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Random reflections on 50 years of Independence

Ken Chaplin

Tuesday, July 24, 2012    

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In our 50 years of Independence, the Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party governments have provided many critical social services like education, health and housing, but these have been outpaced by the rapid population increase. The population has moved from 1,627,414 in 1960 to 2,709, 291 in 2011, an increase of 1,081,877.

More than one million Jamaicans live below the poverty line of $110,099.56. The Planning Institute of Jamaica uses an absolute poverty line which is the cost of basic food items that ensures an acceptable minimum standard of living for a family of five people. The high unemployment rate could be a factor to the large number of people living below the poverty line.

The area in which the governments have failed miserably is in fuelling economic growth to put more money into social services to meet the population increase. None of the prime ministers since Independence in 1962 were fully able to cope with the economic realities of the time.

Having good parochial and secondary roads to move agricultural produce from rural areas to urban markets is critical to economic and social progress. It is not so much a matter of the government's failure to provide sufficient money for road repairs, but not all the money is used for road repairs.Some of the money is siphoned off mainly by politicians, including parish councillors and members of parliament. The result is that many of our parochial roads and secondary roads look like those in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Corruption has also dug deeply in the state's coffers, depriving the fullest expenditure of money allocated for projects. That was before Greg Christie was appointed contractor general nearly seven years ago. Since then corruption in government projects has been reduced.

The rise of women in the banking sector and many other areas has been phenomenal. It did not just happen like that. It was the result of hard work, sacrifice and dedication of women of all classes. Market vendors laboured to send their children to high schools and universities and this paid off handsomely. There was a family arrangement where the eldest child would go out to work earlier than desirable and help with the education of the younger ones.

In some cases while the boys idled, it was the girls who forged ahead in education and training, leaving the boys behind. One day in the late 1940s I ran from the Jamaica Times building on Temple Lane to the Bank of Nova Scotia on King Street in downtown Kingston to join the excitement as the first black woman appeared as a cashier. Today, the staff of the banks are 99 per cent black and some, both men and women, hold high positions from managing director down.

It is in housing, both for the public and private sectors, that the greatest strides have been made, yet there are people living in awful conditions on gully and river banks, some with no running water or sewerage. There has been upward mobility from what was once solid middle-class areas like Allman Town, which produced a chief justice, president of the court of appeal, director of tax administration and chief of staff of the Jamaica Defence Force; Woodford Park, Campbell Town and Rollington Town to suburban and hilly areas of St Andrew and St Catherine.

Few of the original owners of houses remain. Many from the ghettos have moved up into some of these houses. The fact is that there are too many people living under very adverse conditions on gully banks and other slum areas who will have to be removed. It is a welcome step by the government to make squatting illegal. But the squatters cannot be thrown off the land just like that. Adequate arrangements have to be made for their resettlement to prevent chaos.

Health care

Health care is most important to the people and this has made considerable strides during the 50 years of Independence. There is now a network of 23 public hospitals, including the semi-public University Hospital of the West Indies, which now offers varying levels of emergency, curative treatment and rehabilitative services, says the Ministry of Health Communication Office. There are also six specialist hospitals catering to maternity, child care, cancer treatment, rehabilitation, mental and respiratory disorders.

Hospitals are divided into categories of type "A", type "B" and type "C" in terms of the services offered and size of the population served. At least one hospital is found in each parish. Type "A" hospitals, including the Kingston Public Hospital and Cornwall Regional Hospital (which was built in the early 1970s), are multi-disciplinary and are the final referral services, points for secondary and tertiary services, while Type "B" hospitals, situated in the larger urban centres, provide in-patient and outpatient services in general, surgery, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynaecology and paediatrics. Type "C" hospitals are basic district hospitals offering in-service and outpatient services in general, surgery, child and maternity care, basic x-ray and laboratory services.

As far as the specialist facilities are concerned, the Bustamante Children's Hospital, which is the only paediatric hospital in the English-speaking Caribbean, was built a year after Independence. The historic Victoria Jubilee Hospital, built in 1887 and improved considerably since Independence, is the largest referral maternity hospital in the region. Additionally, there are 10 private hospitals, some built since Independence, and some 350

primary health care centres, the bulk of them built during the 50 years of Independence, which have led to Jamaica's robust health sector providing an extensive range of services to citizens. The decentralisation of the health services, to bring responsibility for health care closer to the point of service delivery, are major milestones in the country's health system.

Through the National Health Services Act of l997, the Regional Health Authorities were created, with the Health Ministry having policy-making, steering and regulatory roles. One of the most efficient institutions - and I say this from personal experience - created during the 50 years is the National Health Fund which offers medication, through pharmacies, at a greatly reduced cost.

I think one can say without fear of contradiction that the governments, given the financial constraints of the country, have performed well in health care.

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