Information gap defined: Dr. Ferguson, you’ve left more questions than answers

Dr. Fenton Ferguson has many things going against him. First, he’s the Minister of Health, during a time when a rage has risen over an viral disease that many cannot say properly. Chikungunya virus (Chik V) has spread like wildfire on the tongues of the nation. He tried to calm fears by citing numbers, but the numbers became irrelevant very quickly because it seemed that reality was far from the low figures he wanted to quote and trust. He lost credibility quickly by holding on to the figures approach for too long.

He’s a dentist, by training, and he has made the approach to dealing with public concerns like pulling teeth. It’s been slow and drawn out and painful to endure.

Chik V is not known to be a major killer–estimated rate about 1 percent. Yet, it has captured the public fear emotions. Why? Well, it’s new and it came from ‘overseas’. It also came at a time when a much more dangerous virus was moving fast, albeit in Africa, mainly–the ebola virus. With scenes and reports of death and the spread of that disease, I suspect that many people just thought virus = death, please not me. The ministry did little to calm fears and educate early. In fact, they took the view to comments would fuel panic. Well, get out of here!

Dr. Ferguson may become associated with failure by government of the highest order: his FF initials may well be the worse grade that can be given to a politician–failed once, failed twice…

His national address last night–delivered in such soft ‘my dear people’ tones–was odd for many reasons. One, why has this been elevated to a national crisis when we have other known and easy-to-treat killers in our midst? We suffer more from non-communicable diseases, like diabetes and hypertension and heart problems. Are they really just run of the mill sicknesses, so we don’t need to bother?

The minister did not say a great deal that is really going to comfort people. In the end, he pushed national self-responsibility.

He wants the nation to do a national cleanup, but then told us that it’s a container bred disease. So, the horrid sight of our gullies full of garbage immediately seems less important, because they are not the preferred breeding sites. So, concern is focused on going around yards, etc. and searching for cans, pots, bowls, etc. Yet, we need focus on the public health hazards from the gullies, but he defused that.

Dr. Ferguson told us what the government had done, with lots of numbers about efforts to find cases and deal with the affected areas. It just sounded limp. He did not address the major problems that people face in getting the simple medication needed.

He told us that the cases would spike–Yikes! But, you only get it once–Hoorah! Immunity will be built up.

He touched on dengue and flu, which kill many more people, but only in passing. Again, why didn’t we have a national address about how to avert dengue infection (mainly the same as Chik V)? Why not a national address about flu? What was he trying to do? What was the real message?

He wants us to join a national cleanup day. I’m not the first to note that he did not say when that would be. Urgency? What?

Today’s cartoon captures a sentiment that many have, that this is another instance of how the government can do less with more.

Less with more may be a motto that sticks (Courtesy Jamaica Observer)
Less with more may be a motto that sticks (Courtesy Jamaica Observer)

Where the government seems to miss a big point is that it’s not doing things to convince people that it is really doing anything, or address real concerns at their root. For instance, it’s all well and good saying to people that the source is mosquitoes. But, we have a people full of suspicion and distrust. Those who believe the disease is airborne, or dumped by some other country, or just a made up thing are a mixture of those he may feel are ignorant or misinformed. But, their beliefs are still strong. The exhortation to not self-medicate–a message coming from health officials–is all well and good, except that we have a centuries-old tradition of self-medication to good effect. I think it would be hard to find more than a handful of Jamaicans who have not had a lot of self-medication all their lives, and will swear by it. In fact, we are in the process of promoting such measures and the natural remedies that others have ignored. You don’t want people to use bizzy (cola nut tea), or something else? Too bad! You’re barking up the wrong tree. This is not New York, where people only know ‘busy’.

Somehow, it seems that the politicians who are in the limelight have not captured the essence of the audience they have in front of them. Jamaicans are not sophisticated and full of reasoning, ready to be convinced by logic and facts. We are rough and poor, and have lots of suspicions, doubts and fear built over centuries of rational and irrational reasons. You can’t waltz up to them and say “Believe me, it’s…”

We have obeah and it’s strong for a very simple reason: we are a nation filled with superstitions, based on life experiences, traditions, and myths. Word of mouth is more powerful than hard facts. People believe in God, and it was clear that the minister, in closing, remembered that. That means that they have faith in something other than a person standing up and making a plea. Call it misplaced, it’s there. Deal with it! People also come from a strong tradition of fatalism. Ignore that at your peril. For those reasons, and more, the messenger and message may well be seen as the problem, in no time. Check reactions in Africa during the ebola outbreak. Cut from the same tree…

Jamaica is not clean and cozy and easy to deal with, and I cannot understand how politicians in need of convincing arguments to deal with issues seem to just ignore what they should know well.


Easy, peasy? IMF tests are a doddle…not

Jamaicans have a hate-hate relationship with the IMF. People hate it that a ‘big, bad, US-led’ organization has this poor little country jumping through hoops. For many, it’s all too easy to think of this in terms of painful history–it’s modern slavery. Many hate the idea that we are ‘begging’, especially if you feel that the situation from which the country is striving to move as in some sense created by those to whom it now ha to plead. It’s all demeaning and degrading.

This all makes for fertile ground for political mischief. When in opposition, it’s too easy to beat the government for any overture to the IMF. If the government follows the policy line agreed with the Fund they will be accused of ‘selling off’ or ‘not caring about’ the people.

Why? IMF policies are known to involve tighter financial discipline. That translates into lower spending by government, more taxing by government–both of which mean real pain and loss for most people. Jobs may go. Enterprises may close. Services may be cut. Prices may rise, especially in areas where costs have risen sharply but governments have been reluctant to exact compensation by raising fees or rates or prices. That might have been because these services are used more by their supporters. Pain for that group would mean the risk of disfavour for politicians and maybe loss of power, locally or nationally. Horror! That same set of fears is often at the base of the economic problems the country is facing. Unwillingness to address them led to the mess.

Governments have a hard time owning IMF programs. When they are being followed and ‘working’, the ‘pain’ gets attributed to the unholy alliance that was forged with the ‘foreign devils’. If they are not being followed, then the ‘what do you expect?’ jabs start coming.

‘Success’ means more money for the country, and in much needed foreign exchange, directly from the IMF and from other international agencies. Money also starts flowing in from other sources, as business confidence improves, and new or existing investors are ready to take a chance on Jamaica.

Most times, in Jamaica, the general population has a hard time seeing clear benefits from successful IMF programs. They may see projects that benefit them directly, but tend to give credit to the implementing bodies and not give credit to the IMF program that might have enabled them. Many continue on condition that the country is in ‘good standing’ with the Fund.

IMF money is usually invisible to most people because it goes into the national foreign exchange reserves. It makes it easier to pay for imports or debts. When it’s not there, people know. Imports get squeezed. Debt payments are harder to meet. National reputation gets compromised. The absence of good standing probably impacts people more.

I read a headline the other day about the opposition finance spokesman saying the current government had ‘easier’ IMF tests to pass. I had to smile. He was really being serious? The only easy test is to do something that’s already complete. Getting policy to have the projected outcome is rarely easy. Think how hard it is to get two people to agree. Now, imagine getting nearly three million to work in accord. Now, imagine if half of them will do anything to see the other half fail. Get the idea?

Maybe, the ‘easiness’ referred to a willingness to go the extra kilometer to get results, which wasn’t there before. If that’s so, then the story is in the camp of the teller. Why were people less willing when the current opposition in power? The answer to that lies behind why the opposition lost power. That’s a matter of fact, not politics.

It’s much easier for Jamaica to fail again with the current IMF program. Practice makes perfect. We’ve been good at not sticking with the hard course. If it continues to the end, that would speak volumes. Jamaica needs to change many things to stop falling into a cycle of repeated failure. Passing tests is part of that. Easy? Give me a break!

Just desserts

Do Jamaicans get what they deserve from national policy makers? I tend to think they do.

My educational and family background encouraged me to always be questioning. When I started work, my first manager told me that I’d been hired, not because I had the answers, but because I was expected to ask the right questions. As I continued my career, the same principle applied. I was often in situations where I had to prise answers out of officials or executives who were reluctant to be honest and fullsome.

I’ve not come across many Jamaicans who like to pursue questions. What do I means by pursue? People tend to take answers, which make some sense, but have flaws. Sometimes, it’s just not good logic in the answers, but the words are strung together nicely, so often get swallowed.

Sometimes, the desire for a certain answer leads to acceptance of an answer that fits. That is understandable when you realize the comfort the answer gives.

I had an interesting discussion yesterday about whether Jamaica’s latest drought was over. We’ve had a lot of rain during recent weeks, after months with little or no rain when we usually expect heavy rain.

Our meteorological service declared the drought was over, but then qualified that. Water stocks in dams are low: one major dam is full, but another is only half full. In addition, the spokesman said the drought would be over if the October rains come as expected. That is a big if. We are still in September. The poor mathematician that I am reasoned that stock lower than usual plus hoped for inflow did not add up to return to normality. After all, expected spring rain didn’t come. The man said conditions are not back to normal, just one month after the drought had been raised from ‘critical’ to ‘severe’. What a turn around! But, we are so sick of dry weather.

Part of the problem is that our media don’t press–pun intended. We consume official statements a bit too readily.

That’s not always true, though, as we’ve seen with a growing debacle over the scale of chikungunya infection. After many missteps, the health minister has had verbal pressure piled on him over his down playing of the outbreak and holding on to figures that many did not believe.

Why do we react differently? Some of it is politics. Partisanship can create questions, though not necessarily deep ones. But, if that’s what it takes, we’re not going to get far.

Chikungunya? Is it gonna get you?

Something very discernible has happened over the past month or so. A new word has started tripping off most people’s lips, or at least part of a word. ‘Chikungunya’. Say it slowly, as if you were a BBC announcer who’d practised it for hours before the first broadcast use. It’s not ‘chicken…’, but ‘chik-oon…’. Like many words that have odd syllables, people quickly revert to forms that are easier to remember of easier for them to say. So, jokers have had fun with ‘chicken gun man’, thinking this fits well with the common image of Jamacian banditry. We’ve had ‘chikun-gonhoerria’, reflecting, I guess, a nasty disease that we know already and fear. I like ‘chicken gungo peas’, which I use to my daughter and seems inoffensive.

All of this brought on by the real concern, even fear, that the island was being assailed by a demon virus.

A few points have made the word spread.

First, it seems that no sooner had the Ministry of Health come forward with a low number, than some opposition politicians latched onto what seemed like many more cases in certain constituencies alone, including that of the Minister of Health. AWKWARD! The Ministry said what it had verified, and the opposition said, “No way!”

Second, more people began to report symptoms. Friends, relatives, work colleagues; no one seemed safe. The symptoms are similar to dengue and flu, so even those claiming to have ‘it’ need to be viewed with a little scepticism, because most have not been tested. But, they have aches, pain, rashes, and have been recommended or decided for themselves that the pain killers with the active ingredient acetaminophen would be taken. Soon, pharmacies were running out of stock. Such is life in countries with limited foreign exchange.

Third, not just Jamaica, but a widening spread of countries in the Caribbean and nearby have reported cases, most notably, the Dominican Republic, with about 500,000. Though bigger in area and population, it’s still close enough for many Jamaicans to think that we should be similarly affected. The health ministry and its tiddly number were a joke, people felt.

Well, the ministry is not doing some damage control. Private doctors are having some blame put on them, for not reporting suspected cases: they’re too busy treating people and getting paid to fill out the forms. An official also went on TV last night and came as clean as a whistles, saying that between 30-60 percent of the country could be affected. If you believe what one observer has said–that you only get in once–then, maybe that’s for the better. Meantime, people are moaning and groaning and checking rashes.

A man I play golf with seem afflicted on Saturday, and by Sunday could barely walk. He was a little better yesterday. He’s taken his pills and drinking water.

The episode with this virus is not really fully formed yet. Many people find it odd that it’s apparently spread so fast, and wonder if that’s consistent with mosquito-borne infections. Others feel that ‘something is in the air’. The chik-v has similarities with other viruses, and the cost (about US$150) for the test, whose results don’t come back for 2-3 weeks, while the infection lasts about a week, dissuade many from taking it. Assume you have it. Take the pills. Pain gone, Survived.

But, while it’s forming, a slow lesson is being learned. That is the value of prevention. In this case, some basic hygienic practices to reduce the chances of viruses spreading. We had a long, dry period, and that kept certain things in check. The recent heaving rains and warm weather have been ideal for the re-emergence of the buzzers.

We built communities on swamps and did little to manage well the drainage, and … Portmoreitis (an constant mosquito infestation) is the result.

Jamaica’s not been a place that learns lessons well after a first bad experience. So, our little scrape with chik-v does not mean that we are anywhere like out of the woods.

Some people, like my wife, are good at learning. She’s filled the house with slow-buring organic candles that ward off mosquitoes and she routinely has a spraying spree with Baygon in the morning: it’s like the sound of wind through palms as I wake. Everyone has a spray repellent that can be carried, including my daughter in her school bag; some are organic (with lemon grass oil), others are heavy-duty chemicals (with DEET). Everyone sprays when going out into areas likely to be infested; remember to put on sunscreen first. I talked to a man to bring me some lemon grass from country; to plant and to make tea.

Whatever officials are saying nothing is as effective as self-protection. Don’t wait for fogging, or garbage cleanup days. Keep your own immediate surroundings clear.

Is it the economy, stupid?

I had an energetic conversation with a Jamaican academic last night, during a dinner party. I let out that I was an economist and we talked about what ‘we’ do. I tried to explain that, at its core, economic policy making starts by trying to figure out what’s amiss in the financial relations of the country, and also what government officials are trying to hide about what they have been doing. The IMF has a model of economic activity that must add up (banking sector, government accounts, the balance of payments, and the real (output, employment and prices) sector. By trying to get to an understanding of where the economy is, we look at accounts for these four sectors. They should each tell the same story. If they don’t, then we try figure out why.

Well, I was getting into a description of how that is done, when I was given a barrage of comments about ‘capitalism’. Deep breath time. I went on to discuss what happened in Russia, when I worked there at the fall of the Soviet Union: “Which Russia?” I said I thought this was moving into metaphysics. We went on. “But…but…but…not holistic…leave others to pick up the pieces.” I tried to draw an analogy regarding expecting an expert in tree forestry to resolve the problems of earache in pre-adolescent children. We can’t expect one discipline to resolve all of society’s problems, no matter how interconnected they are. I did not segment the world this way. I found it so and manoeuvred in it the best I could. “That’s just…” Breathe in. Let me just tell the Finance Minister that the whole world’s economic system is a mess and as soon as it’s sorted out, he should call me and we can see how to move forward. In the meantime, I’m going to chill. I may just go and play golf for a few years.

Economix_143-editWhat are Jamaica’s problems? (Let’s limit it to that, because, we could obviously go macro and ask “What are the world’s problems?”). Even that is a large topic. Well, where do we start? Of course, everything is connected:

‘Toe bone connected to the foot boneFoot bone connected to the heel boneHeel bone connected to the ankle bone…’ Where do you start, and who’s keeping track of all the moving parts? I pull my string, but can I be sure where it’s going to tug? Economists have a view on those connections, and that’s through a set of financial relationships that have nothing to do really with the type of economic system or all of the socio-psychological aspects of humans, which we know are many and complex, and many of which we barely understand. We economists try to stick with our knitting:

Money makes the world go around
The world go around
The world go around
Money makes the world go around
It makes the world go ’round.

A mark, a yen, a buck, or a pound
A buck or a pound
A buck or a pound…

Which of the nation’s problems are truly due to economics? Some would say, it’s all about the Benjamins, baby. Solve that, and Bob’s your uncle. People don’t have jobs, then they become social deviants, and that creates other problems, and on. People have too little income (relative to what? you may ask), then the quality of their lives diminishes, and then they may get caught in one of several vicious downward socio-economic spirals. Import more than you export and the clouds will never turn grey. Keep inflation in check and all of the orchids in the Blue Mountains will bloom in unison. It’s downright simple. I don’t know why I didn’t figure it out before. Thirty wasted years!

Is Chikingunya related to economics? Yes, in the sense that a better health service could come from more funding, and that would reduce the risks people face and improve the treatment they could receive. OK. But, what about people’s general lack of hygiene and their willingness to create filthy living conditions? They’re that way because they are poor! Balderdash! That lady in the Pajero, and the great manicure, who just threw out of her window the rest of her latte and cup from some chintzy coffee house is NOT poor. She is just nasty! A booming economy is not going to make her stop doing that; she may do it more.

I leave the general question open. If it is all about economics, is the economist supposed to fix all of that and the rest of society sit back and say “Go get it, Rover!”

That seems unreasonable to me, and personal responsibility, amongst other things, was just given the rest of its life off.

Is the Reggae Boyz dismal performance in the World Cup qualifiers last year due to economics? Did Waterhouse put up a feeble effort last week against DC United because of economics? I’m not offering the answer, because my yes or no to each will and can be easily countered. If I am giving the economic policy advice to the Minister of Finance do I need to be cognisant of these relationships, which are micro-level, if they are indeed relationships?

I’m merely posing the questions, because the economist and the policy makers who are looking at the economic health of the country need to understand if the general view is that they are like The Messiah. I could act as if I have the answers to all of the problems but that’s as silly as putty.

Silly, silly putty
Silly, silly putty
Rub it on and all of your pain will vanish…

I just don’t see the situation this way. But, I have to take note that some intelligent people do. I can be a quick study, but I know little about Chik-V, but who may come calling for me to conjure up a cure for them?

Let the 4th estate go forth. I’ll go 5th

I read a nice piece today in The Gleaner, about certain aspects of blogging and use of social media in Jamaica, written by Dr. Marcia Forbes. First, it was about the sly move, it seems, of a mainstream media journalist, using that medium to promote his blog, and soliciting advertising funds. No problem with that, in my book: whatever works, and blogs do not buy groceries. It’s a spin on ‘nice guys come last’ or ‘you snooze, you lose’. Power to you, bro! Do what it takes to get your material out there.

Next, it looked at the matter of could one get some financial gain out of blogging. I didn’t find the logic compelling of trying to see a male/female divide in this. I know many male bloggers–myself included–who write for the pure purpose of self-expression, and money is not even a passing consideration. I have tried to monetize what I blogged, but it turned in a pittance, and the annoyance of having pop-up ads, for instance, was too much of a distraction. I could also put up some other philosophical arguments about ‘not working for anyone’ in any shape of form. I have been approached to write for pay, but the topics were not of much interest. I also know women who write and get paid for their blogging.

I think the real separation is simply the reason why you’re writing. Most of us derive enormous non-financial benefits from our blogs. I make clear that I have a thinking space that is online: if my ideas resonate, well and good; if they do not, well have at it with your own views. I’m not afraid of being ‘controversial’, if by that is meant that I come to my own conclusion about topics, and will say that I think something doesn’t jive or seems wrong, whoever the source. You have an argument, make your case. I’ll make mine.

Right now, I’m not worried about dying broke as a result of being an avid writer. One of my friends–a woman–got into writing by blogging and last year published her first novel. Are bloggers aspiring novelists or reporters? Maybe. Maybe not.

Though I was not mentioned, I felt connected to the subject matter, naturally. I had also given my view on the monetization aspects. After a few moments of disappointment at not seeing my name or Twitter handle in print, I calmed down. After all, print is passé. Online writing has taken the place of the actual printed word in many places, including amongst print media itself. I make my mark through my writing and through a certain level of interaction on social media.

I read an enormous amount on current events every day, but look only at two local printed papers, reading everything else online, from home and abroad. I am part of that world of online opinion-making. I say that not to be pompous. If one person reads my blog, that’s significant. If one person shares it, also significant. If one person comments, that’s a real bonus: I try to respond to every comment, unless I feel it’s a troll at work or spam. My blog has brought me into contact with people in other countries, some of whom sought me and my advice. I still get queries about Barbados, based on a blog I wrote during my three years there.

The ‘fourth estate‘ is the term used for mainstream media, especially, print media. Like so many categorisations, time and technological change make them redundant. Bloggers and users of social media have come to upset that cozy apple carts, and have been dubbed the ‘fifth estate‘. Our purposes are much wider than that of mainstream media, not least in that many do not seek to influence policy-making processes, even though many of us have very valid arguments that are worth noting in shaping policy. I’m always, amused, though when I read thing in the papers that have a canny resemblance to things I wrote on my blog, including certain pithy phrases, though clearly not impossible to create, seem odd to arise within days of my using them on my blog. Well, you know what they say about imitation.

Blogging has changed, and keeps evolving, and the evidence of the journalist branching out gives credence to that. Whether the person concerned will make a complete jump from mainstream to blogging is for that person. Some switch between. Some bloggers, with little intention of being part of mainstream media, get wrapped up in it by dint of their willing to write and give free expression. I have had the dubious pleasure of becoming a ‘columnist’ or ‘contributor’ simply because I put forward a set of well-reasoned views on topics. Editors liked what they read, and decided to grace their pages with my words. But, bloggers are not usually establishment writers. I was interested to see that Mark Wignall, a well-known columnist in Jamaica, has recently started a blog; perhaps, he was the subject that got Dr. Forbes’ attention. He now can write his views more frequently than in just a weekly column, and can be free to express things as he sees fit. He is his own editorial control. Really, that’s a wonderful piece of freedom. I’m not letting mine go.

Jamaica is in a better place? Where?

Jamaica’s PM was in her element yesterday, on the platform speaking to the party faithful at the People’s National Party’s 76th annual national conference at the National Arena in Kingston. I did not listen to the whole presentation: it was my daughter’s birthday and I was more focused on her and her friends making lots of noise and seeming happy. The arena sounded a fun place too, with vuvuzelas blaring every time something positive was uttered. Blahhhhhhh!

She was off and running, literally and metaphorically. The local government elections are due next year, and national elections by 2016. The torch has been lit. Raise your flags and voices!

PM Simpson-M
PM Simpson-Miller: running, running, running… (Courtesy The Gleaner)

I followed the speech on social media, including the few posts by the PNP’s Twitter account (@JamaicaPNP). It had little content, and no new policy measures. It had a few good sound bites. One that stuck with me is that Jamaica is at a better place today than it found in 2011, thanks to a number of initiatives, including the creation of several thousand jobs in various industries, investments and sound economic management by the current administration. Wherever Jamaica may be, oddly Jamaicans are certainly not in a better place. Why is that?

Well, betterness is not just the economic situation of the whole country. Ordinary Jamaicans cannot possibly be in a better place, economically or socially. Wages for most people have barely moved over the past three years, yet many basic prices have soared, driven in part by an exchange rate that has plummeted. Bus and utility costs have been rising in the 20 percent region for the past two years, so how on Earth can the average person be in a better place?

Just driving through town this morning, I saw what a better place looks like:

  • man walking with sneakers, with no laces, whose tongue flapped on the front of it
  • a man begging me to let him wash my car, as the only possible source of income he could find–he, at least offered a service for the money, whereas many like him just put out a hand and “beg a money”
  • hordes of people waiting for buses to go to work in Kingston
  • hordes of people standing in buses on their way to work in Kingston
  • hordes of cars, stuck in traffic jams on their way to Kingston, while yellow JUTC buses sail freely in a designated lane–tax payers seeing their dollars working, working, working, but not for them…
  • ladies standing at the traffic lights, dressed in their bright aprons selling ripe bananas and newspapers–that’s what new jobs look like for a good number of people, and the career ladder is short
  • a friend suffering aches and pains, thinking he has Chikungunya, and having taken the last of the paracetamol that he could afford–the virus, would have to go of its own accord
  • gullies filled with rotten garbage, just as they have been very single day that I have driven past them for the past 15 months
  • piles of uncollected garbage bags standing outside homes, many of which have been ripped and their contents strewn on the sidewalk and road
  • vendors, vendors, vendors…that’s the growing economy: find a patch to stand on and try to sell something: mosquito zappers are booming

That’s which better place?

Maybe, the statement was unfinished. Better place than would have been the case? That’s unproveable, so let’s put that to one side.

Polticians get little reward from making simple, honest statements. Sometimes, they say what they mean, even though another phrase was intended. The truth often finds its way to the surface. Did the PM really say that her administration was “doing less with more”? She certainly did, according to this video clip.

A blunder? The honest truth? Maybe, that’s a better place, too?

Doing less with more, indeed.

If the potholes that are filled in and washed away with the first heavy rains are anything to go by…They are deeper, deeper, deeper. I now watch carefully as drivers try to dodge them but also try to avoid going over the side of the hills I travel daily.

I’ve already mentioned the garbage-filled gullies…and the uncollected garbage…including, at my house…

I read about Portmore–build on swamp land, which never seemed to get properly drainage. Now, the mosquito problem that I remember from when I went there in the 1980s has gotten worse and the diseases that come from mosquitoes are still prevalent and have a new twist. Public health services are deplorable and we have few signs that public health issues are taken seriously, in actions, rather than endless rhetoric…

But, we have more ports… Better by far?

The new north-south highway, which the PM proudly reminded her audience had its ground broken by her, and also the finished road opened by her. A new toll road–you pay to drive to repay the finance. But, the existing H2000 going east-west, I heard last week, is taking in less revenue than projected. Tolls have risen, and taken their toll in falling usage. Better by far? People, with limited funds, have to make saving where they can. It’s not rocket science.

Maybe, the Opposition should ask to be taken on a guided tour of this better place. I’m going to try to find it on Google.

Life’s a beach, let’s clean it

Today is International Coastal Cleanup Day. Along with hundreds of people in Kingston, my family and I headed to Rocky Fort Beach to join the organized efforts of the Jamaican Environment Trust to try to remove garbage.

The Inter-American Development Bank and its Corporate Social Responsibility team had us marshaled in New Kingston for a 7am departure. I’d been up hours already, written, practiced some golf, and played with our puppy by 6, when my family came downstairs. By 7, I was nearing my lunchtime. I was saved by a platter of Subway sandwiches, which were laid out on a car bonnet. Cookies I saw, but never sampled. Our team leader told us our assignments and we set off for Palisadoes.

Kingston Harbour, calm and still in the early morning.

The early morning calm is always a joy in Kingston. We saw lots of joggers, and the regular group of bikers, who head to the airport before dawn and were on their way back into town. A few fishermen were on the shore. But, a convoy of buses and cars was unusually headed towards Port Royal.

The roadside was jammed when we reached our work area. We headed to the sand and waited for our leader to get our bags and tally sheets. She grouped us for a photo. I took some selfies with my daughter.

Ready like Freddie

Our family was split over three different teams, which headed off to find trash. My team of four headed back toward the airport, planning to work back to the assembly area. We walked about a kilometer. Then, we started picking up. Well, one of our team had felt the urge to start earlier and lagged behind us as she filled her bag.

The usual suspects: plastic bottles of all shapes, sizes and colours

Our team leader was our tally woman. PET bottles went into a clear bag. Other garbage went into black bags. We picked up plastic lids (lots), plastic bottles, plastic scraps, odd shoes, pieces of styrofoam (surprisingly few), pieces of wood.

Sea urchin shells, left undisturbed

We left urchin shells, corals, stones, sea fan, and other natural products of the sea.

Walking on the sloping sand was tiring, and as the sun came up fully the heat beat us hard. We met others, smiling with bags filled with PET bottles, carried like hunted game. We met groups, headed in the opposite direction, who begged for some of our PET bottles to add to their measly tally. I wondered if they realized that they would be carrying their loads both ways. The black bags were fuller, and heavier, with their mixed content.

Warriors of the beach cleanup. Now, homeward, we go.

Many groups were there. Schools. NGOs. Corporate teams. Some sang. Some danced. Some seemed like work gangs. Many were not picking up much.

They seek it here. They seek it there.

One girl just crushed urchin shells with her feet. A lady found what looked like a young swordfish, which flapped in her hand as she urged her friends to take a picture. “Put it into the water, before it dies!” yelled a young woman. Into the water it was thrown.

I saw several girls digging up a large, black plastic bag. They joked about whether it might have a body inside. Some young men vied to look coolest while collecting.

We were glad to find ourselves back to our start, about 80 minutes after we’d begun. I was drenched as I deposited our bags, and was headed for refreshments. I went to the water truck to wash my hands. A young man was complaining how his chivalry kept him waiting on women passing him. He got his turn. He then let the water fall on his sparkling white sneakers. “You all don’ tek cyare o’ you clothes…” He explained that he only wore dirty old shoes for playing ball or kicking around in the dirt.

I noted a few ‘celebrities’, Diana McCauley being interviewed. Duty Berry, sporting a ‘Jamaica nuh dutty’ tee shirt. I begged him for a selfie.

Dutty Berry and me

I headed for my JP bananas and some WATA. I know the value of sponsors.

Jelly coconuts, enough to serve all. Should have been a field day for the vendor.

People lined for fruit, water, and porta potties. Young children snickered because girls used the ‘male’ cabins. Our full group found cover under a tent. Fatigue and sweat were evident, but also smiles.

I saw a drenched face I knew well as my daughter hovered by the jelly coconut truck–her regular Saturday treat.

We all headed out for home. It was just past 10. I was looking forward to a shower and some football. My wife was tempted to buy fish in Rae Town.

It’s our daughter’s birthday on Sunday, and dinner would be stuffed baked snapper.

The fruit of the sea seemed a good reward.

The system is fine, but some of the people need fixing?

What do Jamaicans understand by ‘personal responsibility’? Let me start with a definition: ‘Personal responsibility is the willingness to both accept the importance of standards that society establishes for individual behavior and to make strenuous personal efforts to live by those standards.’ I took that from a Brookings Institution 2009 report. It’s corollary is that people do not look around for other factors to blame when they fail to meet those standards. However, to get started well, we need clear and straightforward sets of agreed goals.

I cannot give you a definitive answer to the opening question, because I’m not going to ask every person. Like with most things, I try to gauge what my senses tell me.

I watched another TV program this week about how our sense of personal responsibility plays out. CVM TV’s ‘Live at 7’ took a walk through Kingston’s public parks.William St Grant Park It was a mixed picture, of mainly unkept, under maintained, dirty, smelly open spaces. Public lavatories were often in a poor state, and patrons needed to pay in some cases, so that the ‘caretaker’ could buy necessary supplies. It did not seem that the supplies, if bought, were being used, however. We heard that some parks are used as places for sexual activity. They become homes for the homeless. They become places for people to strew garbage, and more. Clearly, a sorry state, and more could and should be done to keep such spaces in better order.

The previous week, the same programme had looked at our national heritage. Things did not look good from the start, when the offices of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust showed all the signs of disrepair that marks a building for which no one cares.Old Harbour Station

Both the state of some parks and the disregard for buildings and places of national heritage displayed a general social disregard, and a lack of responsibility that may not be seen as personal but is, in that, few of us appear to want to take on the caring, assuming that someone else will.

Schools have restarted. This week, we saw one of the ritual new term dances, concerning the ‘appropriateness’ of school attire. The most prominent has been a Kingston high school, whose written rule stipulates skirts to fall two inches below the knee. Apparently, the rule has been changed to be 11 inches. Many grls were barred from school for failing to meet the new standard. They protested by demonstrating outside the Ministry of Education. They got support from the ministry’s permanent secretary. The Minister of Education did not approve of their behaviour, arguing that (such) children should not state protests “whatever the cause”.

Jamaican schools have a tendency to throw children out of school for such transgressions, and appear to think nothing of the consequences when children are expected by their parents to be at school during that time. Was the particular school being reasonable? Are schools being reasonable and responsible in their behaviour? What can parents expect? Are the students being responsible?

Taking these instances, is it that we have a simple clash of values?

Focusing on other things, what do we see? We are a society that has become comfortable with a general state of uncleanliness.GarbageC20120301NG Later today, I will be assisting in a beach clean-up near the airport in Kingston. Jamaica is not the only country in the world that has people throwing away their garbage indiscriminately. We are amongst the countries that try to have people do the right thing without giving them the means to do so. I think–and will check later–that there is not a single receptacle for garbage along the Palisadoes Road, leading to the airport. What should people do with their garbage? The official presumption is that they should not litter and take it with them. But, is that being realistic and reasonable?

I think it’s quaint that goats walk along the streets of Kingston. But, gone are the days when the goats could deal with the garbage that littered the streets. However, we’ve not evolved to show that understanding. We litter at a high rate and the goats can’t cope and our system of garbage disposal and collection have not kept pace. Race won by garbage.

Our drains get clogged when heavy rains come. Why? Garbage is falling from the sky? No. When the rain is heavy, all manner of objects are seen floating along in the rushing water. You need to check as you pass a ford, in case some heavy object is rushing towards you. Throwing things into gullies has been a national sport for decades. It all goes down to the sea, right? The sea will wash it away, right? We don’t have to do anything else, right? One reason I will be handling a lot of plastic and polystyrene waste at the coast is that people have made those assumptions, and they are wrong.

Our environment is, perhaps, the clearest indication that personal responsibility is lacking. But, it’s not the only example.

A friend relayed an experience with her young child at the University Hospital: the ‘team was professional, thorough and pleasant … save for one young doctor who [was] either [in] med school or her parents forgot the tutorial on manners. Clash of values? My friend felt that ‘the system was fine … personal responsibility also dictates that individuals ‘check themselves” Agreed, but in the absence of personal responsibility, or in a world where this is not clearly spelt out?

We tend to get consistent service from people (technical problems aside) when they feel truly involved in what they are doing. Truth is, though, we’ve not got systems where people are truly engaged (and proud of what they do) and gives us consistent good service. Not picking on any area, specifically, but just retelling things that I have seen at random.

  • Garbage collectors throw receptacles into the street from their truck, once emptied. That’s not where they found them? Who will pick them up?
  • The often-seen cashier having a personal phone conversation while dealing with customers. We should wait until the conversation is over to continue our shopping?
  • The food server who just ‘dashes’ the food onto the counter in front of customers, instead of handing it to them.
  • The appointment/home visit not kept (no need to look for specific examples). Who is supposed to be at home all day for the 11am appointment not kept?

It shouldn’t be about us (customers) reminding them (providers) what to do.

People say “You get what you pay for”, but Jamaica is odd. For all that people appear to need money, they do not do things that ensure they will earn it. Why else do service professionals do a bad job or not show up for a job? I can’t remember how many months have passed since my wife called the electrician. Maybe, he’s swamped with work, and really ought to employ someone else.

Conversely, our gardener does more than he should almost every visit, and has now gotten into the habit of passing by unexpectedly with offerings of fruit and vegetables. Is that because he loves us, or that we offered him lunch on a few occasions? He’s motivated by something.

I’m going to leave the question open, awhile, though I think that not enough of us have accepted the same values. It’s clear that we can be individually spruce, but collectively gross?

Jamaicans, carrying their Scottish pride

Scotland had an historic referendum yesterday on the question whether it should leave the United Kingdom: the voters said no, in a ratio of 55:45, and a turnout of about 85 percent.

On the face of it, one of last places you may think would have an interest in the result may have more than some trickles of sentiment.

Scots began coming to Jamaica during the 17th century, either as banished people (Oliver’s Cromwell’s prisoners of war) or later as volunteers (after the 1707 Act of Union gave access to England’s colonies). They have many places in the island’s history, through culture, religion, and politics. The great poet, Robert Burns, reportedly planned to migrate to Jamaica, but changed his plans at the last minute.

Scots were part of Jamaica’s slave history, as owners, and overseers, and were painfully reminded of that a few years ago. Notably, of Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville, who, as Lord Advocate in 1807, helped to persuade the British Parliament to retain the system of slavery beyond the abolition of the slave trade.

A few countries, and several geographical regions carry the saltire cross in their flags: Scotland and Jamaica share that honour.123969-saltire-st-andrews-cross-union-flag-union-jack-and-lion-rampart-independence-nationalism-s Scotland’s patron saint, Andrew, was allegedly crucified on such a cross.69707329_bolt_13335c

Jamaica has many people whose ancestors hail directly from Scotland, or carry Scotland in their heritage, mainly through names.

A friend gladly noted, yesterday, on what would have been her father’s 85th birthday, that ‘The family name Rattray emerged as a Scottish Clan or family…It is said that two Rattray brothers landed in Jamaica during this time, and that all the Rattrays in Jamaica are descended from these two brothers.’

We have Jamaicans with known Scottish parentage, such as Mary Seacole, whose father was a Scottish soldier. Colin Powell, the American general, of Scottish-Jamaican parentage.

My father told me that his father, whom I never met, was a Campbell (again, Gaelic in origin, from the words “Cam” and “Béal” meaning “crooked mouth” or “wry-mouthed”, originally a nickname which over time became used as a surname).

My first wife’s family hailed from Scotland, on her father’s side, and the name Scott, is clear in its origins.

My current wife’s family (Bahamian) has a penchant for Scottish names, and Anderson and Selkirk feature, prominently.

One lasting image from this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (which voted for Independence, by the way) was of the Jamaican 4×100 metres men’s relay team after their win, standing (awkwardly?) in tam-o-shanters and tartan scarvesBuHvQCvCAAEaZRD.jpg-large.

We have Fergusons (son of Fergus, which is derived from the Gaelic elements fear (“man”) and gus (“vigour”, “force”, or “choice”)), and our somewhat beleaguered Health Minister may be wishing he was in the Outer Hebrides.

We’ve had our Sangster (singer). The list is long.

Jamaica also has its places with Scottish names: Aberdeen, Berwick Castle, Clydesdale, Culloden (two places), Dundee, Glasgow, Inverness, Dunrobin, Roxborough, to name some.

So, Jamaicans have plenty of reason to feel proud of Scotland.

I don’t know if many Jamaicans really followed the referendum developments, until perhaps the last days. We already have independence, though obtained in different circumstances–and certainly not through a popular vote. I got the impression that people hoped for independence, perhaps, feeling that self-government is better in all situations. That’s not a given.

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