he chose to speak fi wi language.  It appeals to both our heart and our head:  “If wi never lockdown, dem people deh wuda up an down a look bout fi dem business.  An when time dem start look like seh dem ketch di virus, it done get weh.”  But, of course, Tufton couldn’t speak like that at a press conference.  After all, this was not a political rally.  The only time Jamaican politicians know they have to talk fi wi language a when dem a look vote.

Why isn’t there a translator at all these press conferences who could ensure that speakers of Jamaican understand what’s going on? Hearing-impaired Jamaicans are fortunate on this score.  There’s always an expert on hand to translate the minister’s speech into sign language.  Shouldn’t every Jamaican be entitled to get official government information in a language he or she knows?  Isn’t this a fundamental human right?  Or is access a privilege reserved for those who are lucky enough to learn English in our hit-or-miss primary school education lottery?

The 2011 Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares that:

“(2) Any person who is arrested or detained shall have the right­ . . .

(b) at the time of his arrest or detention or as soon as is reasonably practicable, to be informed, in a language which he understands, of the reasons for his arrest or detention;

(c) where he is charged with an offence, to be informed forthwith, in a language which he understands, of the nature of the charge;”

But what about citizens who are not arrested or detained? Is our language not to be taken seriously by the Jamaican state?


Professor Trevor Munroe, a member of the Joint Select Committee of the Parliament of Jamaica on the draft Charter of Rights (Constitutional Amendment Bill), insisted that freedom from discrimination on the grounds of language should be included. In 2001, the linguists Hubert Devonish and Celia Blake were invited to make a presentation to the Committee on the matter.  In response, the Committee recommended that The University of the West Indies, Mona establish the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) as “a pre-requisite to any constitutional guarantee of protection from discrimination on the ground of language.” The Unit was launched in 2002.

The Parliamentary Committee requested that the JLU focus on the following:

  1. a standard writing system for Jamaican
  2. the development of technical and administrative terminology in the language for use by officers of the state,
  3. the monitoring of state agencies with respect to the non-discriminatory provision of services in the two languages in general use, i.e. English and Jamaican,
  4. public education on the language issue.

The writing system was a red herring.  The Dictionary of Jamaican English, published in 1967, included a standardised writing system for the Jamaican language.  It has never been taught in primary schools.  Literacy in the home language of most Jamaicans is not a priority for the Ministry of Education. The JLU has met all the requirements of the Joint Select Committee.  But, almost two decades after the inception of the Unit, freedom from discrimination on the ground of language is still not included in the Charter of Rights. What will it take for this to happen?  Emancipation from mental slavery!


The Jamaican Language Unit translated several of the COVID-19 advisories put out by the MOHW and tried to get the Ministry to use them.  Without success!  They are on the Unit’s vibrant YouTube channel “Braadkyaas Jamiekan:” https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8Tonoc9rhY0Ait7KxVrNHw.


On Monday, October 4, from 5:00-7:00 p.m., the public affairs programme “Big Tingz a Gwaan” will be aired on “Braadkyaas Jamiekan.”  The educator Ms Donikue Campbell and I will co-host. We will focus on COVID-19. Dr. Princeton Brown, who survived the virus, will speak about his experience. Dr Shane Alexis will address the contentious issue of vaccination. There will be call-in segments for members of the public to talk about their experience with COVID-19. The psychologist Dr. Peter Weller will answer questions about mental health during the pandemic. We have invited representatives of the MOHW to participate. Unlike Dr Tufton at his press conferences, we will all talk Jamaican to the best of our ability.  Big tingz a gwaan fi fi wi language.

One thought on “Speaking From the Heart and the Head About COVID-19

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  1. Griet fi ier buot di braadkyaas jumiekan sait. I have been saying since the Chik V outbreak that the government does not communicate in a language that is understood by the “inarticulate majority”. My experience was that the myths related to how Chik V got here were far more prevalent than the facts. Aii sa!

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