Stupid money: Abu Bakr makes a fool of Jamaica

The Jamaican government has really got to ask itself some questions about its credibility. Its Minister of National Security decided that a Muslim leader from Trinidad was an undesired visitor, so deported him speedily back home. Except that the proposed means of travel did not meet the deportee’s taste, so the Minister arranged for the rental of a private jet…for J$4 million or US$36,000. We sent Abu Bakr back for how much?

IMG_0210.JPG

Oh, no, they didn’t! Oh, yes, they did!

Let’s not waste time discussing how badly any segment of Jamaica needs dosh like that, which we dashed away.

Malcolm Gladwell talked this week about legitimacy: it needs respect, equity, and trustworthiness. Someone ought to give the government a copy of Gladwell’s David and Goliath and have each member read a page to all the others until the book is finished.

The anger that a decision such as that over a private jet can caused is well measured by the context of the decision:

*A country that cannot afford to buy temperature checking machinery to implement a new policy of screening visitors for Ebola.
*A country that asked children to bring water to school to be able to flush away their toilet waste.
*A country that cannot afford to fix its fleet of aged garbage trucks, to help deal with the mass of garbage piling up and facilitating the spread of diseases that the government says it wants to curb.
*A country mired under a huge debt burden.
*A country already dealing with Trinidad over the possible discriminatory treatment of its citizens when denied entry into the twin island republic.

Have we totally lost the plot?

The PM made a gesture this week of curtailing her oft-criticized foreign travel, by saying she would go only if a plane was sent for her by the country wanting her to visit.

Now, we’ve turned that on its head, in our inimitable sun rises in the west fashion. We find a private jet to send away a person we do not want.

The reports are that Mr. AB got stroppy. So, after he threw his toys out of the crib, we shelled out a lot of wonga. Well, tell that to any deportee next time. I imagine the jet did not offer the usual luxuries of champagne and chef-prepared meals. But, maybe, I’m wrong.

The government has just been shown a set of truly horrible poll results about its overall performance, that of its leader, and that of individual ministers. I smiled when I saw that Minister Bunting headed the list of those most thought should get chopped. I now do not wonder why.

Screaming out for help: Jamaica faces a health crisis, and how we got help from Hasids

Health issues are dominating life in Jamaica. We have our outbreak of Chikungunya. You cannot meet someone these days and they not be part of the conversation. “Wha’ gwan? You get it, yet?” or, “Man, mi jus’ get it. Di pain. Worse dan labour pains. No, sah!” There’s hardly a family who hasn’t had it, we hear–though mine is one of those so far free from symptoms. Our economy is feeling the effects, as almost every establishment is reeling from people out sick from Chik-v. I went to get some medical supplies for my father a few days ago, and the company was suffering with half its office staff out.

But, in typical Jamaican fashion, we’ve been very quick to turn a potential tragedy into a near farce. We have a wonderful song written and performed by an 11-year-old, whose main catchy line is “One Panadol, one Panadol, quick,” which has become a catchphrase.

A man I met has that as his ringtone. 🙂

But, in typical fashion, too, it taps into one of the peculiar aspects of Jamaican life: people’s unwillingness to accept ‘wisdom’, preferring to go with gut reasoning. We’ve had mosquitoes all our lives, so how is it that mosquitoes come with this new virus? Well, the logical medical reason that we are fresh meat for a particular mosquito is not convincing many people, who instead come up with different theories. I have heard some: it came from a plane that crashed off the north coast a few weeks ago; it was brought here by American missionaries; it’s not mosquitoes, but airborne. Our medical officials are going to have a hard time convincing a people who are already skeptical about information given by government, and already steeped in their own reasoning, no matter how unreasonable the may seem to some.

In the same way, the doctors can prescribe all they want with their pharmaceutical pills, but give a Jamaican a bush tea or herbal remedy any day. One Panadol? One papaya leaf juice, please.

We have the laughable situation where our Health Minister seems desperate to catch the virus, so that he too can “feel the pain” of the people. But, he seems unable to do even that, and instead he’s reported to have contracted a cyst under his eye. As the press reported, it ‘was a result of “something” catching him under the eye during the clean up of the mosquito breeding site in Payne Land, off Spanish Town Road’, so he can say it’s Chik-v related. Woeful, and I was splitting my sides laughing, at how his in-cyst-ance on getting sick got him.

But, moving on from this virus, we have the scourge that is hitting the world news–the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. It touched the US last week, and that meant it was not far from us in every sense. We are not prepared for it, as are many other countries. So, it was little surprise that we have our first scare with it. An American man, travelling to our north coast resort of Montego Bay, after recently visiting Liberia, was quarantined and later released with a report that he had no symptoms, but returned to the USA. Within hours, our Security Minister issued a travel ban to and from the west African countries at the centre of the outbreak–Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. We joined Colombia, Guyana, St. Lucia, and Colombia int akin such action.

While we may have concerns about the effect of health issues on tourism, the world will see it and run with it. Naturally, people are showing some basic fears amplified by the now regular access to stories and images of people dying and lying in the street, and of infected people being tended to by medical staff in protective suits.ebola-workers

People are running scared, but again in Jamaica, we’ve our ludicrous spin. I watched one of the local stations for their evening news. They had polled people about the travel ban. Most people agreed with it, and they felt that we should add ‘screaming’ of all travellers. Jamaicans are one of those sets of people who have challenges with standard English. Most notably, when people have a word that is difficult to pronounce or not well-known or understood, we revert to a near cognate. So, ‘screening’ is now ‘screaming’ for many Jamaicans. That’s not to be confused with the passenger last week, who actually screamed that he had Ebola and was met with a Hazmat-suited team and taken off the plane on which he was seated. A little like with our Health Minister: beware what you wish for.

On the language matter, we get our Health Minister again showing that well-known Jamaican affliction: the superfluous ‘h’. His comments are peppered with them, including telling us how the government was working ‘h-assiduously’ in dealing with cleaning up. I had to take a breath and wonder if he somehow had the Jewish Hasids working for us.

Has Minister Ferguson got the Hasids to help us?
Has Minister Ferguson got the Hasids to help us?

But, taking the whole matter seriously, I’m watching to see how the wave of hysteria is developing. As I noted a few sentences ago, no one wants a dreaded disease in their midst, not least one that is contracted by contact. We are a tactile people, and such things go to our core existence. The notion of having to take care with handshakes may not have seeped into people’s actions fully, but it is coming fast. The fist or elbow bump is getting is getting its day.

Jamaica is a land of strugglers who survive, and I have no fear that we will do so again, but in our inimitable way, screaming and kicking, and screaming everyone at the airports.

Is there a doctor in the house? Jamaica’s health emergency missing an actor

IMG_0201.JPG
Politicians may try to empathise, but it’s largely for show…
IMG_0202.JPG
PM briefed MPs and Mayors on national medical emergency. The Minister of Health sat beside her, but is having difficulty absorbing the message…

Today is a day to be perplexed. The PM did something very good in calling a meeting to brief all MPs and Mayors on the emergency response to the Chikungunya outbreak and the threat of Ebola. They was a step in the direction of national leadership for which many have called. Then, the Minister of Health loses the plot. First, he stated that he wished he would get Chikungunya so that he could feel the pain of those who’ve been struck by the virus. This verges on masochism, but what was he really thinking? Naturally, the comment has spurred guffaw-like responses. Would he want to be shot to feel the pain of those assailed by gunmen? Would he want to lose limbs to feel the pain of those who suffered from industrial accidents? Several politicians in other countries have tried to share in the people’s suffering. Recently, three US congressmen lived for a week on the US$77 minimum wage, and shared their experiences.

Often, such attempts at empathy are publicity stunts and no more. The world knows that trading some temporary discomfort is not that meaningful. But, Dr. Ferguson is going further: he’s seeking the full Monty of sickness. Now, I wonder if we had an Ebola outbreak whether he’d want to go through its effect. This is why I ask what is he trying to prove? The second plot loss was to issue new ‘statistics’ on ‘confirmed’ and ‘suspected’ cases of Chikungunya. I thought the numbers game was over. Most people can point to the new total of 61 confirmed cases in their own circle of contacts. What is this rubbish? In mid-September the minister accused the Opposition of fomenting panic over the virus. Yesterday, his boss brings politicians together in what is declared a national health emergency. If the good doctor is not out of touch with the reality surrounding him, then I’m not sure what is going on. Last week, the PM said she’d no reasons, yet, to dismiss her health minister. Is it yet, yet?

Questioning legitimacy: Malcolm Gladwell spins a yarn

I imagine that those who forked out the moolah to listen to author Malcolm Gladwell speak last evening at UWI are still filled with some of what he shared. Gladwell is a great story teller. Actually, his stories are like tapestries, that he weaves towards his main point. In a way they can seem like shaggy dog stories. He told us one of those yesterday to make his point about his understanding of legitimacy.

He described himself as a perfect Jamaican. How so? He was born in England to an English father–a mathematics professor–and a Jamaican mother–a psychotherapist. They moved to Canada. So, he has some Jamaican link, but lives abroad. He sends money to Jamaica: he did not say to whom or for what. But, let’s assume it’s all good philanthropy.

His story was about Alva Smith, and how she transformed from social nobody, to a Vanderbilt wife, to a mother who forced her daughter to marry into English nobility rather than to her love (a typical offspring off New York socialites), then saw the lights and threw herself into the women’s suffrage movement. Her daughter also did, too, eventually. Both women dumped their husbands in efforts to reposition their less worthy existences.

Gladwell told us all this during an hour’s talk.

Legitimacy, he argued, is based on three legs: respectfulness, equity, and trustworthiness.

IMG_0200.JPG
Malcolm Gladwell, always engaging.

Without it, people will inevitably turn against those who deny them these things. I see it as injustice, but am not going to haggle over terms. The process seems clear.

The women in his story lacked those three elements in the lives their husbands and society at the time allowed them. They sought to gain those elements in their own ways. Alva spent like crazy, especially on large homes. Then she poured her money into her daughter’s husband, whose family estate had seen better times. Her daughter eventually poured herself into repositioning women in society’s eyes.

In typical Gladwell style, the story is compelling. But, as he admits, it’s not complete.

It’s an interesting story because part of it sounds good, but the untold part puts that good into stark relief. While Alva laudably reached out to black women suffragettes, her ‘victory’ in getting white American women the vote in 1920 left their black sisters behind, and their black brothers. The USA did not truly enfranchise all its citizens for nearly another 50 years.

Much as I like Gladwell’s provocative way of looking at things, one has to beware being reeled in by a nice narrative.

Of course, if one looks beyond the USA, we can see that whatever the proportions may yield in some circumstances one isn’t left with clear universal truths. Whatever American women were able to do to change the legitimacy of their country’s voting, it had little or no effect in most of the world. So, nearly 100 years on, some women are still clamouring for voting rights, while many still yearn for other basic rights and the removal of a raft of institutional discrimination. Even in the USA, the vote for women was necessary for some advancement, but not sufficient.

Social change is complex. He doesn’t claim to understand the whole world, but has interesting views about how some some of it works.

Questioners asked for more clarification from Gladwell, and hoped to translate his words into the Jamaican context. Many will see that Jamaicans gave tolerated illegitimacy for decades. What then will be the tipping point, to coin another Gladwellism?

I had a thought as I listened last night about how people have rejected one illegitimate regime only to revert to it sometime in the near future. My mind was on countries that rejected the Soviet regime, but hold onto or brought back the essential pillars of that system. Of course, Jamaican politics has plenty of this political recidivism.

It’s zinc credible: our national wallpaper needs ripping down

The recent focus in Jamaica on the squalid state of much of the environment is really part of a deeper reconsideration of what the country has become. I make no excuse for not seeing all things Jamaican through rose-coloured glasses. When I look around I often see the stunning natural beauty that is usually just a glance away. Of course, if you live in a gully community or in what has become of housing in downtown Kingston that glance won’t give you one of the many stunning vistas, but you really don’t have to go far for my point to be true.

By contrast, you also don’t need to look far to see the opposite side, of wanton squalour.

I was driving from Mandeville to Spanish Town yesterday, with some people who lived in that city. As we left the highway, we passed some narrow streets lined with part of Jamaica’s standard ‘wallpaper’. “Zinc fence. Where would we be without it?” I commented. “I hate it! Disgusting! They should tear it down,” came a reply from one of the women in the back. I added that natural wood boarding would have more visual appeal, to me. At the back of my mind was the thought that the zinc was durable and maybe more resistant to the worst that nature could throw.

Zinc fencing has come to symbolize many aspects of Jamaica gone bad. It’s the sign of ‘ghetto’ living: marking the ramshackled housing thrown up amidst established dwellings.

IMG_0187.GIF

The government agrees that these unsightly structures should go, and has a Zinc Fence Removal Project underway. It’s focus is on the Corporate area, with J$42 million allocated. But, as the Gleaner pointed out last year, this idea was first trumpeted by PM Patterson in the 1990s. Now, it gets rolled out in 2013/14, and in good ‘tribal’ politics fashion, gets going in the current PM’s constituency, with lovely new block walls and gates in Greenwich Farm. Naturally, the rest of the country could feel cynical about this. “Her people” are clearly what’s meant by “my people”. But, let’s try to walk past that.

The essence of calls for ‘national clean up’ is to restore a level of civic pride into Jamaica. We are not all caring citizens. Many people are so used to garbage in their midst that they ’embrace’ it. I noticed yesterday, while driving, a group of young ladies standing on a street talking. About one yard from them was a pile of garbage. Now, I know that garbage tends to smell and usually one moves away from the offending smell. But, if it’s become part of your essential being–pun, partly intended–you just inhale and carry on.

I was with the 8000 or so runners and walkers last Saturday during the Digicel 5k. An early part of the route crosses a gully. It stinks. In the dark of night, it seems to smell worse. Almost every participant let out a “Eeeeeewwwww!” as it was crossed. Clearly, a bunch of privileged people, who are not used to that.

My daughter and I took in the setting sun before the race started. We looked into the harbour and saw a pile of debris. It included a dead dog. “Why is it blue?” she asked. I used the teaching moment.

We live with detritus too much.

What nature has bestowed in us, we are glibly destroying, and accepting ugly rather than striving for beauty. Some of the attempts at ‘beautification’ are awful, because we try to mould man-made things into appealing forms, rather than let nature help us. Or, we let nature run rampant rather than tame it. That’s good news for the politicians, who use these opportunities to ‘give work’. The real jobs we could create could simply be constant environmental maintenance.

I spent two weeks with friends in France, in La Rochelle. The city prides itself on being floral. When I pointed this out to my friends, they were surprised. They take it for granted that they have walkways, bike paths, roadways, lined with trimmed shrubs and flowers. People stroll and ride and lie down on the grass in parks, reading, playing cards, drinking beer and wine, having picnics.

IMG_0189.JPG Admitted, they do not have our constant heat or other tropical issues. But, their outdoor spaces are looked on with pride. The streets are shockingly clean. But, these are results of deciding to tackle people’s disregard for their surroundings. It is a work in progress that began a few decades ago. So, Jamaica is not lost.

Except that we struggle to get started. Look from PJ’s idea to start: nearly 20 years. We take too long to make our first steps. Then take too long to make the next. Look around at unfinished structures. We, also, have let thrive the villains who look to destroy, by stealing and coopting materials. We let poverty and lack of money be the excuse for depriving people of what is theirs.

IMG_0188.JPG

I commented last week that the PM missed a huge opportunity to mobilize the nation behind the clean up idea. Instead of going to her constituency first, she should have tried going into an Opposition area. That would have shown that “my people” are not just “her people”. But, the tribes are so entrenched that one could hear the questions and criticisms that would have caused. The notion of “our time” is made real by depriving those who do not support us. A zero-sum game, played out with people’s lives and livelihoods.

A point has to come when people cut through that kind of mentality. Sickness has a way of showing that we are all similarly vulnerable. I don’t wish sickness on anyone, but if that’s part of the cure, then let it spread.

Chinese takeaway: making business look easy

I spent a few hours today in Mandeville with one of Jamaica’s Chinese population, as he put it, “Chinese, Chinese.” He’d come to Jamaica in the mid-1980s–oddly, about the time my father had returned to Jamaica.

His line of business was supermarkets. In that sense, he was like many Jamaican Chinese. I didn’t get to ask him why he’d come to Jamaica. I was more intrigued by how he spoke. He had all the Jamaican idioms, but in an accent so thick it was hard not to parody it. He also spoke a lot in Chinese language, on the phone or to another Chinese man nearby.

Jamaica is no stranger to a population of native Chinese, most of which are part of our ethnic mix of ‘real’ Jamaicans, having merged with the other ethnic groups since the influx of indentured workers in the mid-19th century. But, this man is part of a newer wave of Chinese migrants.

I’m not thinking of those who get bright in on engineering projects and tend to live in enclaves by their work sites. I’m focusing on a group who’ve decided that Jamaica holds an economic future for them.

Many of these new Chinese are business people, in grocery or food trades. They are integral parts of communities. The man I met was a key sponsor for an event, and ended up as a tournament winner for the second straight year.

I’ve no idea how many such entrepreneurs are in Jamaica, but they make one think about a country where often people say doing business is very difficult.

Clean bowled! Windies winded, again.

A great Saturday so far spent watching an amazing array of sport. My kind of day. But, lessons abound. Our beloved–by some–West Indies cricket team has just ‘snatched defeat from the jaws of victory’. They had a commanding position against India, but managed to “implode”, according to one Caribbean sports commentator. He later said that India had mounted a stunning “comeback”. It can’t be both: we either presented them with the win or they’d earned it. But, enough parsing. Bottom line: another choke.

Do we have what it takes to be great in some spheres anymore? Much has changed in the world since West Indies dominated cricket. Why that has changed is complex and not agreed. We lost ground and others improved. That’s not unusual in sport.

I watched a wonderful champion in another sport show how tides can turn. Roger Federer, best current champion and world number one, Novak Djokovic, in straight sets in Shanghai earlier today. Federer, who holds the record for the longest period as number one in men’s tennis, saw his rank slip and fall fast over the past two years. He was older than most of his main rivals and his graceful and efficient style was not enough to topple the strong baseline hitters represented by Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. He resisted an important equipment change that would have put him level in that area, but eventually began using a bigger racket. He got over injuries that were sapping his staying ability. He changed coach to Stefan Edberg, who got Federer to trust more in his very good serve-volley game. Today, all his sublime skills were on display, plus his ability to focus and concentrate on every important point.

He got lucky over the past year: Nadal had prolonged injuries; Murray lost form after injuries. But, success begets success. Federer began winning again and was making finals, though not a lock each time. He still suffered some losses to players he’s dominated in the past. But, he also showed that he has a talent that comes from years of winning: finding ways to stare defeat down and come out a winner. Just this week, in Shanghai, he saved set points, then five match points before winning an early round match.

He’s balanced his personal life to fold well with his sporting career…and how. He’s fathered two sets of twins! His wife’s a former tennis player, who’s been on the circuit following him for years, so is expert in the role of supporter.

He’s made getting older not seem like a burden as his fitness regime is solid. But, overall, he’s made clear that he’s passionate about his playing.

Physical talent is important, but many say that what is between the ears is more important. The greatest are mental Titans. In golf, it’s said that it is 90 percent mental and 10 percent mental. JosĂ© Mourihno showed what happens when you get into other people’s heads. Latest victim, Arsene ‘the shover’ Wenger.

I’m not suggesting that West Indies need a physiologist. But, I’m suggesting that West Indies need some psychologists. They may actually be pretty bad technically, because the execution of skills is low. But, we can retrain skills more easily than rebuild mental strength in athletes.

IMG_0180.JPG

Yet…The PM dug her own hole, now she’s digging them for others

Jamaica’s PM has dug a hole for herself. By refusing to engage the mainstream media on a regular basis, she’s now having to establish a track record in the eyes of the public. It’s a coincidence that in the week after polls showed that her leadership style was very unpopular, she decided to make a national statement and have a media briefing on what is the pressing issue in the public’s mind–the chikungunya outbreak?

Who's really going to get put under the bus?
Who’s really going to get put under the bus?

Is it coincidence that days after polls showed her and her party trailing the Opposition badly and taking the country in the wrong direction, she makes this move. She and her team know the answer. We are entitled to guess. Why now, except to try to regain some standing in the people’s hearts and minds? Politicians want to be in power and when it seems to be slipping away they will usually change.

The PM should have been prepared for the media’s questions. So, it’s interesting how she dealt with those about dismissing her minister of health over his handling of the outbreak. She said she had no reason “yet”. That yet is always implicit, so why stress it? To suggest that ‘soon’ reasons will be there, as in this is a last chance? If the PM seemingly misspeaks, I don’t think it’s pure accident. Her articulation may be lacking, but she’s a consummate politician.

She also characterised him and her Cabinet in an odd way. She referred to him as “one of the hard working” ministers, clearly indicating that some of her ministers are slacking in their jobs. She could have said he was amongst the hardest workers, suggesting hard work was the norm, and he was a standout. But, she’s clearly suggested that the presence of ministers is not conditioned on hard work, and by implication the driving forward of policies. Why are they still there? Your answers are as good as mine.

She then put icing on this lacklustre endorsement. The minister was good at coming to support her effort to clean up her constituency, and if there was something about chikungunya, he would come along and talk. Really!

To my extraordinary high standards that is a far cry from what I think a Cabinet minister should have as his or her profile.

My own simpleton view is that the PM is preparing the ground for some house cleaning. Her style is not to respond to outside calls for action. So, her timing will be made to seem natural to her, and it may be soon.

Good government: some thoughts on why Jamaica is failing

An interesting feature of good government is the extent to which the state encourages collective good behaviour. However, that behaviour needs a framework, which is usually codified as laws and regulations. The encouragement to hold onto the framework can happen through positive or negative. incentives, i.e. benefits or punishment. So, we may find that we are rewarded for following rules. Or, we incur personal or collective losses, such as facing fines for breaking laws.

Jamaica is interesting because the state has failed in this role for many years and in many areas. The current concerns about health issues, and the outbreak of chikungunya give good insights into that failure.

Citizens were never encouraged to maintain sanitary conditions, and never faced serious penalties for not doing so. The results are obvious: garbage is more present than absent. The state failed further by not fulfilling its function to help dispose of garbage on a regular basis. The reasons for that may have some legitimacy in that financial constraints limited buying and using equipment and people. But, it’s a weak justification, because it reflects a choice to use money for other non-essential purposes such as vehicles for officials.

Crime is another area where we see this failure in full light. Criminals are rarely caught and when caught are less often punished. So, the incentive to be law-abiding is low. Again, the state adds to our woes by itself having a significant portion of law enforcement officers who are themselves law breakers.

When the state machinery is corrupted, it’s hard for citizens to see sense in trying to hold onto the good behaviour framework.

All the burden shouldn’t fall on laws and regulations, though, as some moral code should also be in place to guide people in areas where you want people to act correctly, but cannot write down grow that should be. But, that moral code needs reinforcing by constant and consistent application, as with every citizen looking out for every citizen. At its simplest, we can imagine how an adult would show care for a child and help it navigate things too difficult to manage. So, any adult could help a child cross the road. The child, in turn, has learned that courtesy is expected and a simple “Thank you” would suffice to show that.

But, we can see the moral code has been whittled away. Using my simple example, we may see less willingness by adults to assist children, and fewer displays of simple courtesies. That has a downward spiral, where disregard for child safety is more common and children’s courtesy to adults is less common.

Another aspect to this social good behaviour is the extent that rule-makers create good rules and modify them as circumstances change. My mind goes quickly to how that doesn’t exist with what happens in some schools with dress codes. We can understand the desire to get children to understand the discipline of what is seen as good decorum. But, it’s hard to see this when it appears to move to extremes. So, the idea that modesty is imposed by girls having skirts no less than say 4 inches below the knee seems reasonable. But, for that to move arbitrarily to say 11 inches is bothersome. It’s more concerning because it’s not universally applied, suggesting that personal preference has guided more than some common sense, in the true meaning. Is that near tripling of length going to be associated with a three-fold improvement in anything? I suspect not. Further, a burden has been added to parents for dubious benefit.

Finally, our belief in fairness has to be bolstered all the time when the state expects us to behave well. That is eroded when we see the state and its officials getting away with things that other citizens cannot. That is the essence of the problem with letting corruption take hold. State officials should be seen to be sanctioned at least at the same rate as others. When this doesn’t happen, resentment and distrust of the state must increase. Jamaica would have been a very different place had more officials faced court and sanctions for their apparent transgressions. But, by reserving special treatment for itself, the state (officials and politicians) sold out.

None of the is beyond fixing. The chikungunya episode is giving an example of a fix can appear quickly. Politicians and corporations buy into the idea of national cleanliness and within days we get examples of good behaviour to follow. But, follow we must, not just the one-off for show. We also don’t need entities to show the way because each citizen should feel empowered to take the first step.

Paradise lost, unnecessarily

We’re in one if those phases of national self assessment. Well, that’s what media coverage suggests. The realization that we have lived the wasted life is now staring us in the face. But, not for the first time. We’re a problem child. We don’t learn our lessons and we kept going back to bad, old behaviour. But, we’ve also been accustomed to getting another chance in the promise that we won’t do it again.

My romantic side has a very clear picture of Jamaica. It’s rooted in the past because I know that things were better then. The vision is of a country that, despite any lack of rid economic progress never let that be the excuse for a way of life that suggested we do not care. When my grandparents raised my parents in homes that had dirt floors, dust was always under control and so was dirt. Everyone made sure of that. Now, if you have 11 children, you have hands aplenty for that. But, you also have creators of mess. The balance is to do your job and make sure you don’t make work for others. Back in the late 1950s, my maternal grandmother’s home in St. Elizabeth had no electricity. It had water, from a well, or from a stream. Children went to fetch water and bring it back for whatever was needed.

In my father’s district in St. Mary, near Highgate, water was abundant from the river. People took their clothes to wash there and bathe and relax. That’s what days were about.

But, neither family had wealth other than my grandmother’s land and animals, and whatever farming brought in. People made clothes and made things last. One of my uncles was a carpenter and he made some furniture for the family. Basically, people tried to be decent in all they did. The idea that people would wantonly throw things on the road side or let garbage accumulate was as crazy as the idea that we would put scorpions in our beds. It wasn’t pride in our surroundings but a clear understanding of a certain level of decency. If others did not have it, they were very few.

In the markets, sellers cleared away. At church, members tidied and cleared away. At school, children kept classrooms tidy and school yards clean. That was then. Now, many clearly for not have that basic understanding.

That ignorance has an origin and was given oxygen by those who also ignored it but saw that as a means to other ends. Dirt and grime all over the place meant work for some, and paying people for such simple menial tasks was a means to show them that someone could offer them what the economy couldn’t–a job, any job.

The connection between squalour and other diseases was not clear to many. Ignorance helped there. Poor education. Worlds full of myths and mischief. These could allow people to think that they had little or no part in their own foe ward spiral. Moreover, it was everywhere, so it was the accepted norm. Clearing it away was the exception, and it was done with equipment that others had. Who could single-handedly clear those swelling gullies. One, one coco full basket didn’t translate into each one do a little. Those who called themselves leaders fed in that.

Dependency was built up and rebuilt. ‘The government…’ was the saviour, often. Besides them were ‘dons’: people who controlled areas with fear and violence and goods and favours, and delivered what people wanted but at a price different from what elected officials demanded.

People who lived in such conditions saw others, with little that looked like dependency, in better homes and trappings of wealth, and clean surroundings, and equated the latter with having money, jobs, and status. So, nice surroundings were not for poor, uneducated people. When they escaped that, things would be better. It had to be true, because everywhere poor people lived thing were squalid and horrible. Therefore… The fallacy was well set. Let’s not disturb it.

So, here we are facing a disease that has its origin not necessarily in dirt and grime, but in the surroundings that are the base of dirt and grime–wanton disregard. Because, by leaving empty cans, bottles, tyres, plastic containers, etc. lying around, we provide habitat for insects to breed. They don’t need homes as large as ours. They don’t need our garbage, because nature allows them to use her resources, anyway. So, if it’s a leaf that provides a bowl for water, that’s enough. But, people have been so helpful in offering more sites. Best of all, people are what the insects want to feed on. So, when they mature, dinner is right there at the table. What a happy coincidence.

Many of the people want to say it’s not so. It came from the sky. It was sent here by foreigners. It’s all made up. Maybe. But, guess what? Keep believing that and watch what happens. Of course, the antidote is prayer.

The living conditions are a building block for the life people live. When they have good nutrition the living conditions don’t hurt as much. If transport were readily available, the living conditions don’t hurt as much. If the weather is usually good, the living conditions… Having a roof over the head is maybe more than many can take for granted. They get used to prizing that above all else. But, as life grinds them down the focus on making things better for themselves moves towards ‘entertainment’, especially if wild and really different from everyday life–escape.

People have been fed escapism rather than something more mundane, yet ultimately more beneficial because it’s self-sustaining. Now, the challenge is to recapture what shouldn’t have escaped. I suspect people have been so used to bring ‘bought’ that they can’t accept this as being a need that gets met without their getting ‘a money’.