ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY FOUR charred bodies of elderly women were removed from beneath the rubble in the wee hours of morning, May 20, 1980, after a fire completely destroyed the Myers Ward at the Eventide Home for the Aged on Slipe Pen Road in Kingston.
Days later, two others died from injuries caused by the fire, increasing the number to one hundred and forty six. Seven other elderly women were never found after searches of the destroyed area and were presumed dead. Only fifty eight women of the two hundred and eleven living on Myers Ward survived one of the worst tragedies in Jamaica’s history. Those who perished in the fire were buried a few days later in a mass grave in National Heroes Park.
That we have made the tragedy barely worthy of a significant memorial every year is not surprising. Many might say May 20 this year was overshadowed by passports, but Eventide Home was never stamped in our books. I mentioned the event last year to a group of students from the UWI, and they were clueless. One of them called his mother who said she heard about it in 1995 while doing a charity project with the bank she worked for at the time.
Prior to the fire in May 1980 the living conditions at the Eventide Home were a national disgrace. The treatment of the elderly, the criminal threat to their lives and safety, and the substandard facilities were unfit and unhealthy for human beings, especially being elderly. Some claim the fire was “of unknown origin”, but those who know the source have remained silent, conveniently erased it from eroded conscience, or died from old age and bad health. The murders of these elderly women…what I will call it…was the final blow dealt to them during their less than humane treatment. What did THIS tragedy teach us or change about how we treat the elderly in state care? Absolutely nothing. Let’s fast forward thirty one years after to 2011.
The Golden Age Home, well known at the time for having immaculate grounds, landscaping and greenery, housed elderly women and men in filth, many who were unable to help themselves were severely mistreated, left in their own faeces and vomit, tied to bed legs. The savagery and primitive behaviour they faced matched the flies on their bodies and food. The stench inside the building was enough to choke a mortician, and some of the residents wanted to die than remain there. You would imagine that the least we could do is accord them some respect and afford them comfort in their last days, yes? Alas, the nation that forgets its tragic history is bound to repeat it.
My days between primary and high school were mixed with both mandatory and voluntary visits to senior citizens and children’s homes. My mother insisted on it and being a member of my church youth group also facilitated it. The senior citizens in a home run by the church were reasonable, but state-run brought me to tears. I discovered very early in life that once a children’s home had a sign with “Place of Safety”, it was the most unsafe place to reside. I can still remember my first trip to Homestead Boys Home as a youngster (now houses girls) and it was unbelievable, to say the least.
It was clear that the boys were meant to be punished for all the crimes committed by mankind, and there was no way ‘safety’ was any part of their home. Suffice it to say, I had never imagined children could be treated that way, and by the state? Several other “places of safety” displayed conditions and treatment that should have landed people in prison, and public officials sent packing. It was always odd to see the attempts at ‘fix up’ when visits were expected from various groups on holidays, and how obvious the fear and dread in the eyes of children if any one of them did something wrong. I detested the ceremonial and scheduled visits, (still do) because it seemed to only be done for us to “look good” and not because we generally and genuinely cared. That was LONG ago, and it was public knowledge, but fast forward decades ahead to 2009. Alas, the nation that forgets its tragic history is bound to repeat it.
Overcrowding creating several threats to life and safety was always a known feature of “places of safety. This was once again proven at the state-run Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre on May 22, 2009, when a fire went through the facility, KILLING five girls and injuring thirteen. Forty five survived. It was built to accommodate 40 girls. The conditions these girls lived under was sickening, dehumanising and deplorable…the entire nation went into mourning. Like so many related issues it was soon forgotten, and the stories from similar quarters continued to make the news, right speeches made at the right time, and like the ever caring Jamaicans we are, we moved. Why wouldn’t we, when all these scenarios involved mostly people from poor backgrounds or those who just got dealt a raw deal in life? No member of ‘civil society’ had their child or grandparent affected, so what’s the big deal if it continued?
What does it say about us as citizens when we live as if these things don’t exist, and when they’re brought to the forefront, we raise hell and go back to living? Every one of the children in these homes has champion potential that is killed by the day. Among the elderly are teachers who never had children of their own, but groomed, grew and taught many top professionals in Jamaica. Who cares about them? We really don’t, but we SAY we do. If you challenge politicians on these issues the typical answers fly rabid and rapid: “We have started..”, “the government plans to..”, “next budget we will..”, “a committee has been formed to..”, “a draft paper is…”, “funds will be disbursed..”, “we have established a…” and the rhetoric rambles on. What has actually BEEN done instead of TALKED about being done? What has changed for decades in REALITY?
The more things change…the discussions on persons with disabilities has existed from as long as my memory has served, yet in 2015 we STILL haven’t done the things we’ve spent ages talking about in Parliament. We’ve just discovered that sidewalks and roadways need to be created in a disability-friendly way? No, but death that makes news will help to make a few changes sometimes. Alas, the country that forgets its tragic history is bound to repeat it.
“It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life – children, those who are in twilight of life – the elderly, and those who are in the shadows of life – the sick, the needy and the handicapped” – Hubert H. Humphrey
That quote from Humphrey is an accepted international philosophy, and we should all hang our heads in shame at how we have despised, dismissed, degraded and disregarded our elderly, children, sick, needy and persons with disabilities in Jamaica, especially those in state care. The majority of this collective group has been made up of POOR PEOPLE. We could talk and politicise as much as we can, but FACTS are FACTS. If we pull any international document around the world that seeks to protect any of these groups, you will see Jamaica’s signature sitting pretty. If you check the politics you will discover the decades of lip service, empty promises and a disastrous track record for compliance and care.
Let’s continue to live our pretty little lives, earn our money and pay up to our ears to live behind security gates and cameras, thinking we’re insulated from reality. Let’s continue to think that life will always be good and nothing will ever take us down off our pretentious pedestals. Let’s imagine that good life and money will prevent old age, bad health, expensive health care and all our material gain will keep us happy while some worthless, less than prudent poor fool ends up on the low end of life. Let’s pretend that as long as OUR children get the best of everything, those deprived of everything won’t show up with a gun instead of a résumé. We are a disgraceful nation based on how we’ve treated our most vulnerable. “Out of many, one people” is now a joke only useful to define our racial mix. We have paid the price for decades, but fail to see the price yet to be paid.
Rodney S. O. Campbell ©
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