Culture in the time of Covid: A View from the Caribbean

Culture in the time of Covid: A View from the Caribbean

by Nigel Encaldada
Belize, March 27, 2020.

Artist at Work, Belize Street Art Festival, February 22, 2020.
The new coronavirus, Covid-19, is of great concern to Caribbean people and culture. At the time of the writing of this article, the Johns Hopkins website which tracks the Covid-19 virus is reporting a total of 510,000 cases and close to 23,000 deaths globally. In the Caribbean, including Cuba and Suriname, there are 992 cases and 20 deaths being reported. Relatively speaking, the numbers are small when compared to other regions but the social and economic impact is huge.

Understandably, there is a great deal of anxiety about this disease which according to medical experts can be fatal to elderly persons and persons with pre-existing medical conditions.  The anxiety also exists because, when we look at international television, what we see are some of the largest and better resourced nations of the world being thrust into panic with their social and economic structures being overwhelmed with thousands of persons being infected and a subset of those persons succumbing to this dreaded disease.

Needless to say, in the Caribbean not many countries are prepared to deal with the fallout of such mass infections. Now countries are in a race to save the lives of their citizens and in the absence of any confirmed treatment or vaccine have introduced “social distancing.” Social distancing includes adapting a range of social behaviors which is intended to eliminate the spread of the virus by restricting human interactions.  We are being told to stay at home with our families and to avoid crowds. Authorities are recommending standing at a distance of at least six feet when in public spaces such as banks, transportation terminals, hospitals and grocery stores. 

Social distancing is a shock to Caribbean Culture. Most Caribbean countries have relatively small populations. Jamaica for example has a population of 2.9 million persons living on an island half the size of Massachusetts, while Belize has a population of approximately 400,000 people on a land mass twice that of Jamaica. With our relatively small populations community members become familiar with each other very quickly and inevitably interact in shared social and cultural spaces. Our daily meetings include very expressive and deliberate exchanges of “good-mornings, bon tardi, Yes I’s, What’s up” accompanied by hugs, fist bumps and elaborate handshake combinations. Similarly, we are bound to gather in small groupings such as at domino games in the neighbour’s yard, at a barbecue, or in larger groupings such as church services, street and community festivals, carnivals, concerts and fetes. All of these events and settings are places where cultural norms, language and expressions are on full display. For the time being though, all of these have been put on hold.                    

Social distancing in the era of Covid has also spelt social disaster in workplaces. With authorities stressing that persons who are sick or have flu-like symptoms are to be sent home or are being asked to call health officials; employees are experiencing social embarrassment. A common cold or flu accompanied by mild cough or sneezing was previously nothing to worry about. Now it’s a health crisis. Everyone is suspect.  If you have the unfortunate experience of sneezing in the office, the culprit is met with death stares, mass evacuations, or dramatic scolding. With no treatment readily insight and people being justifiably afraid of being infected the Caribbean workplace will never be the same.
The Caribbean is also known for having strong family relations. In spite of varying family structures, it is not uncommon to find social and economic interdependence among the members of extended families. Grandparents, children, cousins, uncles and aunts live nearby to each other or perhaps in the same household. In the pre-Covid era those who live nearby to each other were bound to have routine meetings and gatherings. Now that Covid has been imported the social dynamics are stressed. I recently witnessed two cousins who live in separate households meet inside a supermarket with both having to pause awkwardly to assess how to greet each other without the usual hug and extended conversation. Many persons are no doubt having this same experience and are slowly and sometimes awkwardly negotiating the evolving social and cultural situation.

On the bright side, social distancing may have the effect of reinforcing those expressions, practices and social bonds within family units. Families may become creative as they find ways to keep children entertained and educated. Mothers, fathers and grandparents may spend more time together preparing meals. While grandfathers and grandmothers will have a captive audience with whom to share their stories about the good old days and about times like these when things were hard.   How long will this continue? How will this affect those expressions and ways of being which make us uniquely Caribbean? As we go day by day in this new reality the impact of social distancing on Caribbean social and cultural norms will become more evident.
Nigel Encalada is the Director of the Institute for Social and Cultural Research (ISCR) at Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History. 

This article is the first in a series which will explore the impact of the Covid-19 global pandemic on the Caribbean.

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