A blot on our nation

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, May 20, 2018

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If you close your eyes to facts you will learn through accidents. — Moroccan proverb

 

Thirty -eight years ago today, 144 Jamaican citizens perished in an apocalyptic-like fire at Eventide Home for the Aged on Slipe Pen Road in Kingston. Forty-eight hours after the tragic inferno, two more elderly women died from their injuries. Seven were never found. The hellish orange flames spared only 58 of the 211 women in State care. Myers Ward, which most called home for several years, was destroyed. The charred remains were interred in a mass grave in National Heroes' Park.

The Associated Press ran a story headlined '173 feared dead in Jamaican fire'. Among other things, the AP May 20, 1980 said: “Fire swept a government-run poor house in Kingston early today and 173 persons were believed to have perished.

“The blaze at Eventide Homes was Jamaica's deadliest ever.

“Prime Minister Michael Manley said, 'First reports from the security forces indicate strongly that this may have been the work of arsonists.'

“Most of the people in the home run by the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation were aged and several were believed to have been invalids.

“Firemen said they responded within minutes after receiving the first call, but that enormous flames were leaping from the home when they arrived.

“They said much of the one-storey, wood and concrete building collapsed as they arrived.”

Some reports suggest that the Eventide Home tragedy was the result of unchecked abuse. The Gleaner of April 3, 2011, for example, said: “The Eventide residents were abused and neglected to the point where rodents had the liberty of feeding on some of their body parts.”

Many of its elderly and destitute residents were blind and some were physically handicapped. Poverty is an awful bully. I believe there is also a cruel irony here. The Eventide Home was originally named Admiral's Pen. It was first used as a residence for colonial aristocrats and well-to-dos. This was the case until the mid-19th century. According to credible historical sources the chief British naval officers in Jamaica, Admiral Rodney and Horatio Nelson, lived there at different times. I imagine Admiral's Pen was kept in immaculate condition for the colonials. Unfortunately, there are those who still believe that some of our fellow countrymen and women do not matter. To them, some Jamaicans are invisible. Self-hate is still very alive in Jamaica.

Recall, a few years ago the media exposed the shameful abuse of scores of our citizens at a Golden Age Home in Kingston. The story said, among other things: “Many of the elderly residents are subjected to a mass bathing ritual each morning. Both men and women, awakened before 7:00 am, are led to a section of the cluster's corridor where they are stripped, lathered, and then sprayed with water from a hose.

“After the co-ed bathing exercise, the male and female residents are forced to walk back to their dorms stark naked. Several severely disabled residents spend most of their days wallowing on dirty floors.

“There appeared to be more flies than the 427 residents who call the facility home. The flies were everywhere — on the residents and on their food.

“One worker was heard verbally assaulting a disabled woman from the 'baby room', so called because the occupants there are not able to do anything for themselves. The practical nurse repeatedly referred to the disabled females as 'gyal'.” ( The Gleaner, April 3, 2011.)

Last week, I heard Minister of Local Government Desmond McKenzie bemoaning the treatment being meted out to many residents in infirmaries across the island by some who are employed to help care and protect our most vulnerable. According to McKenzie, the infirmaries are infested with uncaring employees, some of whom are stealing from those in their care. I believe that we are too often too slow to learn the lessons of history. McKenzie is right when he says the system is in need of a total cleanse.

But back to the tragic Eventide Home fire. Recall that the October 30, 1980 General Election was the culmination of the longest and bloodiest election campaign ever in our history:

“The 1980 poll, though, saw 844 people murdered, by police official statistics, a figure that political analysts believe — due to the limitations and challenges in recording criminal activities at the time — was higher.

“Almost 35 per cent of those killed were slaughtered in the constituency of West Central St Andrew, which had the JLP's Ferdinand Yap and the PNP's Carl 'Russian' Thompson as candidates...

“Manley's decision to sever ties with the IMF [International Monetary Fund] in March 1980 led to further hardships, including a struggle to pay public servants; 11,000 of whom, he said, would have to be chopped from the State payroll in order to shore up the $50-million budget for fiscal year 1980/81. This led to a strike by over 300 workers of the Government-run Jamaica Public Service Company that virtually plunged 70 per cent of Jamaica into darkness.

“Blood started to flow swifter than the river Nile as tension rose between JLP [Jamaica Labour Party] and PNP [People's National Party] factions.

“The Eventide Home fire, in which 153 old women were burnt to a crisp, occurred May 21. Police said that the building for the old and indigent was torched by men from the South St Andrew constituency.

“An incident known as the 'Gold Street Massacre' resulted in five men being killed in the JLP enclave of Gold Street, Southside, in central Kingston in April, the same month in which the Hannah Town Police Station was attacked by gunmen, with one policeman and a civilian dying in the incident.

“As the political Administration of the day became increasingly jumpy about opposition to its policies, the Jamaica Defence Force detained 24 soldiers and three civilians for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Government. All 27 were later freed.

“Several persons were killed on National Heroes' Day, mere days before the election, and there was further bloodshed in the St Elizabeth South Eastern community of Top Hill when JLP and PNP supporters clashed.

“The Denham Town Police Station also came in for fierce attacks from gunmen.” ( Jamaica Observer, October 30, 2012)

Was the Eventide Home Fire deliberately set to advance political objectives? Who stood to benefit from such a ghastly event? Many would simply prefer for the Eventide Home fire, Green Bay Massacre, and similar atrocities to be swept under the carpet. I am not one. Maybe a truth commission, similar to what took place in South Africa when racial apartheid ended, would help.

More than a little hypocrisy

No right-thinking Jamaican is happy with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. I agree with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade when it says that “negotiation should be based on a just and comprehensive agreement that guarantees the security of the State of Israel and provides for a Palestinian State, within internationally recognised borders”.

The PNP, in a release last week, condemned Israel for the violence in the Gaza Strip during protest against the opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem. I find it curious, however, that after months of violent killings of innocent Venezuelans, the PNP has kept a stony silence. Why no condemnation of Nicolas Maduro?

Is ideology more important than humanity? Are some lives more equal than others? Is State repression a pendulum of political convenience for 89 Old Hope Road?

These excerpts from a report filed by the internationally credible Agence France-Presse ( AFP) on May 30, 2017 seem not to meet the benchmark for State repression by the current PNP:

“Venezuelan police have arrested nearly 3,000 people in the two months since a wave of anti-Government protests erupted, a judicial campaign group said on Tuesday. President Nicolas Maduro's opponents accuse him of repressing protesters who are calling for elections to remove him from office. He accuses them of plotting a coup against him.

“Foro Penal (the Criminal Justice Forum) has counted 2,977 people arrested during the deadly unrest, of whom 1,351 are still in detention, Director Alfredo Romero told a news conference. Of those, 197 have been jailed after being sentenced by military courts, said a lawyer working for the group, Alonso Medina.

“ 'This is a situation that occurs under dictatorial regimes,' Medina said.

“Prosecutors say 60 people have been killed in violence linked to the protests since they broke out on April 1, many of them shot dead. Riot police have fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. Protesters have hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks.”

These excerpts from this eye-opening article published in the globally respected The Economist should serve as a warning and a reminder of the dangers of the brands of socialism perpetrated by 'misleaders' like Michael Manley, Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez, and others.

“Every weekday morning a queue of several dozen forlorn people forms outside the dingy headquarters of SAIME [Servicio Administrativo de Identificación, Migración y Extranjería de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela], Venezuela's passport agency. As shortages and violence have made life in the country less bearable, more people are applying for passports so they can go somewhere else. Most will be turned away. The Government ran out of plastic for laminating new passports in September. 'I've just been told I might need to wait eight months!' says Martín, a frustrated applicant. A US$250 bribe would shorten the wait.

“As desperation rises, so does the intransigence of Venezuela's 'Bolivarian' regime, whose policies have ruined the economy and sabotaged democracy. The economy shrank by 18.6 per cent last year, according to an estimate by the central bank leaked this month to Reuters. Inflation was 800 per cent. In 2001 Venezuela was the richest country in South America; it is now among the poorest.” ( The Economist, January 28, 2017)

Last week The Economist published an article entitled 'Unfed and unwashed: How Chavismo makes the taps run dry'. It stated, among other things: “It is the rainy season in Caracas and the reservoirs are full. But most of the 5.3 million people who live in and near the city have not had regular running water for at least a month. Venezuela is an oil-rich country that cannot pay for food and medicines. Now its autocratic regime is showing that it can create shortages even when nature provides abundance.

“ 'I've forgotten what it is like to bathe in running water,' says Soledad Rodríguez, a graphic designer.

“Drier parts of Venezuela have both water shortages and power cuts. Domenico Clara, who runs a bakery in Maracaibo, capital of the oil industry, says power is cut off five to seven times a day. Without refrigeration ingredients spoil, electronic payment systems don't work so customers can't pay (there is a shortage of cash, too).

“Maduro, who will probably be re-elected in a rigged vote scheduled for May 20, may be getting nervous. “ ( The Economist, May 10, 2018)

The PNP does not seem to understand that the oil Jamaica got from Venezuela under PetroCaribe belonged to the People of Venezuela, not Maduro. It seems that subsidised oil is more important to them than the shedding of innocent human blood. Maybe the PNP sees the growing death toll in the socialist State as mere collateral damage.

 

More reasons to hope

Economist Dr Damien King tweeted on May 11, 2018: “The finance minister's announcement today of a fiscal council is huge. It will deepen the institutional foundation of budget management to the extent that it will become more difficult for future administrations to return to previous levels of public debt.”

Only those blinded by unenlightened Jamaica House Withdrawal Syndrome cannot see the straightforward logic here.

Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!

 

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it. — Henry Ford

 

Garfield Higgins is an educator; journalist; and advisor to the minister of education, youth and information. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.

 

PULL QUOTE

Poverty is an awful bully. I believe there is also a cruel irony here. The Eventide Home was originally named Admiral's Pen. It was first used as a residence for colonial aristocrats and well-to-dos. This was the case until the mid-19th century. According to credible historical sources the chief British naval officers in Jamaica, Admiral Rodney and Horatio Nelson, lived there at different times. I imagine Admiral's Pen was kept in immaculate condition for the colonials. Unfortunately, there are those who still believe that some of our fellow countrymen and women do not matter. To them, some Jamaicans are invisible. Self-hate is still very alive in Jamaica

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