#COVID19Chronicles-233: November 27, 2020-New Zealand and Australia reap COVID control dividend as record crowds watch rugby during pandemic

A recent Washington Posts headline blared ‘Australia has almost eliminated the coronavirus — by putting faith in science’:

The Washington Post wrote: ‘Several practical measures contributed to Australia’s success, experts say. The country chose to quickly and tightly seal its borders, a step some others, notably in Europe, did not take. Health officials rapidly built up the manpower to track down and isolate outbreaks. And unlike the U.S. approach, all of Australia’s states either shut their domestic borders or severely limited movement for interstate and, in some cases, intra­state travelers.

…most important, though, leaders from across the ideological spectrum persuaded Australians to take the pandemic seriously early on and prepared them to give up civil liberties they had never lost before, even during two world wars.

“We told the public: ‘This is serious; we want your cooperation,’ ” said Marylouise McLaws, a Sydney-based epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales and a World Health Organization adviser.

A lack of partisan rancor increased the effectiveness of the message, McLaws said in an interview.

The conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, formed a national cabinet with state leaders — known as premiers — from all parties to coordinate decisions. Political conflict was largely suspended, at least initially, and many Australians saw their politicians working together to avert a health crisis.

Perhaps, most important, Australia decided to follow advice from health experts: ‘Australia’s national response was led by Health Minister Greg Hunt, a former McKinsey & Co. management consultant and a Yale University graduate. Hunt and Morrison worked with the state premiers, who hold responsibility for on-the-ground health policy, to develop a common approach to the pandemic.’

The pay-off for that was that a record number of people went to watch a sports event during COVID. The Guardian wrote ‘The whole city was gridlocked: Brisbane heaves as fans allowed back en masse’:

‘Suncorp Stadium’s official crowd at the State of Origin finale between Queensland and New South Wales was 49,155. It is believed to be a world record since Covid-19 shut down sport.’ Competition had resumed in May, about the time that professional football resumed in Europe:

The country had got COVID under control.

Beforehand, however, New Zealand had staged the Bledisloe Cup rugby match against Australia in mid-October, lifting restrictions to allow fans to attend—46,000 attended.

Covid-19 restrictions in Auckland, which re-entered lockdown in August following a small outbreak of coronavirus cases, were lifted at the start of the month to allow crowds to return to stadiums.

‘New Zealand has been widely praised for its approach to handling the coronavirus and has reported fewer than 2,000 total cases and 25 deaths since the pandemic began,’ CNN wrote.

From early October, it was planned to host matches in New Zealand with capacity crowds. Auckland was at a higher alert level than the rest of New Zealand for several weeks because of a small community outbreak of COVID-19, but moved to level 1 from the start of October.

All of this is in stark contrast with most of Western Europe, Latin America, and notably the USA–where COVID has spiralled out of control. As the Post wrote: ‘As North America, Europe, India, Brazil and other regions and countries struggle to bring tens of thousands of daily infections under control, Australia provides a real-time road map for democracies to manage the pandemic. Its experience, along with New Zealand’s, also shows that success in containing the virus isn’t limited to East Asian states (Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan) or those with authoritarian leaders (China, Vietnam).

Notable amongst president-elect Biden’s early contacts with world leaders has been one with NZ’s prime minister, who has offered her nation’s expertise and advice on COVID. All is far from lost for the USA, though much time and too many lives might have been needlessly lost.

Swing through, don’t try to hit the ball

This week, I find myself with a group of kids who are attending a golf clinic on the north coast. I had no idea I would be doing that 36 hours ago, but such is life. It’s no great hardship, as few things please me more than seeing youngsters make headway with a sport. Golf is simple in principle, yet so hard in practice, and some people do not have either the patience or concentration to master the simple application of swing to ball, and walk away frustrated that hitting an object that is not moving can be so difficult.

My young daughter got talked into participating, with the tempting prospect of hanging around a nice beach resort while other kids were having lessons. I explained to her that the cost of the lessons were already included in the accommodation, so she may as well join in and see how things go. The kids are having about 6 hours of instruction and playing; a long time for the younger ones (8 year olds), most of whom have not played before or very little. But, golf can be very rewarding when everything about the swing is right and the ball zings off the club towards its intended target. But, as Rory McIlroy has to admit, even the best golfers get rewards from swings that are all wrong. Better to be lucky than good, as the Irish know.

Well, after that little piece of chicanery, I thought it best to let her have at it and see how things went later. I took off to play a round early with some friends who live close to where we are staying. I have never played White Witch before, but had heard it was nice and challenging. Anyway, I was game for a try, whatever the outcome. I don’t usually use a caddy, but they tend to be included in the package on the north coast, along with a cart. White Witch is long and very undulating, and in common with the north coast, wind can be a big factor. My caddy was about 7 months pregnant. Did I need the prospect of a premature birth to complicate my round? I sake her to alert me early if she felt any sudden cramping.

My clinical duties today were to make sure the kids woke at 6:45 to have breakfast as 7:30. I was heading out by 7:25, so I did my deed and skidaddled.

My friend and his wife had played the course before, but some years ago. We were ready for adventure, but could not be anything but awestruck by the view from the driving range. Jamaica really needs to sell its golf courses better.
image

We played a decent round, and I invited my friends back for lunch. What lunch? Well, the hungry belly pickney nyam off di food. Hard work in the sun had boosted appetites. Embarrassed, I suggested that my friends come over later or another day. I grabbed a left over hamburger for supper and nuked that for my lunch. I then went to see how the clinic was going.

I could see groups of children and carts. As I got closer, I heard some laughter. That’s always a good sign with kids. They were either having a good time or someone was making them think they were having a good time. I caught up with my daughter’s group and walked along with them. Two younger boys were with her, and they looked wilted. Often, for sports camps, the younger ones just do a half day: their energy and concentration is not usually strong enough. But, they kept going for about another couple of hours. I also saw the group of older or more experienced golfers. All seemed to be trying and succeeding with new techniques and enjoying their little games of golf.

At the end of the session, the director, an English professional, asked how things had gone and if newcomers had enjoyed it. Up went a big brown thumb that was attached to my daughter’s hand. What! “I don’t usually enjoy things I don’t want to do,” chirped she. Knock me down with a feather. If I wasn’t a coach or player, I’d be salivating about how Jamaica had found its new female golf star, given the adulation she was getting. Well, her strong swimmer’s shoulders and legs were giving her a good start.

Every journey begins with a single step, and you never know to what a little exposure will lead.

The kids have no access to electronic devices most of the day. Hide and seek was played at lunch time. I hear yells of “Sardines”. I guess they are coping. Let’s see how they blend as the week goes.

Brazil 2014: What a week taught us and decades wont change

Social media is full of information. I don’t track everything that interests me, but I tend to share that when I see it. Football fans have been in heaven during the past seven days, since the World Cup matches started. Bags of goals and many of them stunning. Fast, furious action. Of course, controversies within the matches.

But, beyond the goals, and fouls, and cautions, and ejections, and massive crowds, what has been of interest on the soccer field and in the stadiums? (I have not quite understood the Chilean fans’ invasion of the media centre at the Maracana Stadium.)

The Japanese see sport differently. Japan is astonishingly clean. So, Japanese fans want to show that off to the world. That’s why they stayed behind after a match to clean up the stadium. Though their team lost 2-1 to Cote d’Ivoire at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Japanese spectators armed with bin liners patrolled their side of the stadium and gathered up discarded litter. That is class. Social media filled up with praise for this.

Japanese fans clean up in Recife
Japanese fans clean up in Recife

FIFA is run by madmen. I came to that conclusion when I watched England lose to Uruguay last night. Raheem Sterling’s knee caught Alvaro Pereira in the head, and knocked him out cold. (Watch the incident here.) He looked dead at first. Once he was revived, officials tried to escort him from the field. He protested. Next thing, he’s running around and getting hit and heading the ball again.

Pereira, pole axed. Moments later, running around like a kid. Madness!
Pereira, pole axed. Moments later, running around like a kid. Madness!

FIFA has a concussion protocol (see here). By contrast, the NFL begin assessing head injuries long before training camps, and players seen or suspected of having head injuries MUST leave the field for medical assessment. Not in football. A bunch of macho know-it-alls look on idly. The NFL also monitors conditions after a match. FIFA? Hello? Anyone there?

Trying to watch television coverage of matches is like trying to win a lottery. I’m quite savvy about possible alternatives to broadcast or satellite or cable transmission of live sporting events. However, when TV rights have been sold for billions of dollars, what can one expect? FIFA are due to make US$ 6 billion in revenue and US$ 2 billion profit from this World Cup, almost all of that from selling TV broadcast rights. Remember, the rights are sold to individual countries or groups of countries. The buyers are not always national broadcasters, but may often be subscription services, so watching freely may not be an option. At home, in Jamaica, SportsMax have the rights and it’s subscription cable. On vacation in France, the rights are shared between public broadcasters and private cable companies. I have to see which is showing a match: my hosts do not subscribe to the cable channel. Frustrated, sometimes, I scour known sources to find a free online streaming provider. Those I know are good and have feeds in English, but I would take any for the visual coverage; I do not need the prattle. They have drawbacks, whether annoying pop-up ads or links to services I do not want, but overall offer great options.

The mute button is my friend. I really need little when I watch sport other than the event. I like helpful background information about the contestants, but not too much. I do not need a screen filled with statistics, especially ones that do little more than count things that may not really matter.

TV football stats make it like a video game
TV football stats make it like a video game

But, I understand the trend and I think that football needs to use what technology now offers to make it fuller in many ways. But, I wish I could choose my pundits. I get mostly inane commentary thrown at me: in Jamaica, it comes from people wearing very brightly coloured shirts–that’s how it’s done. Branding matters. In France, I was pleased to hear and see Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger, as usual, in a suit and tie, talking little but making much sense; with his wonderful perspective as a successful manager. Often, all I get is what I can see for myself, or ranting and with little value. I so wish that I could choose which pundit to hear. Time to develop an app.

Jamaican TV broadcasters are branded
Jamaican TV broadcasters are branded

National values are not international values. The four yearly caravan of football, like the Olympics, offer good opportunities to sample other cultures. Many things are common; many are not. TV exposes much but explains little. Brazil’s racial history is not the USA’s and should not be made to fit into the  American narrative. African countries are not all the same. Latin American teams are not all capable of playing like Brazil in 1970. Social pressures and preferences are not suddenly forgotten when players enter the field. Fans have voices that are not the social barometers of their countries. We will see and hear things we deem racist. We will see and hear behaviour that treats women badly, as seen from our viewpoint. If our stereotypical view of Italians is right, then they will be pleading their innocence even as the blood drips off the boot that kicked the man in the eye. English players are very skillful and can pass as well as most others. Not every nation thinks that faking injuries is right: more players earning their keep in a few countries has had mixed benefits in showing new tricks to old dogs, but also showing those dogs that old tricks don’t go down well everywhere. Diving is an Olympic sport and should be kept there. 🙂

 

Everyone loves to hate referees. The honeymoon lasted only minutes and after that, no love was lost on the men in black sometimes. FIFA has moved with the times a little bit, and brought the profile of referees up during this World Cup, so now you get little thin bios. But, players and fans may know all of that already. They only care, though, if the men do not stink up the place with their ‘bad’, ‘biased’, ‘racist’, ‘home-team-favouring’, ‘scared’, ‘idiotic’, ‘blind’ decisions.

It began well for Brazil, but Croatian coach Niko Kovac accused Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura of being partial to his side  after it lost the opener at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo last Thursday: “I had a feeling that the referee had one set of rules for us and the other for Brazil. I don’t want to talk about referees but everybody saw how he did his job. He didn’t have respect for Croatia. He’s not good enough to be a referee in such an important game,” read one quote from Kovac in an interview to Croatian Television after the match.

Let's be friends?
Let’s be friends?

Football is full of controversy as far as decisions are concerned. The game has too few officials and decisions are mostly interpretation. The FIFA hierarchy like it that football is full of errors. Referees are human: they make mistakes, and that’s part of the fun; Sepp Blatter thinks. Who would get upset about a goal scored and seen by everyone except the match officials? Where’s your sense of fun? Ask Steven Gerrard. Who would get upset about a clear foul that is given, but no caution given because the referee realises that it would mean the expulsion of a key player? C’mon, man! It would only change the balance of the game, totally. Let’s give the man the chance to throw another elbow or kick the living daylights out of an opponent a little later.

De Jong checks if his boot fits Alonso's chest. It does. Referee Webb agrees.
De Jong checks if his boot fits Alonso’s chest. It does. Referee Webb agrees.

I guess we should ask Howard Webb, who seemed perfectly placed to see De Jong plant his boot into another player’s chest. Play on! Man down!

Need I mention 1986 and England-Argentina? Well, what’s a little handball into the net between friends, or enemies?

See what? Maradona became a hero for his country. His team went on to win the World Cup. At the post-game press conference, Maradona facetiously commented that the goal was scored “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” (“a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God“). What of the real villain, Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser? He gained 6th position in the top 10 worst refereeing decisions of all time (see here). Bravo, my boy!

FIFA, not yet a swear word, loves to keep referees out of the limelight. Referees, sometimes, hog the show. How about making them more accountable to the viewing and playing public? No. That would undermine their authority. Dissent. Yellow card. It would also show them as being human and fallible; that wouldn’t do. Have to love them as we hate them. (disclaimer: I am a qualified referee, and my decisions are final.)

Age is more than a number–Redux: crime and can’t bother-ism

I wrote a few days ago on the topic of youth and their role as leaders, and stated ‘The young are often impatient, and don’t want to wait for their turn, rightly so, in some cases.’ But, I will admit gladly that I am not holding out hopes for youth to lead as some would wish. Why? I responded to a comment on the previous post that ‘It’s also more than a bit disturbing that youth are so much a part of the crime problem, and it’s costing us dearly, see Gleaner article. You may see that as a consequence of ‘impatience’; I don’t.’ I feel this is one of the telling weaknesses about current Jamaica and whether it will get youth to be its engine. So, let me look a little and briefly at that impatience, as demonstrated by things I read over the weekend.

The crutch of crime:

‘Scammers defiant! Five young involved in illegal activity say they will not stop’This headline greeted me in the Sunday Observer. Why wont they stop? Because it pays the youths (age 17-27) better than anything else and has allowed them to acquire immense wealth. To sample from the article, scamming finances a great lifestyle, with high-end cars, new and fancy homes, improved opportunities to finance own- and relatives’ education. With high youth unemployment, people are again acting rationally and taking the best risk-reward options. These people are not yet ready to lead others, except into a world of more crime.

I can’t be bothered-ism:

I will say that frankly I was shocked by the attitude of a young businessman, touted as one of Jamaica’s young luminaries. Over the weekend, I read some of his tweets. He has a high public profile, so none of this should seem like ‘telling tales out of school’. In 2006, he wrote on his website ‘I don’t usually find racism funny…’ (he then attached a YouTube video, which was racist, but made him laugh). On May 11, he wrote:

I had to deal with a racist air hostess flying to London last year. Interesting experience. 9:16 PM – 10 May 2014

I then asked if he’d reported it. I reproduce the rest of the conversation.

Everybody haffi eat a food?

Jamaicans have an expression, “Everybody haffi eat a food”. It means that everyone has to survive. It’s a euphemism to cover various corrupt practices that essentially parcel out work or create work so that friedns and cronies can benefit from necessary activities. But, needing to eat food is real. Humans often forget that they are part of the food chain, and not always at the top. We have few natural predators looking for us, but they are there.

Yesterday, I became food. I was out in the afternoon with a lady at Caymanas Park Golf Course. So, were the mosquitoes. They respectfully greeted us as we arrived and accompanied us quietly and attentively as we progressed around the course. They were a little too attentive, at time, especially when we entered bushes to find balls or for some private moments. I’d been the centre of their attention earlier in the week, around dawn on Monday, and had been shocked by the way they did not seem to take breaks even as the sun came up strongly. I used ‘Off-Deep Woods’ (green), but it seemed to do little to deter and even less to repel. The mosquitoes congregated on my legs and arms, and on my shirt back, and down my neck. It was more than a little irritating. My arms were beginning to show weals: as far as I know, I’m not allergic, but I’m aware of diseases. Jamaica does not have malaria and I’ve lived where that’s present. We do have dengue fever, though.

Off Repellent
Off Repellent

I recalled a recent article about dealing with mosquitoes by having bats around. The article began ‘Plagued by mosquitoes? You might want to consider getting a bat. It might not be practical.’ Well, thanks for nothing. Admittedly, I couldn’t see myself walking around a golf course with a bat around my neck or hanging from my bag, like my water bottle. I don’t know if there’s good habitat for them in the woods around Caymanas, which so happens to be getting lopped as highway and water pipe works are underway.

I battled on. I was being eaten by mosquitoes and beaten by a man walking alongside me. Hard to saw which was worse for my play. It got to the point where I could not take anymore, on the final hole, thankfully, I could not deal with the piercing feeling in my arms as a bevy of mosquitoes took my moment’s stillness to assault me. I swung back my driver and hoped as it came forward to the ball. I made contact and let the club fly. My ball went all of 20 yards (over 200 yards is normal). Let’s say I did not score well on that hole, nor did I score well overall. As we arrived at the green, a fellow golfer, no less than the president of the Jamaica Golf Association, was talking on his cell phone. He had on long pants and they were tucked into his socks. “How’re you enjoying our mosquitoes?”

Mosquito, ready to do battle with your skin
Mosquito, ready to do battle with your skin

he asked. We told him “Not very much.” His attire was one possible solution next time; my shorts were cool but not near the right outfit for these conditions. He looked at us in admiration, though: “I had to stop. I couldn’t play,” he added. We’d played the whole round.

Dress is relevant. A website advises: ‘Camouflage: Wear clothing that helps you blend in with the background. Mosquitoes have vision similar to bees, so they hone in on color contrast and movement. This is especially so in wooded areas. Remember that mosquitoes are a predator, so take a lesson from nature and be hard to see!’. But, the predatory instinct is well-honed. ‘They are unique in the insect world for having excellent eyesight, enabling them to single out a moving mammal target from hundreds of feet away. They are also hyper-sensitive to the carbon dioxide exhaled by all mammals, and can also pick up the scent of a drop of sweat from half a mile away.’ Basically, golfers are sitting targets’. Golf courses tend to have standing water, and mosquitoes love that for breeding–fun in a water-bed, eh. But, overall, we cannot win, whatever we do, it seems. I cannot walk around with one of the electronic zappers.

  • Part of the reason mosquitoes are so hard to eradicate is that the mosquito’s total lifespan is only twenty days on per-species average anyway, and some make their complete cycle in just four days. Their entire bodies are designed to do little else but eat, lay eggs, and die. Their eggs, however, can last a whole year before hatching.
  • The annoying buzz of a mosquito’s wings is said by those who have perfect pitch to be between the musical keys of D and F. La-la-la.
  • In a test of natural plants to see which one repels mosquitoes the best, it was discovered that clove oil is pretty effective. Too bad that it is also toxic to human skin! That’s going green, for you. 😛

The rains are just beginning for this year. We’ve had a very dry past three months. Mosquito eggs are ready to be hatched. Yesterday, was funny. When a heavy downpour came, the mozzies ran for cover, or really, went for a potty break. Once the rain stopped, the little fleet of Luftwaffe-like insects descended on us as if we were London ready to be blitzed.

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cures? My wife would like me to use organic or natural methods, I’m sure, though I know she has stocked up on repellent sprays that are non-organic. 🙂 It’s about survival, baby. Well, I’d better start drinking my lemongrass tea–that worked really well in Guinea. I could walk with a few stalks of it, too, I guess. Mosquitoes don’t like mint, apparently, and I like mint tea, so maybe that’ll help too.

A luta continua, vitória é certa? Well, The struggle continues, but no victory is certain.

A luta continua
A luta continua

 

 

 

Schools challenge

Mere days after the end of the annual Boys’ and Girls’ High School Championships (‘Champs’), when school pride and spirit were on national display, we had the final for the Schools Challenge Quiz (SCQ). Calabar High School

Calabar High School crest
Calabar High School crest

won the boys’ championship for the 24th time, while Edwin Allen School took the girls’ trophy for the 2nd time, displacing almost perennial girls’ powerhouse Holmwood Technical. The boys have seen annual tussles between Jamaica College, Calabar High School and Kingston College. The girls’ side has been dominated by Holmwood for most of the past decade, while during the previous 20 years, Vere Technical ruled the roost.

It’s fitting that the brawny side of schooling was put into context by considering the brainy side. The contestants last night were Kingston College (KC), previous winners on 10 occasions (out of 20 appearances), against Campion College, seeking their first win. This was the 45th year of the competition, so KC have had some relative dominance.

Kingston College crest
Kingston College crest

KC won 27-25, after trailing for most of the ‘match’. So, they ceded bragging rights on the track but have them in the classroom, so to speak.

I am not an avid fan of TV quizzes, though I’ve glimpsed some of the earlier rounds, but had my interest raised for this for some odd reason. WHile watching, I was taken by the nature of the TV coverage by broadcaster TVJ. I thought it incongruous that the competition was preceded by a display of hip-hop and dance hall dancing by some boys and girls. A well-known journalist informed me that it was ‘just me’ who thought it so. I wont argue that. The idea was that this was for the ‘vibes’. I haven’t watched the annual spelling bee competition, but I have a feeling that their ‘vibes’ aren’t boosted–is that the right verb–with some pre-spellbound writhing. I somehow felt that the gravitas warranted something like a few verses of poetry or some readings from well-known novels, or a piece of classical music.

I watched the start of the final, which had its opening around 8.30pm–after the nightly news on TVJ, much later than when the preceding rounds were broadcast, about 6.30pm–before the nightly news. I guess that to the extent that a wider audience was targeted for those earlier rounds, they were less important for the final. I don’t see enough difference in advertising to think that the payoff was significantly higher.

It was interesting to me, in hindsight, that the final was preceded by a radio discussion about gender bias in the coverage of sports in the media. I did not hear the whole set of comments, but followed part online. I was coaching some girls to play soccer, and had a scrimmage against some boys. I guess that dealt with some actual biases.

The athletics championships are split into boys and girls competition, the latter being newer. So, historically, national interest and focus were on the boys’ side. The girls were playing catch-up. In sport, there’s a natural difference that starts to show before teenage years, and boys tend to be much faster and stronger. So, the male side of sports has speed and strength, which women generally cannot match. The female equivalent performances in sports may display other characteristics, maybe finesse. Girls are certainly quick and strong and can be very aggressive, so in terms of commitment you may not be able to say that girls are putting in less of what they can than boys; it’s just less than boys can. I was telling a parent the other day that I never liked scrimmaging with my girls soccer team, because the presence of males as opposition brought out a viciousness that I could not handle and my older and maybe frailer body had no need to be biffed and bashed more than it had in my best playing days. My girls loved scrimmaging boys so that they could give them a ‘good kicking’. Try as they might, though, they couldn’t match the boys for speed and strength. Society buys into that by generally preferring to watch and pay to watch males playing sports.

So, we come to the cerebral side. I was struck by the commentaries last night, preceding SCQ, that nearly half of the winning schools were all-boys schools.  With all the talk of gender equality and equity, here we had a clear sign of how unequal the playing field has been. I was struck more when I saw the Campion team,

Campion College crest
Campion College crest

representing a co-ed school but all of the team were boys. Maybe, there’s some rule I missed, but that struck me as odd. I thought about the discussions regarding quotas for parliamentary representation and wondered if there was not some disconnection in the arguments in thinking about where the biases lay.

One of the TVJ commentators, Neville Bell, interviewed some students before the match and was hearing from a girl student at Campion, who wanted to give her ‘love’ to one of the team. “It’s only him you love?” he asked. The girls giggled and quickly replied “No, I love them all.” What did I detect there? Answers on a postcard. Moving along.

Campion started well, and had a sizeable lead going into the last round, but as with many sports, it’s not over till the (politically correct phrasing, now) ‘overweight person of a certain gender’ sings. They coughed up the victory. Had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. I’m sure they were gutted. The post-match interviews were a bit better than we often get after, say, football or track events. The students are supposed to be able to string a few sentences together and sound intelligent. But, it might have been nice to hear the losers say “It was a game of four quarters. We gave our all, but they had more than we did, and we can’t argue with the result. We’ll be back.” Or the winners could be saying “You know, everyone knows, that KC are the team to beat, and we had our reputation on the line, and had to show our class, which we did in the homestretch. Well done, Campion, you’ll have more chances.” If it were tennis, we should have had a few thanks given to the sponsors, the quiz masters, the audience, our mothers and fathers, etc.  The battle of the crests was over. In haiku form:

Kingston College won
Campion College came close
Fortis beat Fortes

So, what now? Which of these student quizzers will go on to greater things in life? Have any of them every featured on Jeopardy? I think to Tessanne Chin. Is this the new wave for Jamaica?

We can think back to the mad scramble that affects Jamaican sixth graders in trying to pass the so-called GSAT exams and get themselves into the high schools of their choice. It’s more than an education, it’s being part of the ‘teams’ that people associate with the schools, too, whether in sports–I never talked about football–or study. Getting into the ‘right’ school is important. Not here the debate about streaming and also the connection between schools and crime, but remember where the bars have been set.

Finally, I have to say a word about the knowledge that was tested. Of course, some will guffaw that the students missed answers for well-known singers, even though they aced the mental maths questions. Jamaica would want to take a look at their ‘Bible knowledge’ too. Facial recognition is also a weak spot, but it also tells us a lot about the so-called faceless bureaucrats who are in charge of some important areas of our life. I bet that if Adidja Palmer’s face had popped up the buzzers would have gotten white-hot. But, they’re youths and they will take their time to grow.

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly (March 9, 2014)

Good

The world’s best paralympic athletes are in Sochi, Russia to compete in the 2014 Paralympic Games. The event begins on March 7 and runs through March 16. The games include sports such as sled hockey.

Congratulations to all the competitors, especially those from Ukraine, who will compete with incredible civil strife and possible Russian military intervention just a few miles away. They may make various protests–only one competitor attended the opening ceremony–but they will compete.

Paralympic cross-country skiers, one of the groups competing in Sochi, Russia
Paralympic cross-country skiers, one of the groups competing in Sochi, Russia

International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8. I read many pieces that focused on what needs to be done in Jamaica to make for a more equal land for women and girls. I don’t doubt the nation’s awareness of the injustices–we are not totally dense or heartless, but we are not good at action to correct wrongs instead of talking long about them. Interestingly, many of the world’s recent social upheavals have been on the back of strong protests by women. Jamaica’s female PM issued her annual statement and echoed this year’s theme of ‘inspiring change’, with a call that ‘we build on the lessons learned and directly tackle the remaining vestiges of unequal power relations and gender stereotypes

Iranian women's soccer
Iranian women’s soccer

that impede sustainable development and discriminate against our women‘. Fine words, now let’s see the action.

Bad

Jamaica’s national waste dump, at Riverton, is operating illegally–no environmental permit. The situation wont change. Why? This is happening with the full knowledge and consent of the agency established to enforce the rules, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

Riverton dump, St. Andrew. The speed limit is really zero MPH, as no movement is happening. (Picture courtesy of The Jamaica Gleaner.)
Riverton dump, St. Andrew. The speed limit is really zero MPH, as no movement is happening. (Picture courtesy of The Jamaica Gleaner.)

It says it will not issue the National Solid Waste Management Authority an environmental permit with conditions we know that they can’t meet. The nation’s finances are a mess and the country is forced to live with an environmental mess because an agency cannot pay its dues? Concerns about the effectiveness of the Ministry of Environment, etc. were high already, due to its silence on issues related to development of the Goat Islands. Now, the Ministry is missing in this dance? We are seeing a country play fast and loose with its environmental responsibilities and told that expediency makes it alright? Let NEPA issue the permits and have the arrears arise, but do the jobs they are supposed to be done. This principle of lax application of regulations can be applied across the board in a country that is struggling financially, and I’m sure many citizens can’t wait for a government agency to tell them to not comply with regulations or pay because times are tough. This is the logic of the madhouse.

Ugly

What has happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, which disappeared south of Vietnam with 239 people on board? Searches have begun, but nothing has been found, so far. The disappearance is developing awkward mysteries. Five passengers booked on the flight did not board; their luggage was consequently removed. Possible terrorism is raising its head. Two suspect names are on the manifest. BBC confirmed that ‘A man falsely using an Italian passport and a man falsely using an Austrian passport purchased tickets at the same time, and were both booked on the same onward flight from Beijing to Europe on Saturday. Both had purchased their tickets from China Southern Airlines, which shared the flight with Malaysia Airlines, and they had consecutive ticket numbers. The real owners reportedly had their passports stolen in Thailand in recent years.’

Out of many, one people? Know your place!

The Caribbean is full of class differences. We can argue about their origins, but undoubtedly they exist. Their proximate bases may be income, schooling, speech, skin colour and tone, gender, geography, or more. How they play out in everyday life is very varied. I’m not going to try to capture much of that, but reflect on a few recent incidents that show, worryingly in my mind, that people in Jamaica are still tied up in class knots.

Yesterday, I was on the verge of meeting one of the pinnacles of a class system–a member of a country’s royal family. Let’s not argue here about whether the British Monarchy is merely symbolic; we have them, still.

Prince Edward greets a Jamaican reception committee
Prince Edward greets a Jamaican reception committee

We did not know what to expect, but I suspect most people were ready to be on their best behaviour.

Cut away, now, to the event to which the British prince was coming. I was out playing golf, and having a good time interacting with my playing partners and the two caddies they were sharing. It was a hot day, and we had all been doing the smart thing of taking in fluids, thanks to one of the sponsors, Wisynco, who had provided ample supplies of Wata (plain and flavoured). Being on a golf course for four hours or so, drains energy, and most players will bring food with them. I have protein bar, trail mix, and often take a carb filler, like bulla. This time, we were treated to the offer of a beef patty about midway through the play. One player asked if there were patties for the caddies. “No! No food for the caddies!” we were told in a very hostile manner.

Now, perhaps I have become too sensitive because of my years living in Europe and the USA, but there are ways of denying something to one group of people that is being offered to another group, especially when both groups are present. The caddies seemed to understand how things operated and got back to handling clubs, wiping balls, finding balls, helping read greens and generally keeping the players on an even keel. The players in my group had a discussion about this incident. We were agreed that it was both distasteful and unnecessary. Sorry, if there are 80 players and they each get a patty, then the caddies numbering no more than half that figure could be offered that basic and relatively cheap food (about US$1.10 each; call that US$90). If someone felt that the caddies needed to be ‘kept in their place’, they could even have each been offered half a patty (call that between US$20-45).

Golf has had a long history of making it very clear that caddies and players are not equals.tiger caddy In the US, that had the overlay of racism, with black caddies having a different and worse form of discrimination to deal with. One of the sweet ironies of all that is, two of the greatest ever golf players, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, were products of caddy shacks. One of the other sweet ironies is that the best player in the modern area is a black player–one of very few golf professionals who are not white.

Caddies in Jamaica have their work on the course as their main source of income. Don’t work, don’t get paid. Do something extra, you may make a little extra. Treat your players right and the world will be a better place. Many players have regular caddies, whom they trust and work with closely. Despite that close relationship, both sides know that most club houses are off-limits for caddies; settlement of fees has to take place before the player ‘goes into the club house’. It gets interesting when you have a caddy playing in a tournament, but of course the new and old roles are not confused.

Some people love to have the opportunity to make sure that they put people in the category that they need them to hold. “Know your place!”

While the prince was presented to the players and organizers of the event, from what I had heard, he was never presented to the caddies.

There is a deeper set of issues at play, so to speak, as far as Jamaica is concerned.

Still shackled

A random set of events today illustrate starkly something very wrong with Jamaica. We are more accustomed than other Caribbean countries, except Cuba, to the glare of sporting success. Admittedly, that has come more through track and field, and somewhat through football, than other sports.

But, over the past two days we went on another of those fairy-tale rides, as a team of bobsledders trundled down an icy slide, holding the slimmest of hopes of a medal. Not surprisingly, knowing the recent history of this team and how they got to Sochi, Russia, the two-man team came in 29th out of 30 (aided by one team not completing their final run). But, that was about what we should have expected. Underdogs, and holding up the stack. However, Jamaica got maybe more of the crowd’s love than any team other than the home-country boys, who came in with the gold. But, love and smiles won’t get us to the podium and wont build us at the lowest level. Our apples are not really piled into the bobsledding basket, even though it’s surprisingly open to many of our athletes or ordinary people. Note, one of the Russian team was a taxi driver and arm wrestler. We can find a few people who could fit that profile.

Our sledders were fantastic in qualifying alone. Consider that at least 4 countries put in three teams in the field of 30 teams. So, for us to be able to get into this small fraternity was truly a feat well done.

Where I gagged was in the process of trying to nurture one of the future athletes–my daughter. She had swimming practice this afternoon, at St Andrew High School. The school has a 25 metre pool and before my daughter’s practice, children from the prep school have a swimming lesson and practice. I often see a girls’ water polo team working out ahead of our practice. Then my daughter and other kids under 11 have their hour. After them, come some 11-14 year olds for a 90 minute session. My kid, sometimes does this session, too. She can hold her own and is often good and tired but well exercised at the end of 2 1/2 hours in the water.

We noted, as usual, the high school girls doing their practices, in preparation for Champs. Hurdles were out today. A girl was working the javelin. Another girl was throwing a shot. Most girls were striding and sprinting on the grass track.
image

On the dusty, barely grassed track. On the track that is perhaps par for the course for the best track athletes in the country. I thought back to the high school my older daughter attended in northern Virginia. They had a stadium akin to Catherine Hall, in Montego Bay. This was an ordinary state school. That marked the difference between developed countries and countries like Jamaica–so-called ‘middle income’, but really among the poor.

Catherine Hall Sports Complex, Montego Bay
Catherine Hall Sports Complex, Montego Bay

This is how we have to prepare some of the better future stars. I looked forward to seeing what performances would be produced in a few weeks.

On the way home, I heard a news report that the swimmers training for Carifta (regional elite performers) were going to have no training facilities at the National Aquatic Centre, because the pool needed to be closed–again–while new filters are installed. Options are few in Kingston, but at least some exist. All with a good intent, but hampering in the process.

Now, I’m settled in front of the television, watching ‘Monday night football’ from the Red Stripe Premier League. Top two teams are duking it out: Waterhouse away to Harbour View (at the ‘mini stadium’). But, what is that surface on which they are playing? It’s a mixture of bare ground and sparse grass; the overall colour is red. A player goes through, clear on goal, swings and the ball loops high as if he were trying to kick it out of the stadium. It took a wicked bounce. I remember a game earlier in the season when it seemed that a ghost had spirited the ball away from the goalkeeper, but it had hit a stone and put the ball in the path of a striker for a goal. I did not expect a surface like those played on by English Premier League team, but a cow pasture is what I’d expect for ‘Molasses Vale’ in St. Thomas, with sticks and stones marking the field boundaries. What a disgrace!

I wrote yesterday about perpetual underdogs. I saw today without searching what squalid facilities we have to offer our best and those who want to be the best and represent the country at the highest levels. We do much DESPITE, not because of. What could we be if we were not constantly weighed down by the heavy blocks of our poor basic infrastructure?

Perpetual underdogs?

One thing that is unlikely to escape a Jamaican travelling to Trinidad is the relative economic situations of the two countries. It’s not that Trinidad looks like a runaway economic success and that Jamaica looks like it’s ready to check out of Planet Earth. But, the infrastructure and general physical appearance of the countries reflect their different fortunes. Both economies have been the children of mineral wealth–bauxite for Jamaica, oil for Trinidad. Bauxite had its heyday and says “Hey, there!” with a muted voice. Oil and its byproducts have had the pole position in terms of desirable commodities for most of the past 50 years. Other things have worked for and against each country, but the net result is that Trinidad has ended up in a better place than Jamaica. We have had much need to keep putting out the begging bowl to keep from drowning (sorry about the mixed metaphors). Trinidad has been able ot live high on the hog (sorry for any offence to some of its Muslim population). So, we’ve been heading in near opposite directions.

Let’s cut right to the chase. Jamaica is nearly insolvent, with its debt to national income (GDP) ratio hovering near 150 percent. We hand over a huge amount of our national income just to pay interest on debt–that’s about 10 percent of GDP, or about 1/3 of government revenues.

By contrast, Trinidad’s debt to GDP ratio is just over 45 percent; its interest payments are only about 2 percent national income, and about 8 percent of government revenues.

So, whenever Jamaicans think it would be good for government to fund something (in part or wholly), we have to remember that the debtors have to be satisfied first. Then, we can argue about the left overs. So, with about 70 cents of each dollar only to work with, we have to make sure that our priorities can be met by that lesser amount. We cannot think that we should borrow more to make the money up. But, we also have to note that we need to reduce the debt burden by about 50 percent of GDP in only a few years. Did I hear you say “Squeeze!” Where are those old trousers that I used to wear when I was not so fat? So, we are either going to try to raise more revenue or spend even less.

Alright, we want to develop and help the next generations have some prospect of a future. As part of the current IMF arrangement, the Jamaican government is committed to minimum levels of spending on social programs (education, health, etc.). Well, that leaves much less for any discretionary spending. In an ideal world, the government would have some clearly set development objectives and want to stay on track with those. Anything else, has to be considered (and probably wont get a look in now because the whole process of agreeing the current priorities wore out even the most patient of persons). Jamaica has Vision 2030, and having settled on that we should hold the government’s feet to the fire to stick to that. Otherwise, they’ll be open to comments that they are unfocused and wishy-washy.

The problem with that is people like to see things they like supported. Look at the national bobsledders working their hardest to be respectable in Sochi, Russia, during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Where are government in helping them? Not sitting at the beach bar drinking another pina colada. More likely, government had no image that the sledders were going anywhere. The sledders themselves were not really on a clear track to qualify. Nice that they did it, but not nice in that we never had them in our sights. Instead, we had in our sights Champs–madness in March–and the Reggae Boyz trying to raise the flag in Brazil–Poof!

I really feel saddened that the sledders had to struggle so much for funding.bobsledders But, could they have helped themselves a bit more, too? Maybe. When their backs were up against the wall–they’d shocked themselves and qualified–they found some imaginative friends and went to the modern piggy bank of crowdfunding. It got them over the hump in quick time. But, imagine what might have been the situation if there had been the equivalent of a ‘business plan’ or promotional venture called ‘From Ochi to Sochi–helping Jamaica’s sledders reach for gold’, begun in say 2010. Those four years could have been a very interesting period of fund-raising, consciousness-raising, talent spotting, and more to help the ‘cool runners’ run this time and maybe sow seeds to keep running after Sochi.

The world loves underdogs. We love being underdogs. We love being loved. However, if you keep putting yourself in the position of underdog, you will lose more than you win. All that worldly love doesn’t feed or develop us, even though it looks good on TV to see foreigners in false Rasta wigs and yelling “Irie, mon!” and wanting to take pictures with our struggling athletes. Our successes don’t and wont come from putting ourselves into the position of perpetual underdog. If not, we will end up where underdogs do most often–at or near the bottom–no matter how much ‘love’ is showered on us.