Don Robotham, Guest Columnist
Jamaica is on the brink of an unprecedented disaster. We are at the very edge of the precipice. If urgent action is not taken, we will tumble into the ravine with disastrous results.
Is this alarmist? Some may wish to think so. After all, haven't we had crises before? Did we not go through the bloodletting of the 1970s, only to emerge relatively unscathed? Did we not also survive the financial meltdown of the 1990s with our financial system intact? Have our athletes not performed miracles in London? Are our cricketers not the toast of the world? Do we not continue to produce some of the greatest popular musical artistes earth has ever seen? Are we not little but tallawah?
Yes, we are, but this is not enough. Yes, our athletes amaze us and the world not only with their prowess on the field but by their humble and engaging personalities. Yes, Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels are world-class cricketers. Yes, our music is still great, slackness notwithstanding. So what?
None of this will stop the dollar from sliding. None of this will prevent our foreign-exchange reserves from vanishing. None of this will prevent us from defaulting on our debt. Nor will it reduce our crime rate, stop rampant child abuse, help us to cut back on corruption, or reduce unemployment. All our wonderful achievements in sports and culture will not have the slightest impact on our rickety high-school system, nor will they improve our dismal grades in English and math. It will all come to naught if we don't get a grip, and get it now.
The difference between past and present crises is this: The world is passing through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression of 1929-32. Europe is in deep recession, with unemployment rates in Greece and Spain exceeding ours. The United States is experiencing an anaemic recovery and is likely to continue limping along for the foreseeable future. China's growth rates have been on the decline, with extremely ominous consequences not only for Asia but for the world economy.
Jamaica's crisis is occurring in the context of this global calamity, which multiplies the pressures on us a thousandfold. In this situation, we can forget the idea of 'getting a bly' from anyone, China and Venezuela included. Perhaps for the first time since political Independence in 1962, we are truly on our own, economically and politically. No one to run to, no one to bail us out, except the unforgiving bean counters of the International Monetary Fund coming to carry us off into the wilderness of 'fiscal consolidation'.
This is a new situation, not only for our political leadership but for us - the Jamaican people - in general. Collectively, and for the first time, we are now being required to stand on our own two feet at a time when we are least prepared to do so.
We have to cut back not only our budget deficit but our vulgar and extravagant bling lifestyle at every level of society. We have to reduce our debt stock, for there is no sugar daddy out there to lend us money at low interest rates to finance our consumption. These sugar daddies are too busy looking after their own very intractable, economic problems. We have to confront our low levels of productivity, which means, among other things, facing up to the failures of our school system, not just making pious utterances. We have to set aside our political divisiveness, as well as address, decisively and remorselessly, the myriad social problems which our economic failures have created.
LEADERSHIP AND COURAGE
But this requires leadership. It also requires great courage in the population itself. Do we have the national guts to do it? Can we, as the British did in the worst days of the Battle of Britain, bite our bottom lip, screw up our courage, unite and pull through, against superior odds? Are we as a nation made of the right stuff? We boast a lot, but how tallawah are we really? That is the question.
To survive a crisis such as the one we are facing is no ordinary challenge. For it means ending all the hot air, the deadly knee-jerk tribalism, the political one-upmanship, the class and racial hypocrisy, the self-centredness, the callous mistreatment of the vulnerable, the endless, mind-numbing, forget-your-troubles-and-wine partying. It means getting serious with ourselves and about Jamaica in a manner that we have never done before.
The first step is for us to realise the gravity and the urgency of our crisis. Take your heads out of the sand, Jamaicans - this one is not going to go away. In fact, it is going to get worse, very worse. The future of your entire world, and of your children and grandchildren, is at stake here. Unless urgent steps are taken, we are facing an economic and social collapse on a scale which will make the meltdown of the 1990s look like a picnic!
Be clear what this will mean: the public and private sectors will cave; thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, will be laid off; the education and health systems, both public and private, will shut down. Banks will go bust. Life savings will be wiped out, whether in local or foreign currencies. Pensions gone, everything will crash.
Supermarket shelves will become bare and gas will disappear from the stations. Prices will soar as the exchange rate zooms off into the stratosphere. Simple things which you currently take for granted - visiting a friend, going to a football game, playing a game of dominoes, going shopping, going to church - will become major challenges as everyone ruthlessly scrambles for survival. Crime rates will go through the roof. Our entire institutional structure and way of life will have had the rug pulled from under it. It will collapse.
This is the bitter reality which we face. Will we, as a people, face the facts? Will our leadership rise to the challenge? There is still time, but not much.
Professor Don Robotham is an anthropologist. Email feedback to