Jamaica going up in smoke

One day last month, there was a pestilence of smoke in my neighbourhood. It wasn’t an act of God. Just one of my selfish neighbours burning rubbish in his yard. And it certainly wasn’t enlightened self-interest. This is an intelligent man who must know that smoke can’t be good for his health.

Soon after I started to smell the nasty fumes, I got a call from his next-door neighbour asking if I’d gone for my walk. I told her I was just about to when I smelled the smoke. She asked me to come and see. That made no sense. When I looked out, I couldn’t believe the density of the smoke. And I was several houses away from the source!

I immediately locked up all my windows, hoping to keep out the ash that was sure to come. I eventually went on my walk after the smoke had cleared. Of course, the ill effects were lingering. There was still the acrid smell and God only knows what was in the air.

dont-let-lung-health-go-up-in-smoke-thumb.jpgBurning rubbish doesn’t make it go away. It just turns into deadly particles of disease that attack your lungs. Why is that so hard to understand? Why do we persist in believing that smoke is harmless? Respiratory problems are a very high price to pay for not getting rid of rubbish.

BURNING OUT OBEAH

I was quite prepared to tackle my neighbour. But he wasn’t at home. Perhaps, he’d left before the fire was lit and I was falsely accusing him of negligence. If yu can’t ketch Kwaku, yu ketch im shut. In this case, it was the gardener. So I asked him why he had lit such a huge fire. He was burning out termites.

According to him, no other treatment was as effective as fire. Not true! Bleach and boric acid are a deadly combination. Believe it or not, a few days later, he was at it again. This time, it was a dead dog. Why couldn’t the dog have been buried instead of cremated?

Another morning, I confronted a gardener up the road who had set a big fire that was sending up clouds of smoke. When I asked him what he was burning, he said it was old clothes. I couldn’t believe it. So I asked why the clothes couldn’t have been put out in regular garbage. His response: “The lady don’t want nobody use her clothes do her nothing.” Words to that effect.

Mi couldn’t even get vex. Mi just had to laugh. As far as I know, that lady is a big Christian. But she was covering all her bases. Christian or not, she knew the power of obeah and was not taking any chances. She was just going to burn it out. Or at least the clothes!

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I keep wondering if my inconsiderate neighbours don’t know that it is illegal to light fires in residential communities. It’s not just a courtesy to one’s neighbours not to smoke them out. It’s actually against the law.

The problem, of course, is that the law is not enforced. I’ve actually called the police station to report illegal fires. You can just imagine the response. With all the crimes the police have to deal with, you know illegal fires are very low on their list of priorities.

Sometimes it takes a near-disaster to cure some people of their very bad habit of setting fires. A gardener who works in my neigbourhood had the fright of his life when a fire he lit got out of control. He was sure the fire was going to burn down his employer’s house. He ran away, fearful that he would be arrested for destruction of property.

He was very lucky. The fire was put out in time. By then, he was very far from the scene of the crime. You can just imagine his relief when he found out that the house was still standing. And he’s never ever set another fire. He learnt his lesson the hard way.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

We can’t continue with business as usual. We have to start a national campaign to educate Jamaicans about the dangers of setting fires here, there and everywhere. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) is heroically doing what it can to bring the matter to public attention. But there’s only so much that one underfunded NGO can do.

It is the responsibility of the Government to come up with solutions to this persistent problem. In a press release issued last Monday, Diana McCaulay, CEO of JET, called on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to use all of the regulatory agencies to deal with the problem of extremely poor air quality across the island. Chief of these agencies is the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

According to its website, one of NEPA’s seven core functions is “environmental management”. This is defined as “Pollution prevention and control; pollution monitoring and assessment; Pollution incident investigation and reporting”. I wonder how much of this is actually done daily.

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The Government absolutely must enforce the law against setting fires. Both domestic and industrial offenders must be systematically targeted. Until we start prosecuting lawbreakers for setting fires, nothing will change. Jamaica will just continue to go up in smoke. And not even obeah can save us.

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Too Little, Too Late, Sister P!

article-2649672-1E7EF20800000578-911_634x419Almost a year ago, in December 2013, the World Health Organisation reported that chik-V was in the Caribbean. Mosquitoes on the island of St Martin-St Maarten had been infected with the virus and were spreading it to the human population.

Even before that, the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) jointly published in 2011 a vital document, Preparedness and Response for Chikungunya Virus Introduction in the Americas. It warned that “[t]he resulting large outbreaks would likely tax existing health-care systems and the public-health infrastructure, and could potentially cripple some of society’s functioning”.

That’s when the Government of Jamaica should have taken notice and started a public-education programme on the threat of the virus. Before it got here; not now. Why was our minister of health not paying attention then?

The PAHO-CDC document, which is available on the Internet, clearly states its objectives: “the prevention, detection, and timely response to outbreaks of CHIK through surveillance, case detection, investigation, and the launching of public-health actions”.

DIEHARD COMRADES

39871pnp72confn201009219rbThe document highlights the importance of Government sending out information that would “encourage informed decision making, positive behaviour change, and the maintenance of trust in public authorities”. This business of trust is crucial. But how many of us actually trust our public authorities? Even diehard Comrades who have been afflicted with chik-V cannot truthfully say they trust the word of the minister of health.

The Government should have been using both old and new media to spread accurate information on chik-V over the last three years. The PAHO-CDC guidelines acknowledge the fact that an outbreak of the disease can cause “confusion and controversy”. Chik-V has certainly made imaginative Jamaicans chat a lot of nonsense. Like saying it was the plane that crashed off the coast of Port Antonio on September 5 that brought the virus!

I suppose the minister of health will claim that the Government didn’t have the money to launch an expensive media campaign. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been forcing us to cut back on government spending. But in 2011, when those detailed warnings about managing chik-V were issued by PAHO-CDC, we should have told the IMF to ease off. A crippled workforce cannot possibly be productive.

MOSQUITO HOTELS

imagesAdmittedly, the problem of disease control is much bigger than the failure of Government to lead effectively. We can’t leave it all up to untrustworthy Government. Every single citizen must take some responsibility for protecting our neighbourhoods from the threat of disease. Yes, the Government must ensure that gullies are regularly cleaned. But we have to stop throwing rubbish into gullies.

Another environmental issue we have to deal with is abandoned lots that are all-inclusive hotels for mosquitoes, especially when it rains. So here’s my story on that score. There’s an empty lot behind my house and two more in front. On all of them, the grass is at least two metres high. I know only one of the proprietors of these mosquito hotels. I called him a couple of weeks ago about bushing the lot.

I’d heard that he’d recently sold the lot, so I really wanted to be put in touch with the new owner. I couldn’t believe it when he told me that the lot had been sold by a third party and he didn’t know the new owner. So I asked him to let me know who the third party was. He would have to call me back. I heard nothing from him.

STORY COME TO BUMP

Then last week, a woman stopped at my gate to ask if the lots were for sale. I told her I didn’t think any of them was on the market. But I suggested that she talk to the mosquito hotelier I knew. I called him. And story come to bump. His lot was sold, but if he got a better offer, he would consider it!

sin-picture2This is a nice Christian gentleman who must know that it is sinful, if not downright criminal, to be offering for sale property that is supposedly already sold. It seems as if the nice gentleman is pretending he doesn’t own the lot so he won’t have to be responsible for bushing it. Anyhow, he did assure me that he had contacted the owner and it would be bushed by the end of the month. I guess he talked to himself – the first sign of madness.

This is what is so wrong with Jamaica. We are just too selfish. The owner of an open lot doesn’t usually live anywhere near it. So it’s not his or her problem if the lot is an unsightly breeding ground for mosquitoes. Too bad for the people who just have to put up with it; or clean it up at their own expense.

At a press conference called last Thursday, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller appealed to our better nature. She asked us to help the Government cope with our public-health crisis. She should have done that three years ago. Chik-V batter-bruise wi now. It’s much too late to kiss and make up.

Prime Minister and Minister of Health at press conference on public health crisis

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Minister of Health Fenton Ferguson at press conference on public-health crisis

Protecting Tourism At What Price?

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Dr. Fenton Ferguson

As late as last Monday, Dr Fenton Ferguson was still claiming that there were only 35 ‘confirmed’ cases of chik-V in all of Jamaica. If the goodly dentist has a public-health inspector to spare, I can prove that a full 25 per cent of these cases are concentrated in just two roads in my neighbourhood!

I have chik-V. My neighbours to my right and left and up the road are also afflicted. That’s four of us. And down the adjacent road, there are at least another five cases. So that makes nine out of 35. And that’s just the ones I know about. Of course, the big trick is ‘confirmed’. We are not ‘confirmed’ cases. We have the symptoms, but that doesn’t matter.

As far as the Ministry of Health is concerned, if you haven’t done a blood test, you and your doctor are just guessing. It could be chik-V, dengue or some mysterious combination thereof. You just can’t be sure. That’s why Dr Ferguson could have kept on pretending for so long that there are only 35 ‘confirmed’ cases of chik-V in all 14 parishes! It’s just a word game.

NOT A GOOD SIGN

brandmarkLast Tuesday, I decided I’d had enough of the guessing and spelling. So I told my doctor I needed to do the test. I wanted to be ‘confirmed’, or not, as the case may be. She sent me to Caribbean Genetics (Carigen) located in the brand new building that houses the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies.

Carigen is on the fourth floor and the main elevators were not working. Already? Why aren’t the elevators being maintained, I wondered. But I was there for a blood test. I was not a professional building inspector. I decided to mind my own business. All the same, I felt uneasy. This was not a good sign.

As a victim of unconfirmed chik-V, I was not prepared to take the stairs all the way up to the fourth floor. Fortunately, the service elevator in the back was working. When I got to Carigen and presented the form for the blood test, I was informed by the receptionist that the test could not be done. There were no reagents in stock. And she did not know when they would be coming in.

She said they could still take the blood sample and the test would be done when the reagents were available. I declined the offer. I had no confidence in tests done on ‘stale’ blood. Of course, this must have been the ‘unconfirmed’ chik-V talking. My response was completely unscientific. In other circumstances, I would have readily taken the receptionist’s word for it: refrigerated blood could remain perfectly fresh for quite a while.

But, in my state of frustration, I was quite prepared to diss science in favour of instinct. And, in any case, my response was no more irrational than Minister Ferguson’s insistence for so long that there were only 35 ‘confirmed’ cases of chik-V in Jamaica. As if that was the whole truth of the matter.

SCARING TOURISTS

jamaica_tourist_boardI’m not surprised that the minister of health finally confessed last week that he’s been concerned about the impact of chik-V on the tourist industry. That now seems to be the primary explanation for why the number of ‘confirmed’ cases of the disease is so low. Of course, the unavailability of reagents for testing is another factor.

I completely understand Dr Ferguson’s anxiety about scaring off visitors with chik-V. After all, tourism is our bread and butter. But I think he’s underestimating the bravery of potential tourists. One of my neighbours with chik-V told me last week that she was expecting relatives from the UK to come on holiday. She warned them about the virus and suggested that they postpone their trip.

They called their hotel and were reassured that there was no problem. And they’re here, having a very good time. For them, the sting of unpredictable English weather is a confirmed fact. Much more certain than the risk of being bitten by a bad-mind mosquito!

I think the minister of tourism and entertainment should launch an innovative chik-V campaign. On departure, each visitor should be given a farewell gift: a badge of bravery that reads, ‘I survived chik-V in Jamaica’. It could become quite a fashion statement. A whole new meaning of ‘chic’!

lying-410x273Seriously, though, the minister of health needs to be far less concerned about tourists and much more worried about the people of Jamaica. The Government has a much bigger problem than chik-V. And, by the way, the Opposition is an essential part of government. Most Jamaicans simply don’t trust the word of politicians.

The health ministry’s concealment of the truth about the spread of chik-V is just another example of why most of us don’t take politicians seriously. Dem too lie! Half a truth is a complete lie. As one of my wicked friends said, if is one person she waan fi get chik-V is Dr Fenton Ferguson. Then him will know fa sure. There are definitely more than 35 confirmed cases of the disease in Jamaica. If is only one more!