MONTEGO BAY, St James — As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increases on the island, Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has conceded that his current portfolio has proven to be far more challenging than his previous stints as agriculture and fisheries minister and as industry, investment and commerce minister.
“This stint as minister of health and wellness in the last four plus years has proven to be, by far, the more challenging,” Dr Tufton told the Jamaica Observer.
At the same time, however, the health and wellness minister revealed that he gets more satisfaction from directing and implementing the country’s health policies than he did with his previous portfolio assignments.
Dr Tufton, who is also Member of Parliament for St Catherine West Central, was appointed minister of health in March 2016 after his Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP’s) razor-thin victory over the People’s National Party (PNP) in the general election that year.
He had served as minister of industry, investment and commerce from June to December 2011, and as minister of agriculture and fisheries from November 2008 to June 2011, under previous JLP Administrations.
“I find it [health and wellness ministry] potentially more rewarding in the sense that it involves people, it involves lives, it involves pain and suffering, but also the capacity to ease pain and suffering and to restore persons to [being] hopeful.
“My approach each day is to learn to understand the importance of personal responsibilities, of promoting best practices around health — and that has helped me personally, to develop and to grow,” he shared.
Dr Tufton stressed that the health and wellness portfolio has given him significant personal rewards as he now sees the benefits derived by the nation from the implementation of policies, and individuals whose lives have been touched or impacted in a positive way.
“So, I’ve seen pain and suffering but I’ve also seen laughter and joy and it, in a sense, has given me the motivation to really work hard to make an impact,” he told the Observer.
Since his appointment as health minister, Dr Tufton has had to contend with a raft of issues that have beset the sector. These include mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever, Zika virus, a shortage of medical personnel, and overcrowding at State-run medical facilities, among others.
It was under his watch also that operations at Cornwall Regional Hospital in Montego Bay were scaled down two years ago, after toxic fumes began affecting medical staff and patients. Infrastructural defects were also found in the building.
But it’s the current COVID-19 pandemic that has literally kept Dr Tufton on his toes over the past few months.
“My typical day involves early rise to do a little exercise, then I try to brief myself in the early morning on what is happening by looking at the papers, e-mails, send a few Whatsapp messages…” he told the Observer. “Moving from there, I try to get a better brief from the [health] ministry, the PS [permanent secretary], the CMO [chief medical officer], or their representatives on what happened the night before as it relates to the COVID-19 response, but also, what the plans are for the day, and then [I] fit myself into different meetings and discussions where I think my contribution is needed most,” the minister said.
That, he said, could take up most of the day.
“I would also have a number of Zoom meetings, reaching out to the parishes, to particular stakeholder groups, and just general coordination. Of course, all of this involves a reporting mechanism to the honourable prime minister and the Cabinet, if necessary, so that I can get the support of the team at the level of the executive,” he continued.
Additionally, Dr Tufton said, once per week, he attends a special parliamentary committee meeting, which he chairs, that involves Opposition members and Government members, to discuss the COVID-19 response.
“The week would also involve two Cabinet meetings, on average, and also subcommittee meetings. It would involve, too, various stakeholder discussions with the private sector for coordination and, of course, in terms of the medical staff, spending some time with them, maybe visiting a hospital or a facility to get appropriate information and to identify with the cause,” he explained.
And, noting that his interaction with health personnel and the general public is “constant and ongoing”, the health and wellness minister said that it’s not unusual for him to get hundreds of messages daily, via his cellphone, from individuals who just have queries or have concerns and want them addressed.
“I, however, give priority to health care workers, to my colleagues in Cabinet, to the honourable prime minister, to my colleagues at the ministry, because right now we have to remain focused on this issue [COVID-19], and they are the key drivers of the process. So, I have to filter messages and sometimes some persons don’t get the response as early as they would like, but the filtering and the priority is a function of the task at hand and the challenges,” he explained.
And, while acknowledging that he is very concerned about the novel coronavirus and its likely impact, Dr Tufton said he is also “sensitive to the reality that it is an international phenomenon and that its control is a function of how we respond.
“So, while I am concerned I am also more focused, however, on how we galvanise the Jamaican people and our resources collectively to respond because I do believe that there is an opportunity in the crisis to learn, to be stronger, to be resilient– and that motivates me to focus on where the learning experience can happen from,” he insisted.
As of Monday, there are 223 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Jamaica with six deaths and 27 recoveries.
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