T&T the tireless mother

May 27, 2020

Wesley Gibbings

I have been having cause nowadays to reminisce on the moment a politician of the rancorous mid-1980s openly declared that the people of T&T could not continue expecting the state to be a “tireless mother.”

I cannot recall all the details, but I know the statement came in a fit of pique during an industrial conflict of some kind.

I also remember a call to my newsroom while state workers boisterously picketed the office of the same government minister who blamed a condition he considered to be spoilt-brat worker “entitlement”.

“If blood is shed,” I was told by the poor guy, “it would be on your (collective journalistic) hands.” So significant, I presumed, was the impact of the stories I had been writing during those days of tumult.

There were two lifelong, and related, lessons emerging out of those episodes and that period. The first had to do with a notion of maternalism (as opposed to the “tough love” of paternalism, I suppose) as an underlying basis for continuance of the so-called “welfare state”.

The second relates to the role of journalistic framing and how people often interpret the work we do. More on that at another time.

On the basis of rather thin academic credentials and a lack of awareness of the first-person requirements of parenthood at that time (I had to wait until 1995 for the latter) I set about then to disassemble the first of these two assertions.

True, as a mere reporter, and with a mind shaped in the form of latter-day socialism by a grandfather who effortlessly quoted Cipriani (the labour leader after whom my late father was named), the available tools approximated a hammer and chisel in the face of delicate heart surgery.

Increasingly, though, I began to recognise an almost identical mismatch between the requirements of a nation in search of itself and the credentials of hapless political elites appointed to secure its safe awakening.

My country, the “tireless mother” – not as political slogan or strategy or Photoshopped campaign poster, but as policy and action. And, even then, not as jingoistic nationalism or fascist pride. There are, you see, adoptions to transact, new family to be added - a condition under which we have both been subjects and objects.

If it’s not your own country that cares, I asked, who else? Where? When push comes to shove. When there is no one or nothing else left, there must be a birthright that remains.

The thought crossed my mind last week, when I was asked to help draft a request for re-entry by a friend of mine who has been “stranded” overseas after taking care of a parent who eventually died.
The “tireless mother”, you see, keeps watch at the window and waves to ensure you know she’s there. However narrow the doorway. However small the dinner table. However long the line.

By contrast, we have long known of the “tough love” of the paternalistic state. The act of “discipline” my old QRC friend proudly related: That time he knelt on the hard ground with two concrete bricks held with stick-thin arms above his head in the hot sun.

The state as “tough love” father locks the son out in the rain for getting back too late. Your country, as nurturing mother, waves at you from the window, but opens the door and lets you in from the rain when it’s known to be safer inside than outside.

I once confessed to a loss of love for children of a fatherland who had feted the curfew hours away while more than 30 men and women lay dead and rotting in Port of Spain. Some of us stayed awake until it was all over.

Today, they assemble, naked and unmasked, with the music and chatter loud enough to keep us awake at night, our caution mocked by jeers and jabs typically reserved for distant, privileged deserters.

Had we been all alone in the world, this would have been such a hard road to traverse. I have seen the ships off Port au Prince, Kingston, Kingstown, Nassau and St George’s. They too need to know a tireless mother awaits, however weary and heavy laden. However anxious and afraid becomes the growing line.

COVID-19 and regionalism

May 20, 2020

Wesley Gibbings

It’s a point that’s understandably not attracting too much attention at the moment, but sooner or later we would need to acknowledge the role Caribbean regionalism is playing in the management of the current crisis.

This point needs to be emphasised if only because in our midst are people staking claims for leadership in a wide variety of public spaces who do not routinely recognise the value of the regional process – both within the context of the notion of a wider Caribbean and the narrower, more familiar and longer standing, Caribbean Community (Caricom).

If the pandemic is teaching us one thing, it is that no single country persists as a geo-political island; and that an ability to address big challenges is best acquired as acts of collective diligence and application.

I am at a loss to understand where we begin this story. Should it start from the part where we, through circumstances of our history, are now called upon to exercise a greater measure of self-confidence? Should the story flow next to the point where a lack of communal self-esteem is recognised to be our most imposing developmental challenge?

Or should we fast-forward to the moment we realised that COVID-19 was upon us? Let’s agree to start there and to recognise the role the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) has played and continues to play in the midst of an unprecedented emergency.

Among the darkest moments of the early stages – not counting the absolute tragedy of the loss of lives – was the political scorn and scepticism accorded recognition of CARPHA as the lead agency to guide our actions to address the pandemic.

I would contend that had there not been a CARPHA, the region would not now be considered to be among the global front-runners in coming to terms with this phase of the pandemic. True, though it is, that more is likely to come.

Some disclosure at this point: I have had a past professional relationship with CARPHA and two of the five regional agencies that merged a few years ago to become CARPHA. This means I would either be prone to favourable commentary or, through familiarity, be better placed to understand the agency’s key positive and negative attributes. Take your pick.

Imagine, as well, the absence of Caricom as an institution at the helm of single market conditions. Think this thing through before you rush to an uninformed conclusion. Consider the “recovery” effort post-COVID and the fact of a single market within the context of a world that will only slowly be emerging from slumber.

Our manufacturers and other suppliers of goods and services, and the thousands they employ, would understand this point much more than those whose assessment of the regional effort is based on minimal information and analysis. I have provided statistics in this space before. Go look it up yourself this time.

Now, let’s turn to the 48-year-old Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) and its role as a regional examining body in the midst of the pandemic. Who would want to be in Registrar Dr Wayne Wesley’s position at this time? Yet, in most countries (I notice Jamaica and T&TUTA are taking a different position) CXC will be administering region-wide examinations in the middle of all of this.

The list of regional institutions under Caricom is rather long, and most have remained alert (CTO, UWI et al), but I want to shift to the role of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). The ACS focuses on the interests and concerns of a wider constituency of 35 states, countries and territories “washed by the Caribbean Sea” (though it includes El Salvador which has a Pacific coast while Guyana and Suriname are “washed” by the Atlantic Ocean).

There have been the sceptics, but the ACS has carved an evolving role for itself in the area of disaster risk reduction and, last week, launched an important online resource that focuses on the data-supported progress of the wider region in addressing the COVID-19 challenge.

From Secretary-General, Dr June Soomer, came eloquent expression of the role of regionalism not only in managing changed circumstances, but in supporting the survival challenge COVID-19 has brought to the fore - in such a manner as to assure future progress.

When we eventually look back at this time, I believe we would find that the regional platforms have been sturdy and of greater value than we usually assign them.

When Boogsie played ‘Yesterday’

May 13, 2020

Wesley Gibbings

Len “Boogsie” Sharpe played ‘Yesterday’ on the pan at about 6.35 p.m. on Saturday May 9, 2020.
This story could have ended right there. But then somebody posted in the comments section of the YouTube stream: “I am in tears. Is this normal?” Fingers frozen, I could not type a response. We’d been busted. Many of us, I presumed. Someone else chimed in with something I cannot remember.

It happened so fast. Boogsie had been showing off on the double seconds with speed and an amazing command of complex riffs on The Mighty Sparrow’s ‘Rose’. Then, inexplicably, he changed mood with a Beatles/Lennon suite that eventually landed, near the end, on ‘Yesterday’.

At that moment, those of us who have been following what has been happening to pan, its players and its music over this lockdown period, found in Boogsie, the ultimate resort to art as anodyne.
It was Robert Greenidge’s turn on Sunday before a camera. The applause comprised three or four muted pairs of hands and the compliments of online commentaries. Ditto Dane Gulston a little earlier. Aviel Scanterbury and pals have been having “Transcription Tuesdays”.

The instrument, through these times, has indeed been capturing the role of music as supreme emotional expression. There are also hints that the end of the current phase of Coronavirus lockdown would bring to pan - both as instrument and as a form of social mobilisation and organisation - increments of change it had never before contemplated.

This is more, much more than a change of venue or a programmatic innovation. We might well be looking at change that presents the instrument and its meaning in ways we have never before envisaged.

Yet, we had been receiving clues and tips. Before Boogsie took to the WACK TV screen last Saturday, there was Barbados-based Trini Nevin Roach’s ‘Panograma 2020’ competition (so we should have a 2021 version, I hope). All online. All solo. International – the finalists came from Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Sint Maarten and T&T. Earl Brooks Jr topped the final 10.

But, that’s just the thinnest end of the wedge. For, these are the frontline instruments only. There must be space for the mids and the basses and the percussions. People like Roach et al will get there.
Then there were the global collaborations that brought us BP Renegades’ production of ‘Heal the World’ with more than a dozen players from the US, Japan, the UK, France and T&T.

Speaking of which, Duvone Stewart has been having a ubiquitous presence through all of this and his home-based promo of Boogsie’s one-man show was a show in its own right. Out on his porch (presumably in Tobago), waving to and greeting passersby.

There was another international collaboration called De Coalition you can still find online. These were the young bunch on a variety of instruments.

The “Just Flow” Challenge was hosted by another youthful group of accomplished pannists bearing names such as Chuma Akil Jahi Watson, Triston Marcano, Andre White, Hammond Mitchell, Stefon West and Scanterbury.

There have also been several online tutorials initiated by players/instructors both in T&T and overseas. I follow Sterling C Semple Sr on Facebook for the latest.

What I am saying is that the pandemic has the potential to revolutionise pan in ways we had never before envisioned.

True, to many people this means absolutely nothing. I don’t particularly like the accordion, for instance. Others may not prefer the ukelele. So, it’s often difficult to discuss pan with people who do not understand its meaning as something more than a musical instrument within the context of T&T development. That’s fine.

The current period is however revealing that a tidal wave of change for pan is upon us. Musicians, Pan Trinbago, the Ministry of Culture, bankers, educators, manufacturers, businesspeople take note.

Don’t be surprised if Panorama 2021 (if it happens) does not look anything like what we have known in the past.

At the height of the recent WTI crash in oil prices, somebody memed the value of an oil drum filled with oil and another crafted as a musical instrument. Book closed. Story done. Boogsie played ‘Yesterday’, and tomorrow will never be the same.

April 29, 2020

When science challenges politics

Wesley Gibbings

It is no recent realisation that the triumph of politics over science has been a durable feature of life on this planet. In more recent times, the problematic need for science-based interventions on issues such as climate change, alternative sources of energy, the supply of food and the practice of medicine has reinforced such an assertion.

The main challenge appears to be that in order for science to be meaningfully applied there tends to be a reliance on political decision-making or agenda-setting at one level or another, often in order to achieve a “just transition” from challenge to solution so that remedies do not turn out to be worse than the afflictions.

In turn, investments in science are routinely guided by what are considered to be the more visible needs of society, especially those with implications for the distribution and maintenance of power.

Addressing the question of climate change, for example, requires the weight of political leadership in order that key national, regional and global actions are taken to mitigate its worst effects and to ensure countries such as ours adapt to its inevitable manifestations.

Power relations, in this respect, are frequently associated with the geo-politics of fossil fuels and the paradigmatic underpinnings of social and political change.

COVID-19 landed on our laps even as global political backsliding and indecision characterised the five-year old demands of the Paris Accord on climate change. There is now the corresponding impact of economic turmoil resulting from COVID-19 on the ability of countries to meet their commitments to the required climate change trade-offs.

The gradual but increasingly evident unveiling of climate risks has also been met by the demands of a pandemic whose main features have come to the fore in measures of days and not years or decades. In that sense, countries are understandably inclined to pay attention to one more than the other at this time.

Nationally, though the climate crisis has invariably been met by a fair measure of bipartisan support – the same group of technocrats has in any event run the process - few politicians have been found innocent of exhibiting a preference for partisan advantage over scientific imperative.

Key decisions in housing, public infrastructure, food production, and the application of energy alternatives have been routinely subjected to the dominance of politics over science.
Then came the pandemic and the necessary pursuit of medical solution through political decision-making.

In 2020 (and to its credit) the Trinidad and Tobago government has permitted the latitude medical science requires to guide its core agenda, whatever the shifting parameters of a brand, new challenge. There has been studious adherence, on matters of medical science, to the protocols established by regional and international organisations, including CARPHA, PAHO and WHO.

Sadly, countervailing arguments clearly aimed at achieving opportunistic political advantage are yet to establish comparative technical credentials of any kind. Press releases, defamatory Facebook posts and social media insults hardly serve as a counter to prescribed science, so under-developed has been the politics.

Universal “testing” (including anti-body tests) expressed as a form of “treatment” is being proposed as a priority and the role of (admittedly painful) lockdowns is being unadvisedly challenged as a mechanism to delay, in the absence of a vaccine, inevitable spread.

I have seen very little from such dissenting quarters regarding the science that merits serious attention, whatever the validity of concerns about the implementation of social remedies to ease the burden of measures imposed.

Meanwhile, what impresses most is the atypical subjugation of convenient politics at the hands of a scientific elite some of us never realised existed.

It is true that not all scientists have got things right every time. Big, wealthy countries have made deadly errors. But there has been an obvious, if at times uncomfortable, deference by the government to the dictates of what has been offered as medical imperative.

It might well be that at this defining moment in our history, miniscule COVID-19 successes have the potential to secure political fortunes that had begun to slip from insecure hands. But it is even more significant to note the points, however meagre, being scored by science over politics.

April 22, 2020

A social distancing primer

Wesley Gibbings

Be honest. We have all practised some form of social distancing in the pre-COVID-19 era. In most instances, but not always, it has accompanied actual physical distancing.

So, for most of us, the expert distinction between the two forms of potentially lifesaving self-quarantine has been longstanding and well established.

We all know how possible it is to work or live near someone, but yet operate socially as if they do not exist. Like that neighbour whose name you never quite got.

Like that co-worker who brings cake and other goodies to the office. The one with whom you have engaged in slack talk or gossip, but who has never been invited to your birthday party and will never be on your list of Facebook “friends.” That one.

But though social distance is not analogous to physical space, we may wish to assign to it metrical value in all its manifestations. Not centimeters, metres or kilometers, but a rating to signify a level of desired remoteness.

It may also apply to places, things, ideas and even mere words. When you hear or think of the worst of them, you feel that you need to move away. Run, even.

There are also different categories of measurement – the personal, the public and episodic developments such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also think the term “social distance” should be fully verbed – a transitive verb. So, for example, it constitutes a threat that I plan to “social distance” you if you say or do so or so or so.

At school, we used to “blow off” even with the student who sat next to us in class. As an adult, I once had a friend who “blew off” with me for over 10 years. I had been social distanced.

To help you understand better where I am getting at with all this, I have come up with a draft methodology to address the need to social distance people and things. It is a rating system. It goes like this: There is a scale of 1-5 – five being a measure of the furthest possible “distance” between an individual, an idea, words or a condition.

For example, my family would be in the number “1” class in the Personal Category while rapists and murderers would clearly be among those in the “5”. The least desirable ones have to be social distanced as far away as possible. The guy who sold me green sapodillas that took a month to rot would be a “4”.

Let’s have a go at the Personal Category. Do your own rating using key words. Here are some of mine:

Class 1 – Family, children, the ocean, seafood, dim sum, music, safety, beauty, freedom, wellness, sharing, “let’s do it”
Class 2 – Friends, (bright and reliable) colleagues, animals, travel, sport, books, warm weather, soft serve ice cream, oysters, “let’s think about it”, mangoes, pizza with pineapple
Class 3 – Cars, banks, insurance, house repairs, “this won’t hurt a bit”
Class 4 – Voting, dentists, offices, cold soup, mechanics, traffic jams, rock music, “trust me”
Class 5 – Murderers, rapists, cloned social media accounts, earthquakes, hurricanes, illness, surgery, fungal infections, toothaches, hoarding, aloo pie with channa.

Got it? Now, let’s skip to the COVID-19 Category:

Class 1 – Isolate, test, treat, care, “we don’t know everything, but we will pay attention”, “assume everybody else has it”, “a state of emergency won’t make you wash your hands”, PPE, “why?”
Class 2 – Research (using books), “why?”, information, news, explanations, illustrations, masks, distance, test kits, press conferences
Class 3 – “Close the borders”, “stay home”, “shut down”, “essential” services and activities, nationals locked out, “jhanjaat”, “haseekara”
Class 4 – “Race”, “test”, “they lie”, “hacked”, elections, “freak show”
Class 5 – People who use the words “Chinee”, “Venes” and “de wonpasent”, 5G, Canadian lab, flat earth, doubles, KFC, “election ploy”, Trump, state of emergency, the sun cure, “it done”, “they look for it”, garlic, ginger, Sayers.

Feel free to try this one at home. Send me your lists and see you on the other side of COVID-19, unless of course you come last in class.

April 15, 2020

Removing the masks

Wesley Gibbings

Anybody remember the first time they wore a mask? Mine was a Carnival mask – a thin plastic one parents at the time gave children for school jump-ups or simply for horsing around. I will never forget the “plasticy/paintish” smell, and the false sense of security it provided.

It must have been that very one I used when my brother, Lindsay, and (young) uncle, Francis, decided to play “jab-jab” one Carnival Monday morning in Curepe. We sewed the upper parts of old t-shirts to the masks so our hair and necks weren’t visible.

I believe we also had a large “biscuit” pan which Francis, as the biggest boy, beat while Lindsay and I aggressively tapped bottles and spoons and blew whistles. What a racket we made between St Augustine and Curepe where, hopefully under the cover of fearsome anonymity, we could extract some tips from my friend Larry’s family.

We were outside the Winter household and, because nobody knew who we were, we felt free to bang that pan and to come brutally close to breaking the bottles. Such was the noise we made.

“Wesley! Lindsay! Francis! Stop that!” went (the late, beautiful and great) Mrs Winter. But … how? Weren’t we masked? Weren’t we tucking our chins into our necks and speaking through noses, throats and mouths to sound “big”? Maybe she recognised us by our knobby knees or the fact that the three of us were a known posse.

We wore masks, damn it! She knew us. She saw us. “I see you,” she said. Larry came out and laughed loudly.

Masks later in life became distinguishable from mas’ – derived from the word ‘masquerade’ but connoting a lot more. When you play mas’, you mean to exhibit who you really are … and more. I am not a Carnival person, but I understand its creative value as ultimately a celebration of self. Contrastingly, wearing a mask usually tends to signal a desire to appear to be what you are not.

The metaphor of the mask can extend beyond the concept of the individual as well. There are countries that are today being found to have been immasked by strategic philanthropy. Groups of people and activities too. Like Mrs Winter, we however see past both veneer and outright disguise.

Nothing like covid, a crisis or carnival or general chaos to bring out the different masks. Ethnic hatred disguised as apprehension, for example. Like my knobby teenage knees, reference to “de wonpasent” exposes who and what you are. That, to me, represented the descent of the (otherwise ill-advised) security discussion into a question of “race.”

There’s also one mask for “Indo-Trinis” and another for “Afro-Trinis.” Move in against “de Chinee and dem”, “de Venes and dem.” Blow that whistle. Blow it loud. Fix your mask on your head. But just know “we see you.”

Cynical political one-upmanship and opportunity disguised as empathy. Voyeurism employed as concerned enquiry.

Light leaks so heavily behind the masks we can see the emblazed hue of your eyes. Fruits and vegetables in a heap. Not by all, I am told. Just those in masks. Fish the price of gold. Drugs in short supply. Patient records on the street like old leaves on a breezy day.

And, yes, we may all get this as wrong in the end as both the vigilant and the unvigilant. Those who have tested more, together with those who have tested less. Those who have banned and closed, and those who have chosen the path of conditional freedom. We just do not know, except that the risk of erring on the side of caution appears more compelling than a path that gambles on the unknown.

However, there is a pain that cannot hide behind masks of any kind. Not the torture of the partisans but the agony of those who care. Tell us from among those on the frontline who are they who wear the masks of deception? Or is it that they wear the masks of healing?

In the end, so many years ago, Mrs Winter served us orange juice and pelau. “I see you,” she said. “I see you.

April 1, 2020

Privilege, emergencies and the authoritarian mind

Wesley Gibbings

Who knows? It may well come to pass that some politicians and their devotees will be celebrating official incursion into the realm of civil liberties, beyond moderate public health regulations. I hope not. But the time may well come when political dexterity zig-zags over the line and further into the zone of rights.

The problem seems to be that moving at pace from persuasion to coercion remains a compulsion of the authoritarian mind with little space for in-betweenity. Such a mindset concedes little merit in the sturdiness of personal responsibility. There is only the prompt intervention of steely hands - on everyone else but “me”, of course.

Remarkably, the current measured approach to COVID-19 in T&T runs contrary to the characteristically quick resort to edict – a condition associated with a colonial legacy of routinely devalued personal and communal responsibility.

Intervention has instead been nuanced in accordance with our own reality. For while it’s true that the bigger the lime the better, and the sunnier the day the more irresistible the ocean, there is a will to live and laugh and love, whatever the circumstance.

In all this, and rather amazingly, it has been the Commissioner of Police who has reminded us of the critical difference between what we cannot do and what we should not do. Authoritarian minds do not typically detect the distinction.

Among the people who won’t get this are those who also cannot understand that something can be lawful but yet be completely wrong or inappropriate.

Along those lines, the Prime Minister had much earlier provided us with one of the more notable takeaways. “A state of emergency,” he declared, “won’t make you wash your hands.”

Contrastingly, there is an unfortunate view that the positive personal conduct of others is best achieved through compulsion. This obtains despite the fact that responsible behaviour, through choice, is provably the ultimate, sustainable approach to challenges of all shades. True, the Europeans who taught us such good manners have not set the best example, but as in the past, their agony has brought useful instruction.

Meanwhile, stick-wielding officers in India have apparently provided guidance for domestic application, judging from the online applause. If you’ve been there, you’d understand the connections better - authoritarian behaviour as the quintessential expression of privilege. Who, in those videos, is “me”?

Correspondingly, “closing the borders” and “locking down” and “beating them in the streets” will have no real negative implications for those who have already fixed their business – a month’s supply of groceries, families intact, gas in the car, internet paid up, exercise gear greased and ready.

No, I continue to insist, “everybody” was not panic-buying at the bulk-purchase stores, however impressive the photos. Many more were at the corner shops and parlours. Even more now ponder how far the salary relief grant, food card top-ups and rental relief will reach.

They are the ones for whom “physical distancing” – the more accurate term – has special meaning. They are the ones the unions are saying should not be forgotten since workers’ rights while affected, have not been erased. Pandemics level the playing field but the curve of inequity persists stubbornly.

The farmers need to tend their crops and animals, garbage men keep the communities clean and gas station pump attendants fuel the essential vehicles. They, too, like public hospital nurses and doctors need the dignity and respect of heroes.

Yet, there is a call for the wholesale suspension of rights – an intervention subject to abuse here more than once in the past, but which is now being cynically employed as political dare.

Even without it, we have already witnessed the reckless hands of enforcement early, early, even as so many of us have not forgotten its past abuse.

All of this is meant to sound an early alert. This has been written and re-written as diagnosis and crapaud-foot prescription in under 700 words. It is still good to advise that these are still early days and the actions of last resort may yet appear.

There appear to be keen, comfortably-perched cheerleaders. I am not among them.

March 25, 2020

Rights and the journalism of service

Wesley Gibbings

Many colleagues of mine, here and abroad, are not particularly fond of the term “service journalism” mainly because it seems to suggest that in the normal run of things, professional journalism does not already provide avenues for positive public and private behaviour change.

Yet, in the face of COVID-19, some rather hard-nosed international news organisations have adopted a posture of commitment to delivery of service journalism. This is explicit editorial policy, with an implied proviso that the journalistic principles of accuracy, balance, fairness and transparency will continue to not be the subject of negotiation or moral or cultural relativism.

There is also a view that the naturally adversarial nature of journalism, especially when it comes to political power, can be compromised through docile obeisance to official edict in pursuit of what is considered to be actions in the public interest.

This is usually the case in areas of the world where recovery from conflict and other trauma requires the management of information often in tacit conflict with the presumed right to know. Even then, “because I said so” is not considered to be an option.

However, journalists usually concede reasonable derogations of rights on the basis of national security imperatives, the restoration of public order, and issues related to public health. The latter - access to public health - is itself a human right and embraces a variety of “patient rights” including the right to privacy. Non-observance of such a principle can signify gross irresponsibility by all concerned.

It is however discomfiting to encounter a dismissal of “rights” as being an integral part of the terrain to be navigated in the face of a crisis or emergency. Journalists, media enterprises and civil society actors are entitled to become anxious and uncomfortable when they hear such language, and it is a requirement of their jobs to ask questions about such declarations and the issues to which they relate – even if they appear to be uninformed or “stupid” queries.

Chronic state secrecy and the absence of free speech run contrary to best practices in the face of an emergency. China is cited as a worst-case scenario, and there are others. But I do not consider this to be the case anywhere in the Caribbean where we are dealing with small populations and the prospect of devastation that will not bear a partisan or provincial stamp.

Why would any Caribbean government conceal statistics on the number of afflicted persons? So that it would not “look bad”? This is a ludicrous assertion. But it does not negate the need for journalists to continue asking and prying and challenging.

Everywhere, in the Caribbean, there are journalists who are today asking the questions, writing the stories and being relied upon to be faithful and factual storytellers – full of pimples and imperfections – but trying what they consider to be their best to deliver truth to audiences.

There have been a few instances of malpractice and they have been promptly prosecuted in the court of public opinion. It is good that we are challenged and brought in line, if only because whenever push comes to shove, people will have a choice between unreliable, partisan part-timers in their beds at home, and journalists in the line of fire and in the trenches.

I pay special tribute to all our Caribbean colleagues at this time, but want to mention the media community in Guyana which, as put by one journalist there, confronts the combined assaults of COVID-19 and GECOM-20 – GECOM being the Guyana Elections Commission.

If you thought what media practitioners face here was bad, try journalism in the face of an inconclusive electoral outcome since March 2, and the deadly onset of COVID-19.

Even so, as is the case here, there has been no letup by those whose primary agenda is the undermining of journalism in order to occupy the spaces currently held by independent media outfits. At the current rate, things are not set to end very well there.

In the end, journalism that serves the people faithfully will be viewed as the best option yet. Whether we describe it as either “service” or just “good” journalism.


March 18, 2020

COVID-19 and the flattening of the curve

Wesley Gibbings

It’s still relatively early COVID-19 days for us in the Caribbean, but I think it’s time we start considering the ways the global impact of the pandemic is likely to change our lives forever – for better or for worse.

The peaks and troughs of outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics are frequently described as statistical growth curves to be “flattened” through interventions that avoid an otherwise unavoidable explosion.

The experience with even less extreme events is that a lasting flattening of multiple social, economic and political curves can accompany such episodes.

It is true that the medically more vulnerable, together with the poor and financially disadvantaged, are called to bear an equal but intrinsically inequitable share of the burden, but it is also a fact that the burden of a pandemic crosses the divides as effectively as natural disasters and the inevitability of death.

It is thus difficult not to make constant reference to what I have been referring to as the “legacy” issues that relate to the world of work, lifestyles, public healthcare delivery, the use of technology, and the general power dynamics of domestic and global politics.

As we speak, the mighty are being brought to their knees and a disassembling of the structures of power and influence is already in evidence. Who would have thought that through all its wealth and political power, Europe (as was the case 1500 years ago with the Bubonic Justinian Plague) would grind to the screeching halt we are now witnessing?

Who would have guessed that the mighty USA would have found itself stuck on the crease, on the back foot, with a bouncer en route with pace to its unhelmeted head?

But all of this is not a new or original contemplation. Our planet has experienced life-changing pandemics in the past that have caused gigantic shifts comparable to the incidence of global warfare and accompanying dramatic changes in geo-political power and influence.

Europe’s 14th Century Bubonic disaster, which claimed up to two-thirds of the population of the continent is thought to have contributed to the eventual dissolution of the feudal state. There were also significant impacts, positive and negative, on farming practices and the process of urbanisation.

Could it be that COVID-19 has played a role in the carbon emissions discussions more than any global commitment of the past 20 years? Could it just be that the value of virtual workspaces has, by force, been finally established? Likewise, the unavailability of schools has not necessarily meant the absence of schooling.

It is also advisable, at this stage, to consider what happened when the HIV/AIDS pandemic peaked in the latter part of the 1900s and took the lives of tens of millions of people.

We have already had to address issues of social stereotyping, stigma and discrimination, harmful disinformation, and compliance with a reorienting of behaviours – “protection”, the role of clinical testing and other lasting features of our response to the virus.

It has also proven inadvisable to focus purely on fatality rates (as important as they are), especially now that current interventions at national levels, guided by the timely acquisition of knowledge are more likely than not to save countless lives and minimise suffering – providing people in the regular conduct of their lives take basic precautions.

There still are too many who do not accept that, at one level, it’s simply a matter of claiming adequate social space, washing your hands, and avoiding contact with eyes, nose and mouth - personal responsibility as the ultimate solution.

Beyond that, workers, employers, parents and citizens, are being called upon to make changes in the ways they have conceptualised their relationships with their natural and social environments.

Governments are now being forced to recalibrate revenue and expenditure estimates in the face of assured fiscal crises while addressing critical and otherwise under-served needs in the social services sector. Food import substitution remains a compelling option along with reduced reliance on imported consumer durables, even as aviation and shipping lanes close.

It might just be that we are all in a rendezvous with economic disaster, but maybe, just maybe, the flattening of the curve also brings with it a new dispensation in which hope can find space through which to shine more brightly than it has in recent times.


March 4, 2020

The COVID-19 challenge - finding antidotes for ignorance and fear 

Wesley Gibbings

There is absolutely no denying that the COVID-19 outbreak is among the more serious global challenges of its kind we have experienced in recent memory. Its spread has been rapid. It has already reached close to 60 countries and there is a 2% - 3% fatality rate, though more than 80% of its patients have suffered only “mild” effects.

It is only a matter of time before we begin confirming cases right here in T&T, maybe even before this column goes to press.

The virus is already nearby and because closing our borders and shutting down the country are not options, we need to focus on controlling its spread and impact when it arrives. 

There is no medication to “heal” it and, so far, no vaccine to guard against it. What’s required are proper diagnoses, together with adequate isolation and treatment regimes, and acute public awareness of all facets of the disease.

The experts have suggested that controlling its spread also requires a very high level of personal responsibility.

Unfortunately, this does mesh neatly with our collective predisposition on such matters. We have proven, sadly, not to be readily inclined to favour personal and communal obligation over mandatory official intervention.

For example, the minister of health was once ridiculed for suggesting that people’s health are their individual responsibility - the routine obligations of public institutions notwithstanding.

There are, certainly, legitimate concerns regarding vulnerable groups such as dialysis and cancer patients at public institutions who have raised questions about what happens should they contract the virus. The ministry needs to have clear protocols available to these people in plain language. Healthcare professionals should also be adequately equipped.

It is also not one of those issues for which a reward of cheap political points should be contemplated. I have been watching the various puerile stirrings. This is a matter for medical science, not politics, my friends. This is not going to earn anybody any new votes.

There is also no government ministry walking beside you 24/7. There’s just you and the people in your environment – at home, school, in the workplace and public spaces.

So, wash your hands properly. Do not touch your face. Cover your coughs and sneezes with tissue you dispose of properly. Avoid close contact with people who are ill. Stay at home if you are unwell. Regularly clean doorknobs and other frequently touched areas. The drill is pretty straightforward.

When it comes to overall management of the current challenge, the main enemies remain ignorance, superstition, conspiracy theories, xenophobia and racism, and general panic – treatments for which are always difficult to administer.

I am thus committed to ignoring politicians, religious folks, witch doctors and anonymous WhatsApp dispatches on this subject. Within this “infodemic” lie serious perils to be avoided. National, regional and international institutions are all releasing very useful advice and information. Stop saying there is no information. It’s there. Get it and share it.

Though social media reach in T&T is in the order of 62%, onward transmission of official data and information via the much more widely used WhatsApp has been conspicuously accelerated on this question – though some (not all) of it is rumour, misinformation and, in some cases, sheer mischief.

It is best to rely mainly on information disseminated by the Ministry of Health, CARPHA, PAHO and WHO – all of whom have released guidelines on the spread of the disease and measures for self-protection. Caricom has also activated a regional protocol establishing minimum standards for dealing with the virus.

Outside of the key official institutions, be sceptical about other sources of information that reach your phone, tablet or laptop.

Even so, official information now frequently contends with numerous conspiracy theories and other nonsenses that have not helped ease our tendency to panic and in the process ignore sensible, authoritative advice.

We also live in an environment in which rumour finds pervasively fertile terrain. Conducting a test for the virus does not constitute a confirmation.

The point of all of this today is that while the state has its undoubted share of obligations, stemming the spread of pandemic in the end falls to personal responsibility as a fairly effective safeguard, together with finding antidotes for prevailing ignorance and accompanying fear.

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