Several observers have noted that Jamaica consistently misses the opportunities crises present to make significant changes. Will the outbreak of a viral infection result in a different outcome?

Many Jamaicans hark back to better days. That’s not unique in many countries. But, much has changed on this island that makes the past very different from now. One of those things is the rapid and extensive urbanization. That movement was allowed with very little consideration to maintaining certain social standards. Simply put, Jamaica facilitated the creation of slums and having slum conditions become a norm. No, or little, provision of sanitation services is one glaring characteristic. Accepting squalor means it’s very hard to push people to see that cleanliness is an important consideration in daily life.

That’s significant because Jamaican homes have traditionally places in which people place much pride. It was and is the case that people try to keep their immediate surroundings clean. So, it’s not uncommon to see people sweeping outside their homes on a daily basis. Imagine that. Working against nature. People would also remove debris, bush, and trash from near their homes. In rural areas, much of this garbage is natural, so the idea of returning that to the land is not a bad one. So, dumping bush and natural things doesn’t seem like bad civics.

In urban settings, that doesn’t apply. But, to deal with garbage in the scale that exists in towns needs help from communities or the state or other organizations. Even if individuals try to do their part, moving the accumulated collections of garbage to places where it causes no or less nuisance is often too much for individuals. But, if the State does not do its part, the accumulations become problematic.

I can’t speak much about other major areas, but Kingston sets a certain standard, and that is of poor public provision of places to receive garbage. At its simplest, you can go for miles on many roads and not see a trash can or litter bin. Humans do some things naturally but other things they learn. Tidiness is learnt. What to do with garbage is learned. In most countries where litter is less of a problem, the learning starts early. Let’s call early at home and school. If you have few or no places to deal with trash… If your school has few means of collecting and removing trash…

I often pass through school yards. They are disgusting places. Trash is everywhere. I say this based on one of the country’s prestigious traditional schools. Ironically, that school runs a recycling program. But trash is a problem. Modern trash is not helpful: it does not degrade fast naturally. Plastics and styrofoam are commonplace items. They move around with wind and rain. A simple solution would be to have students deal with the problem daily. But, schools usually have staff to do this service. Enough? No, if the result is the guide.

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We can’t recycle? We can’t tell plastic from paper? Those who want to will. Those who don’t won’t…

Political leaders in Jamaica have focused little on maintaining the environment. In the political calculus, it doesn’t equate to votes. Those who focus on environmental issues are often mocked or marginalized. But, they may be smiling now, as simple lack of care for the environment comes back to bite. Or, things that thrive through lack of care come to bite us.

That ignorance has an increasing cost.

The growing concerns about chikungunya offer opportunities to address and redress our lack of concern for public hygiene and cleanliness.

It’s not just a public health issue. Our public health facilities are not havens of sanitary bliss. Take a tour of the university hospital, including where the records are kept.

We are not an orderly society, like Germany. The view is Jamaicans don’t follow rules. Let me accept that. But is that why we don’t recycle much? We claim all sorts of reasons, but we are not capable of separating what we don’t want? Other countries have learned how and what to go. But, more important, people have believed in separation and that it has benefits.

They like the idea that plastics go into making more plastic. Paper gets remade into paper. Newspaper gets reused or transformed, say, into chicken coop litter. Glass gets reused. It’s no longer new. Small countries cannot generate the volumes needed to make recycling truly viable, but they need not use that as a barrier. Grouping together can get by that.

When I was a boy in Jamaica, I remember beer being sold in crates, and the empties being collected and getting money for the returns. Same way with soda bottles. I met similar habits in England. No one talked about recycling, but reuse was common. My friends and I used to make good money collecting empty bottles. Cans were not so popular, but they hardly found their way into roadside trash. As we moved from tin to aluminum, talk of recycling became more common. I remember supermarkets starting programmes to collect items, whether the municipality did so.

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German garbage collection. Looking the part is not a trivial aspect. Pride in your work?

Jamaica has a shortage of resources. That’s why our garbage trucks look like cast off items from a salvage operation. They look a mess. They operate messily. My garbage containers don’t live in the road. My garbage was not in the road before the trucks came. In some countries, the collectors have staff who walk behind cleaning up, so that things remain tidy. We’ve gotten into accepting shabby. Even if only presentational, workers in uniform set an example.

While we grab other habits from abroad, others we resist or ignore.

Lack of resources does not explain where we are. Attitude does. Common good is not about wealth, but about understanding our interconnections.

I’ve worked in some countries whose national wealth would make Jamaica seem like Switzerland. Public facilities and offices often reflect lack of money: no paint, rotting wood, leaking pipes, etc. But, they are kept as clean as possible. A local TV station surveyed our parks, recently. They were mainly disgusting places. We take no pride in ourselves or our public surroundings.

I can understand how a country trying to recover from years of civil war and interracial fighting can struggle to look good. But Freetown in Sierra Leone can hold its head up next to downtown Kingston. It’s not Zürich, don’t get me wrong, but it’s trying to do much with little.

We’ve never been at war and we are only at each other’s throats over a narrow political divide. What is our problem?

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Freetown, not much different from downtown Kingston, except that Jamaica is many times richer

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