Growing up on any Caribbean island means congregating. It means meeting your family for BBQs and lunches. It means having large celebrations for birthday parties, first communions, weddings, and even funerals. In a regular year, there’s at least one mass crowd event every weekend, especially in the peak season from May to July. We love a crowd!
A large part of Caribbean culture is about the people, and a sense of family. Strangers become best friends by the time the party's over - even if it’s just for a couple of hours. That’s probably a major reason why so many people love visiting the Caribbean, and love engaging with the people. We make you feel like one of us.
So it’s on that note that I must now mention a big worry of mine. I fear that COVID-19 is killing Caribbean culture.
In the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, the first case of COVID-19 was recorded on March 13th, 2020. Since then, the Government has issued a slew of ever changing COVID-19 protocols. Over the last year, they have ranged from limiting weddings and funerals to 25 people, limiting social gatherings to 10 people, and currently, banning all mass crowd events. There has also been a ban on the sale of alcohol on two separate occasions, aimed at reducing parties and gatherings. These protocols, while aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, have undoubtedly affected the way Caribbean people are able to socialize. Remember, we discussed that meeting in groups is a big, big part of Caribbean culture. It’s such an important aspect of our culture, that some people have even taken to breaking the law, and meeting in groups, or after the curfew hours, all in the name of socialization.
It’s been rough! But it’s really important to note that COVID-19 protocols are not only affecting small social gatherings. In most of the islands across the Caribbean, Carnival festivities have been cancelled for two years in a row. That’s a big deal. Carnival in the various islands in the Caribbean is an expression of culture, creativity, colour, music, love and that characteristic sense of family. Two years with no heavily feathered costumes making their way down the Carnival route has impacted those who keep the festival near to their heart. But it’s not just Carnival. It’s Independence celebrations in many islands. It’s music festivals in countries like St Kitts and Nevis, Dominica and Saint Lucia.
COVID-19 and the need to physically distance ourselves has forced major cultural festivals like Jounen Kwéyòl to be hosted virtually. In December, the usual cultural practice of going to each neighbour’s house to indulge in rum and food had to be cancelled. That would have been an obvious breach of social distancing protocols. And even if many activities have been moved to the virtual sphere, it really doesn’t have the same effect. You can’t reach over and hug your friends while you’re all sitting at home on Zoom. The laughter doesn’t fill the room in the same way.
The new normal isn’t hard to cope with just because we’re behind screens. Cultural festivals in the Caribbean are a major source of income for several groups, including costume designers, carnival band owners, food vendors, musicians and makeup artists. COVID-19 has rendered thousands of Caribbean people unemployed. Moreover, international travel bans means visitors from America, Canada, the United Kingdom and several other parts of the world cannot attend Carnival. The knock-on effects include major losses in revenue for the Caribbean region.
The domino effect isn’t as apparent when you look at the situation from the outside. The Caribbean region isn’t suffering from just a lack of social gatherings. The cultural fabric of the region is being stretched, while our economies are being whittled down slowly. Although many islands have begun vaccinating their populations, it’s still too early to tell whether we’ll be able to host these events in 2022.
Whatever the determination, Caribbean people can rest assured that our culture is part of who we are, and not just the events that we attend.
Credit main photo: State Dept./S. Speranza
Written by Nelcia Charlemagne