Ronald Chapman is not the “mini COVID-19 czar”; and he certainly is not the “national killjoy” out to spoil the fun of Barbadians who want to return to a life of simple pleasures and enjoyment.
The director of the Government’s COVID-19 Monitoring Unit has become the man some Bajans love to hate because he and his team have had the unenviable task of shutting down house parties, fetes, bars, entertainment events, and even shops and retail outlets.
His officers have hauled young and old before the law courts for breaches of the COVID-19 regulations. These stipulations include social distancing, mask-wearing in public, and a closure of some non-essential business activities during periods of Government-imposed restrictions.
Wants to See an End to COVID induced Limitations
In a recent interview with COVID Weekly, Chapman admitted that he too wanted to see an end to the COVID induced limitations and a return to life as we know it.
“There is nothing that I would like more than to go by my local watering hole with some friends, and have a cold beverage,” Chapman admitted.
But he has resigned himself to the thought that this may not be possible for some time to come, at least not in the carefree manner to which most people are accustomed.
Chapman has become a local COVID-19 enforcer. He is a University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus graduate in Public Sector Management and he also holds a Master of Medical Entomology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Chapman has also undergone substantial public health training.
Acting Deputy Chief Environmental Health Officer
He is head of the COVID-19 Monitoring Unit. However, Chapman’s substantive post in the Public Service is Principal Environmental Health Officer, and he has been acting for some time in the position of Deputy Chief Environmental Health Officer.
The senior government official believes that what has prepared him most for his current assignment has been his training and exposure to the fundamentals of public health inspection. These included subjects such as water and sewerage engineering, indoor and outdoor air quality, food hygiene, refuge disposal, and communicable diseases, among others.
“It is that training, along with the years of experience that have helped to bring everything together for me. And fortuitously so. It is amazing to see how it all fell into place . . . . in our response to COVID-19.
“I am able to make sense of what is going on in the community and be able to put measures in place to help prevent the spread of this disease,” he disclosed.
While some of his duties as Deputy Chief Environmental Health Officer have been scaled back, they still occupy some of his time as head of the Monitoring Unit.
For Chapman, daily meetings are par for the course. They range from short internal planning meetings to longer policy-related sessions, to brief confabs with members of the public who may walk in off the street seeking advice.
Managing a team of 74 officers, along with his deputy Alison Elcock, Chapman admits that at times it appears the Unit is a 24-hour operation.
The Unit’s members bring a variety of skills and knowledge to their jobs, ranging from law to occupational health and safety, health inspection, commerce, and retail, to policing and security.
The enforcement agency’s activities can commence as early as 5 a.m., said Chapman, and go until curfew times that have been imposed by Government.
Even with their special powers, the Monitoring Unit often engages the Royal Barbados Police Force when addressing some sensitive and potentially risky assignments.
Conceding that he has become one of the recognizable voices and faces of the national COVID-19 response effort, he rejects any suggestion that his appointment was an attempt to fill the void left by the former COVID-19 czar Richard Carter.
Chuckling at the labels he has been given such as “the mini czar”, Chapman told COVID Weekly: “I did not see it as trying to fill Richard’s shoes. Those would be some very big shoes to fill.
“I saw my job as slightly different. Because my substantive role saw me interacting more with the public than others in the health team; and because we were writing protocols, training persons, implementing protocols, and monitoring them, it would appear that I was filling Richard’s shoes, but he spoke to COVID-19 issues generally. My voice was to ensure compliance to the protocols.”
Life Has Changed
As he reflected on how life has changed for him since his appointment to head the Monitoring Unit, Chapman was pointed in his response.
“I get the feeling that there are people out there who believe that we who work in the Ministry of Health and on the frontline are not a part of the community.”
He said, he too, longed to socialize with friends again, attend parties or a karaoke session, or host family and friends at his home.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been rough for everyone.
I don’t think there is anyone in Barbados who wants to see the back of COVID-19 more than people who work in the COVID-19 fight every day. We also would just like things to go back to the way they were,” the senior health official disclosed.
Regarding his perceived role as a spoiler, Chapman said he sees it as quite the opposite. In fact, he said there were far more people who compliment him and his team and offer words of encouragement, than those who complain.
“The unit is no spoiler of fun. I see myself as the protector of the public. We have a job, and that job is to protect the public. It is not only to protect the public’s health but also to protect the public’s purse.
COVID-19 has done a lot of damage to this society. There have been some positives, such as strong evidence that community spirit is still alive and well.”
Though he has no desire to be the man Bajans love to hate, he recognises that his role and that of the COVID-19 Monitoring Unit is to eliminate the viral illness from Barbados.
Pain COVID Has Caused
“COVID has caused untold amounts of pain and suffering.
A lot of mental pain because of the lockdowns. Some people feel depressed about being at home and then there are the economic problems caused by the pandemic.
“We were just crawling out of a serious economic slump. We just restructured our debt, and now we are spending significant amounts of money on things that we would not necessarily be spending on if there was no COVID-19.
“I see my job as trying to ensure that we restore the health of Barbados, both the physical health, mental health, and financial health of this country.
“Yes. There are some people who see us as killing their fun because they can’t lime and have a party. But at the end of the day, we live in a small community. We are interconnected, and one person’s behaviour has the potential to impact the lives of others,” the senior public officer outlined.
He added; “Once you keep your eyes on the job and on the goal, you don’t need to worry. It is not personal, and I don’t take the comments personally. I know there are some people who are not happy about what we have to do.
“This is my country; these are my people, and this is a disease that we still don’t know a lot about. Our aim at the Monitoring Unit is to protect people, their lives and livelihoods.”
Since the Unit’s formation several months ago, it has been warning individuals and businesses about defying the regulations in the Emergency Management COVID-19 Directives. The latest directive remains in effect until April 26 and allows a significant relaxation of several restrictions.
Taking Stronger Action
Along the way, however, the Unit has been forced to take stronger action by hauling accused offenders before the courts.
Some people have faced stiff fines, and others have been imprisoned for failure to pay fines or were remanded to Dodds Prisons.
But those efforts have faced setbacks, as some accused have challenged the foundation of the criminal charges.
“We have had one or two minor setbacks in the law courts, but this has not impacted our effectiveness in the least.
We are still out there and doing what we are supposed to do.
“The only difference is instead of the Unit taking the matters before the courts, we refer them to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and they are the persons who lay the charges and take accused persons before court.
“There were some procedural issues with reference to the way the law was drafted but it in no way prevents us from doing the things we are supposed to do. It is no way hinders the functioning of the Unit. We are still out there ensuring compliance, monitoring, and educating the public.
“I have four persons who make up my legal team. We have one who is an ex-police officer, and three young people who are aspiring to the legal profession. They take the lead in preparing our documents and providing legal guidance to the officers in the field.
“When we are finished, we bump up any charges that need to be filed to the DPP’s office, who take it from there,” Chapman outlined.
With many of his duties as Deputy Chief Environmental Health Officer still on his plate, as well as his management of the Monitoring Unit, Chapman says his days can be extremely long. In fact, it is not uncommon for him to field more than 100 calls a day.
Asked if he feels overwhelmed, the senior health official remarked: “I have had the opportunity to interact with the policymakers, the politicians, the heads of departments in the Civil Service, chief executive officers in the private sector, the man on the street, and tourists.
From the top to the bottom, I have been able to observe how they function, how they cope, and that has been a blessing.”
Infections Within the Unit
And though the COVID-19 Monitoring Unit’s responsibility is to assist in the battle against the deadly viral illness, members of his team have also become infected with the disease.
“There is nothing surprising about that because members of the unit are members of the society. They are not insulated. None of the team who contracted COVID-19 got it from another member of the COVID-19 Unit.
“They would have contracted it from a family member or close friend, and we were able to substantiate this position through contact tracing. There was no outbreak within the Monitoring Unit. We have not had anyone with COVID-19 lately. We had cases a couple of months ago, and since then we have not had any more cases.”
Chapman’s overall observation of Barbados’ management of the disease is that the country has done well so far to contain infections, particularly after the outbreak that occurred near the end of 2020.
He is happy that infection numbers are trending downward, and he hopes Barbados will be in a position to declare again that it is COVID-free.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been rough for everyone. I don’t think there is anyone in Barbados who wants to see the back of COVID-19 more than people who work in the COVID-19 fight every day. We also would just like things to go back to the way they were.”
“The unit is no spoiler of fun. I see myself as the protector of the public. We have a job, and that job is to protect the public. It is not only to protect the public’s health but also to protect the public’s purse.”
“I see my job as trying to ensure that we restore the health of Barbados, both the physical health, mental health, and financial health of this country.”
This article appears in the April 19 edition of COVID Weekly. Read the full publication here.