That journey back home for Jamaica’s overseas workers

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A report from Jamaica’s Observer.

About nine hours after a Caribbean Airlines chartered flight from Florida whisked him and 149 other hospitality workers into the island on Saturday, 40-year-old Henry was finally at home in western Jamaica.

His elderly parents had already moved out, well aware that their long list of pre-existing medical conditions made them vulnerable to the pneumonia-like virus, COVID-19, that has left a global trail of illness and death. Henry and his co-workers had managed to make it into the island before Jamaica’s air and sea ports were closed to incoming passengers at 11:59 pm Saturday night, as part of the Government’s response to the virus that by then had claimed a life and infected 19 locally.

Though he has no symptoms of COVID-19, and health workers at the airport gave him no instructions to do so, Henry will heed family members’ advice and self-quarantine for 14 days. When he landed at the Norman Manley International Airport, he said, the only health-related question he was asked was whether he had been vaccinated for yellow fever.

The health ministry announced last week that all incoming passengers from countries with confirmed cases of the virus – now virtually every country in the world — should self-quarantine for 14 days. Even a batch of Cuban nurses who arrived on Saturday was not exempt from this. But the message is clearly not making its way down to everyone.

Paul, who was on the chartered flight with Henry, also said he was not advised by anyone at the airport to stay home for two weeks. “They just make sure they take our address, and the lady say they will be in touch,” he said, adding that he had made sure to provide the correct information. He was speaking with the Jamaica Observer on Saturday afternoon as he sipped a Red Stripe beer while waiting for a Knutsford Express to take him to the western end of the island.

“The Government just bring us home, leave us here. Gotta take the Knutsford bus to go to [the parish where he lives] right now,” he added.

He had made his way by taxi from NMIA to Knutsford Express, New Kingston. He could not recall if the driver wore gloves, as recommended for persons interfacing with the public.

For his part, Henry made it home with the help of one sister who took him from Norman Manley International Airport to Knutsford Express, New Kingston, and another who took him from Knutsford’s Sangster International Airport location to his home.

In the western end of the island, they had to endure a long wait in the KFC drive-thru so Henry could have something for dinner. His return was unexpected, so he had almost nothing at home. He is hoping the food supplies he hurriedly bought and shipped from Florida will make it into the country soon. The original plan was for him to arrive on Monday (today), but after the closure of the airport was announced, he and his co-workers were told at 1:00 am Friday to be ready to leave in three hours. Despite COVID-19’s upending of his life, Henry is optimistic that he will soon be able to return to work.

So too is Paul, who has become accustomed to leaving every October and returning in June. That has been his routine for the last five years. He has interpreted the Palm Spring Hotel’s unusual failure to ask them to return their IDs and name tags as a sign that they will be called back to work as soon as it is safe to do so.

“The doors will be open as soon as this thing blow off and we’ll [go] back,” he said with a broad grin.

Tom*, another of the recently arrived hospitality workers waiting to board the bus for yet another western parish, was even more specific.

“By August this done wid, man,” he said, a small container of hand sanitiser attached to his belt bobbing as he spoke. His sanitiser was dwarfed by the one Henry pulled from his backpack to show he was also prepared.

Tom is convinced that they will be able to return to work as usual by October. There had been no cases among guests at the hotel where they worked, they said, and it only shuttered its doors on March 18 because bookings began to fall off.

Happy they had managed to safely make it home, they urged the Government to make every effort to bring home the other 50 members of their team that the plane was unable to accommodate — and other hospitality workers still abroad.

“If I did have the virus I’d wanna come home. Where do you believe I would wanna dead? Me waan dead right a Jamaica, me nuh waan dead a foreign,” said Paul. There have been no reports that any overseas workers from Jamaica are infected.

Last week, trade unionist Vincent Morrison urged local authorities to safeguard the health of the estimated 12,000 workers now participating in hospitality and farming programmes between Canada and the United States.

Jamaican overseas workers have until March 24 to return home.

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