Fri | Jan 18, 2019

Ronald Thwaites | Two Jamaicas

Published:Tuesday | September 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM

There was a fire on James Street in Parade Gardens last week. People lost everything, and there are few means to help them beyond a couple of days' food and perhaps a bed and some clothes. This in a country with billions of savings looking for opportunities to convert into foreign exchange.

Back-to-school dreams are shattered, was just as they were when the market was burnt down last month. Remember? Or you forget already? No insurance, no compensation!

It is not that we can't do better for persons in distress. We choose not to. Poor Relief says it has no money, and there is no way the adult occupants on James Street can access a benefit from the cash-gorged National Housing Trust, to which some of them used to contribute. The charitable agencies are already choked with demand.

Recently, too, there have been increased cases of persons who go to the public-health facilities, thankfully get diagnosed, but have to pay depreciated dollars for appreciated foreign-exchange-sourced medicine, not to mention the medical tests and procedures that the clinics and hospitals do not provide.

And the member of parliament has to make a choice between assisting a promising student to register at school or university and contributing to the urgent ultrasound or blood test. It happens weekly, if not daily, while government funds have provided at least one $55,000-a-head cocktail party - a grotesque and unrepented symbol of a general posture of the self-indulgence and corruption of power. And the political class continues to prate the deception of a free healthcare system.

I am encountering more and more older men who are weak and have nowhere to go. They congregate, along with the deportees and mentally ill people, outside the church-run infirmaries or the night shelter in Central Kingston.

When you enquire closely, most have children who they have hardly noticed, in the way many Jamaican men have treated their offspring, so those family members have no time for them now that they are dependent and an inconvenience. Some pray for death.

The PATH system and the few other measures for emergency relief require urgent reform and increase.

It is very difficult to have a really needy person accepted as a PATH beneficiary, and even then, the cash transfer sums cannot suffice for food. So we have collected plenty more tax than projected, some of it from these same people who have to pay GCT on everything they manage to buy. We could double the benefits now if we cared.


Poverty idealised


This is the context in which I struggle to understand what Messrs Clarke and Wynter are talking about in relation to inflation, devaluation, and poverty reduction. Tell that to the thousands of coffee growers and sugar workers who have been abandoned by those who promised to bring them to prosperity.

Some people, even deeply sensitive and religious persons, idealise poverty. It provides an object for their good works, and they may even quote the Bible to explain to themselves its permanence.

Others of us normalise the want of the near majority, avoid contact, and revert to repression when disorder threatens to move from the railway lanes of their lives to the hip strips where we party.

Still, others exploit the poor, promising but seldom delivering. After all, at least the Romans offered their serfs and slaves bread and circus. In our version, the bread is very short.

Two generations or so ago, Phillip D. Curtin titled his treatise on Jamaican social and economic reality 'Two Jamaicas'. Shamefully, the title still fits the reality.

It does, not because resources are inadequate or because God's will is perverse. The crushing poverty, destructive but with so many redemptive features, so graphically and sensitively portrayed in Tammy Hart's docudrama Last Street need not last.

The principles of equality and the common good are being suffocated by the neo-ethics of hedonism and post-modernism. Our self-serving political culture does not mean to, but actually does support this decline.

But it could be otherwise. If we wanted it to be.

- Ronald Thwaites is Opposition spokesman on education and training and member of parliament for Kingston Central. Email feedback to