Common sense needs resurrection

Common sense needs resurrection

Donna P

Thursday, February 27, 2020

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We are now at the beginning of Lent and this is the time of year when Jamaicans will tell you that they are giving up alcohol, bad words, red meat, or other such delights. They are fasting from their vices to come clean in 40 days and 40 nights at Easter. Well, I hope that there will be no fasting from common sense, because, as things stand, it seems to be in need of a serious bout of resurrection.

Once upon a time in Jamaica, common sense was liberally shared amongst ordinary and not so ordinary people. It had to be. Without common sense we would not have survived these mainly Africans-in-exile living in a society with limited development, limited social amenities, and mainly agrarian communities that were disconnected from urban centres by poor road networks. People had to learn how to survive and how to “tun dem han mek fashion”.

In that Jamaica, common sense, understood as “the basic level of practical knowledge and good sense that we all need to help us live in a safe and practical way”, was crucial. But, as Jamaica's interconnectedness and access continues to explode — thanks to the wonders of development, urbanisation, connectedness — compliments of the Internet, increased telephone access, explosion in transportation, and renewed and new road networks, it seems that we are losing that necessity and, with it, the urgency for good common sense.

Development has many distractions. And, common sense is not so common anymore. I say this in response to myriad issues that now seem to regularly form part of our ongoing high and low points today. For example, there is this coronavirus and all the related contagious viruses that have caused panic and the usual blaming of the Government of the day. There is a great deal of good and sensible information that is easily available from reputable sources about these viruses. Exposing oneself to this type of information is good common sense, which would also dictate that individuals must play their part in ensuring that they do the very simple things that can reduce their risk of contraction of these viruses: Wash your hands with soap and water. Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze. Cover your mouth when you cough. Avoid sneezing and coughing near people. Again, wash your hands with soap and water.

Ingesting this information is bound to increase the social cache of common sense. Nonetheless, since there is definitely a need to upgrade the basic knowledge meter in this regard, the Government should, by now, have put in place a structured and very clear public education programme that uses both traditional and social media platforms to remind everyone of these simple but very effective behaviours in the fight against these contagious viruses. I have seen a few messages in traditional print media but, since the mass of individuals no longer reside there, any such thrust must be diversified and extend its reach.

The fire last week at the Fesco gas station in Mandeville is another case in point. A friend in Atlanta telephoned me just after 6:00 pm on Friday asking about the fire. She had seen it on Facebook and so I logged on, and there it was. The first thing I saw was a post with a video of the moments leading up to the first explosion. I watched, horrified, as the video, shot by a nameless, faceless woman, documented the nonchalance of everyone at the gas station, including pump attendants, while gasoline streamed on the ground. Wasn't this female videographer scared that the gas could cause an explosion? Why wasn't anyone using their common sense? I watched a red car drive into the gas station and then, boooom!

It was clear from the topsy-turvy moments of the video, and the frightened sounds from the videographer, that there had been a huge explosion, complete with lots of running, screaming, and general pandemonium.

The second video I saw moments later showed people running towards the fire and then more explosions.

And then I saw a third video of a man walking up a road, his skin burnt from head to toe. “Third degree burns?” I wondered. Why is he walking? I looked at the multiple pictures, read the crescendo of posts that began to overflow, then beat a hasty exit from social media. The deluge of images, opinions, and misinformation was just too overwhelming. Eventually, media reports confirmed that seven people had been injured, four seriously, and approximately 12 vehicles had been damaged. One of the injured later died.

Gasoline is a volatile and explosive substance. This is why clear safety protocols are usually observed at gas stations. That idle bucket of sand is not for garbage. It is a first line of defence just in case a gasoline fire starts, because that kind of fire spreads with the application of water. I remember being told this in primary and high school — gas fires and water don't mix; use sand, dirt, a blanket, a fire extinguisher; all while calling the fire brigade.

I have been horrified by the images of that incident, and moreso by the nonchalance of the gas station attendants, one even moving casually over the running stream of gasoline, busy on her phone. Common sense is not so common anymore. And the knowledge transfer that should come with training seems to be missing. I was even more horrified by the obvious need, the desire of the “social media journalists” — ever-ready with cellphones held aloft to document content of all and any sort that could make them “go viral” without any regard for their lives.

Yes, there seems to be a gap in the common sense protocols today. Even as we drown in tidal waves of information, everything just at our fingertips, we are also moving farther away from some of the very “basic levels of practical knowledge and good sense that we all need to help us live in a safe and practical way” in the world today.

So, who teaches our children about basic safety? And who teaches the adults? And who trains those who are front-line workers in institutions and establishments, like gas stations, that require very detailed and specific safety protocols to ensure that lives and property are kept safe? I remember sitting at my mother's knee as a very little girl and listening to her tell a story about a terrible gas station fire in Linstead that happened before I was born. Cars were scarce commodities back then. If you were lucky, there might be one Austin Cambridge/Morris Oxford to a regular, working class community. So, many of us had no business dealing with gasoline. Yet, I learnt about how dangerous, volatile, and inflammable gasoline was from my mother's story.

What stories do you tell your children and grandchildren? Do you teach them basic information for life out of your experiences and that of others so that they can have practical knowledge? Do you leave them to figure everything out on their own? Or perhaps you give them a nice little tablet and their own television set all connected to the Internet and/or cable and leave them on their own? One practice that seems to be growing when faced with a situation that demands a basic level of knowledge to ensure safety is that the Member of Parliament, or the prime minister, or some nameless, faceless individual is lined up and routinely blamed. Authority figures have specific roles to play, but citizens, adults, and parents must also figure squarely in this picture.

Somewhere in all of this mad rush to snap, video, and post, basic and good information that is practical and useful still has a place. So, as we wade through the last few days of this month, and go deeper into this Lenten season, let us plan to resurrect some good old common sense.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or

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