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Why will the NIDS be necessary for Jamaica’s Post-COVID-19 Socio-Economic Adjustment?

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SITUATIONAL BACKGROUND

Over the past few weeks, the current local and international dialogue surrounding the COVID-19 virus has experienced a paradigm shift from a mere containment strategy and “wait and see” approach to a more pragmatic based approached  geared towards functionally coexisting in a society while managing the effects of the virus. Arguably, this “shift” in approach has been driven by numerous social and economic factors such as: increased unemployment due to an economic shock, the steady increase in the number of persons quarantined at home or state facilities, the tourism industry worldwide has capsized since the outbreak, health facilities are over-burdened and  private business growth have shrunken  to a historic low; additionally, from a macro-economic perspective: some countries have already declared recessions; while coming closer to home the Jamaican Government is quickly making readjustments to its expenditure cycle and preparing supplementary budgetary estimates for approval. Yes, we are in a pretty “sticky” situation.

Frankly speaking,  the current pandemic has literally  restarted the “timing-belt” of society and its normative functions. The Jamaican Government is now tasked with re-creating a society whereby citizens and the private sector business can safely and strategically resume their respective businesses in the shortest possible time.  Irregardless of one’s dominant belief system or opinion regarding the fight against COVID-19; the fact of the matter is we are “sitting ducks” if we fail to position ourselves as a nation to revitalize our economy before its too late. However, one of the most significant inputs required by the government in re-positioning the country for this normalcy amidst COVID-19 is the implementation of the National Identification System (NIDS). Based on current global dialogue pertaining to the establishment of a “health/immunity passport” that will essentially combine an individuals health, travel and bio metric records into one database is the proposed solution to keeping cases in check across transnational borders. What does this new development mean for Jamaica? What are the risks and opportunities for our nation?

NIDS : THE REDEMPTION AND JAMAICA’S READINESS

Approximately one (1) year ago, (April 2019) the Supreme Court of Jamaica ruled that the NIDS Act was null and void and further infringed on the privacy rights of Jamaican Citizens.  Admittedly, the legal passage of the NIDS Act from November 2017 to April 2019 was by no means simplistic, the Bill was passed with 168 Amendments amidst much civil and stakeholder consultation. After the courts ruling, the expectations was that the NIDS proposal would take quite a while to re-draft, restructure and re-table. However, by February 2020, The Prime Minister of Jamaica, The Most Honorable Andrew Holness vowed to review the NIDS and table a new legislative bill at the start of the parliamentary year.

The passage of New NIDS Bill (2020) is now before the Chief Parliamentary Counsel and will be brought before the  Cabinet shortly and there after it is anticipated that the Prime Minister will pilot the bill in the lower house (House of Representatives). The passage of the new NIDS Bill has come at an extremely different political and social environment compared to three (3) years ago when it was first drafted. Admittedly, the stakes are now different with the passage of the pandemic and the need to have a central and unique database for the storage of  bio metric information  for the Jamaican Citizenry is once again  being raised regarding its relevance and necessity.

Undoubtedly, in light of COVID-19, the need to identify and monitor persons during this pandemic cannot be an easy task for health government officials. For example: The lack or absence of a national identification which provides proof of address makes it twice as difficult to determine where persons self-quarantine at home if officials wish to locate them. Also, The lack of a central database with  citizens identification has made it difficult to determine the exact demographic characteristics of the Jamaican Population i.e. the age, gender and geographic area of persons are crucial data in developing risk assessment plans for the populous, especially the older generation (over 65 years old) who are at increase risk of exposure to the virus.

Therefore, it is my opinion that the NIDS needs to be implemented in Jamaica now and is quite necessary in being able to help transition to the next phase of development. Are we ready for the NIDS? Fundamentally  speaking the legal framework has been reshaped and primed in a fiery furnace of constitutional amendments and legal consultations, the financial and budgetary support has been identified to support this through a US$68 Million Dollar Inter-American Development  loan and the social testing and consultations have been carried out with the various stakeholders. Despite the reservations from various civil society groups, the consensus is that national identification system is a necessary “bitter medicine” for our socio-economic balance.

  THE DAWN OF GLOBAL HEALTH PASSPORTS AND THE ROLE OF NIDS 

The epoch of technology and advanced globalization trends has prompted discussions regarding the best practice methods needed to control the COVID-19 pandemic. The European Union is far advanced with its negotiations with its member states regarding a uniformed health passport which relies heavily on a digital identity and central database. The health passport concept is primarily being designed and generated as a best practice solution to enable safe entry and departure of tourists to various countries across the Schengen Region. Similarly, with Jamaica being a major tourist destination would seriously want to consider the applicability of this passport within our region.

Interestingly, the tenets of the health/immunity passports have a similar make up and functionality in comparison to the proposed National Identification System, thereby making it plausible  to combine the information into one database to achieve multiple verification objectives. Therefore, the health passport would be able to verify where a tourist originates from or has traveled to in recent times and also serves as a verification for their COVID-19 health status. Additionally, the software developers are examining the use of smartphone QR codes to verify whether a person has adhered to the fourteen (14) day self-quarantine measure imposed by most countries. Health Officials would be able to verify information within seconds of scanning a persons QR Code embedded in his/her health passport. The thought that the Jamaican State would be interested in this type of solution is not far-reaching and could be much closer to our shores with the second passage of the NIDS bill. Therefore a  rationale approach and further acceptance of the changing times and methodologies must be examined in order to be able to survive in this post pandemic era.

-END

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David Shand
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Great article