Who Is Regulating the OUR?

The director general of the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR), Ansord Hewitt, responded quite quickly to the four questions I emailed him about consumer protection in the telecoms sector. His email went to spam, so I didn’t see it until after I’d written last week’s column, ‘FLOW giveth and FLOW taketh away’.

It’s just as well. I wouldn’t have been able to deal with the OUR adequately then. It needed a whole column. So here’s my first question: Can dissatisfied FLOW customers file a class-action suit against Liberty Global? The response:

“The Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) is not in a position to answer that question definitively, although, to be perfectly candid, we are reluctant to offer specific legal advice on what recourse is available through the courts, as much depends on the nature of the claim and the remedy sought. That said, however, we are not aware that a class-action suit is a recourse that is available in this jurisdiction.”

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That’s typical bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo; or sound legal advice. Take your pick! I say mumbo-jumbo. I wasn’t asking for a definitive answer or specific legal advice – just general guidelines. And, surely, the OUR should be ‘aware’ of whether or not a class-action suit can be filed in Jamaica.

My second question: If so, how? The response: “See response to question 1.” My third question was: Are there any laws that protect consumers against utility companies that fail to deliver the services for which they are paid? I got a very lengthy five-part response, covering all utilities. I can’t quote it in full.

Here’s the section that’s most relevant: “As regards the ICT sector for which the OUR’s remit is limited to voice telephony and data services, there are no existing guaranteed standards.” Really? We would never have guessed. The director general elaborates:

“The assumption after liberalisation was that given the robust competition that existed within the sector, most consumer’s issues [sic] would have been addressed via the competitive response. The indication, however, is that this has not been the experience of most customers and so there is need for further measures.”

A DISGUISED MONOPOLY?

Six-of-One-Half-a-Dozen-of-Another

The director general of the OUR is absolutely right. Consumer issues have not been solved by competition. Perhaps FLOW and Digicel aren’t really competitors. Could it be that they are actually a disguised monopoly? Six of one and half a dozen of the other! Or, to use a local idiom, both FLOW and Digicel giving us a six for a nine!

Mr Hewitt does promise a solution. I hope it’s not the proverbial comfort to a fool: “Consequently, the OUR, even while intervening on a case-by-case or situation-by-situation basis to address ICT customer concerns, is pursuing a number of initiatives to provide consumers with better options for redress. These are detailed as part of the response to question 4 below.”

My final question: If not, what is being done to put such laws in place? I got another five-part answer. Again, I cannot quote it in full. In essence, Mr Hewitt confirms that the OUR has actually proposed rules to guide the sector. But guess what?

“Drafting instructions for these rules have been passed to the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology (MSET) for submission to the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel who will convert them into regulations. Once these are promulgated, they will have the force of law and can be enforced by the OUR.”

The final version of the drafting instructions was submitted by the OUR only last month. Why has it taken so long for the regulatory process to get to this stage? Who is benefiting from the present state of affairs? Certainly not the consumer!

TELECOMS PIRATES

a-raja-pirate1Why have successive governments failed to pass appropriate legislation to protect us from the telecoms pirates? We cannot allow ourselves to be constantly raped by ‘service’ providers whose only intention is to hold down an tek weh. On Tuesday, I got an email with a link to a letter in the Barbados Nation, headlined ‘Paying for service I do not receive’. It was a familiar complaint against FLOW:

“I fully understand that I am one of thousands of Barbadians who complain daily about the services provided to them by FLOW. … I suspect, though, that this letter will not move FLOW to improve its services to their customers.”

I immediately emailed CARICOM’s Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) to ask what is being done about the long-standing problems with FLOW across the entire region. I got an earnest response from a spokesperson of the CTU, which included the following:

“The CTU would encourage regulators across the region to be more vigilant and firm in enforcing the provisions of the licence under which service providers operate. This is particularly so with the recent consolidation that is taking place since the liberalisation of the sector in the mid-1990s. Their emphasis must be heavily weighted in the consumer’s interest. They must ensure that the consumer is getting a fair deal at affordable cost.”

This was not reassuring. Encouragement is not enough. Regulatory bodies cannot function efficiently without the necessary legislation. When Liberty Global, the owners of FLOW, demands more money for its services, what is the Jamaican Government going to do? Raise taxes? Don’t get me started on that!

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Why There’s No Ebola Vaccine

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Ebola virus

Once upon a time, Ebola was a virus that attacked only poor people in the ‘developing’ world. Rich people in ‘developed’ countries didn’t catch nasty diseases like Ebola. Their wealth immunised them. They had nice, clean hospitals and lots of doctors and nurses who practised high-tech medicine.

All the same, even in the rich First World, poor people often got a raw deal. Many of them simply couldn’t afford health insurance. They were Third-World citizens in the First World. So they died from chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. Not as traumatic and swift as death by Ebola. But still. Poverty significantly reduced their chance of surviving expensive illnesses.

Then there were those deadly epidemics that sometimes broke out in the First World: polio, measles, mumps, chickenpox, whooping cough and influenza. These diseases affected both the rich and the poor. But, naturally, it was quite a strain on the poor to cough up the money for medical care.

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Flu patients in the U.S. 1918

In 1918-1919, millions of people across the world died of influenza. The scale of the crisis was so vast that resources were immediately invested in research. The catastrophe forced scientists to develop a vaccine to combat the virus. Returns on the investment were guaranteed. There was a huge global market for the influenza vaccine. Disease was a very profitable business.

By contrast, when the Ebola virus emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) almost 40 years ago, it was seen as an ‘African’ problem. Named after the Ebola River, the virus was, at first, contained within small villages. And it soon disappeared. Or so it seemed.


POOR AND EXPENDABLE

I suppose it didn’t make good economic sense then to try to develop a vaccine for Ebola. The market was small and the people who needed it were poor and expendable. Now, the virus has reappeared and it isn’t staying put in West Africa.

Ebola has flown across the Middle Passage to North America; and it’s also in Europe. In the rich world! All it takes is one infected person to start an epidemic, as Malcolm Gladwell reminds us in The Tipping Point. The Ebola River is flowing swiftly. And drug companies are now hustling to develop a vaccine.

Professor Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at the University of London, tells the story of how he and his colleagues discovered the Ebola virus. In 1976, while he was still training in Belgium to become a microbiologist, a blood sample came to the lab in Antwerp on a commercial flight from Kinshasa.

The sample was taken from a Belgian nun who had fallen ill in Yambuku in deep rural Zaire, as the DRC was then known. It came with a question: Was it yellow fever? It was not. Piot and his teammates injected mice with the blood and after several days they started to die off. Mice of the world are going to rise up against scientists one of these days.

The Ebola virus was eventually isolated. But there’s a terrible twist to the story. According to Piot, nuns in Yambuku who operated a mission hospital were using unsterilised needles to give vitamin injections to pregnant women. The nuns accidentally infected them with Ebola. It is stories such as this that make conspiracy theorists sound almost sane.

STIGMATISING AFRICA

One of the tragedies of the current Ebola epidemic is the way the entire continent of Africa is being stigmatised as the land of disease and death. Some of us conveniently forget that the origins of modern medicine are in ancient Egypt, not Greece. It is Imhotep, not Hippocrates, who ought to be acknowledged as the Father of Medicine.

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Onesimus

And we don’t have to go all the way to ancient Egypt to find evidence of sophisticated knowledge of medicine in Africa over several centuries. On October 17, 2014, the Boston Globe published an article by Ted Widmer: ‘How an African slave helped Boston fight smallpox’.

In 1721, the deadly disease ravaged the city. It was Onesimus, an enslaved African, who enlightened his supposed ‘master’, Cotton Mather, about the science of inoculation against smallpox. This is how Onesimus described the process: “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop.”

Mather interviewed other Africans who had been vaccinated and who had the scar on their arm to prove it. He became an advocate of inoculation and tried to persuade the goodly citizens of Boston to try the preventative measure. His house was firebombed.

As Widmer observes: “There was a racial tone to their response as well, as they rebelled against an idea that was not only foreign, but African (one critic, an eminent doctor, attacked Mather for his ‘Negroish’ thinking).” How dare a ‘Negro’ teach white people about disease control?

The big lesson of the present Ebola epidemic is that continental Africans must reclaim the legacy of Imhotep. They need to put in place sustainable systems of health care. They cannot continue to be chronically dependent on the West to ‘help’ them out of one crisis after another. They must take charge of themselves. As our own poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze puts it so eloquently, “Aid travels with a bomb.” Just think of those pregnant women injected with Ebola.

Imhotep-Louvre