Nirmal Maraj and Dylan Kerrigan
“Racial capitalism” is a brutal socio-economic system. Regionally across the small islands nations and countries of the Caribbean the scars of this system are everywhere. They include the collision of colonialism and capitalism and the legacies of exploitation and dependency that emerged from centuries of structural racism. These include; the transhistorical structural violence that has shaped some of the highest per capita murder and crime rates in the world; the intense economic inequalities and social class hierarchies found across the region; the new plantations of the tourism industry and their class and race implications; the failures of neo-colonial independence to provide economic and social justice; and much else.
The introduction and spread of deadly disease within the region via tourism and globalization can be read as one aspect of how racialised global capitalism facilitates the spread of Covid-19 from elsewhere to a region historically exploited and underdeveloped, and how different nations and populations will experience the social and economic fallout from Covid-19 in different and uneven ways.
Since the deadly and genocidal initial encounter with Europeans wherein scholars estimate that diseases brought to the Caribbean contributed to a casualty rate of 80-95% of the indigenous population, the region has across centuries grappled with several pandemics. Two key factors stand out in these earlier pandemics. Firstly, they were all imported. Secondly, when the spread began, it was the poor who were disproportionately affected.
The situation with Covid-19 in the Caribbean seems to be following similar patterns. Thinking about Paul Farmer’s work studying the healthcare system of Haiti illustrates how social forces such as poverty, income inequality and gender disparities have a significant role in who is able to access healthcare systems across the region and who cannot. Debt repayments to neo-colonial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, mean per capita funding for local health systems in the region is minimal compared to former Imperial powers like the UK, Spain, Denmark, France, and the USA. While EU member countries allocate 14% of its public expenditure towards public healthcare and the USA 17%, Caribbean nations allocate a significantly lesser amount: Haiti (5%), St Kitts and Nevis (6.9%), Trinidad and Tobago (7.6), Jamaica (8.1%), Grenada (9.2%) and Guyana (9.4%). Cuban Doctors arriving in different Caribbean nations to support local health infrastructure is one way the region is tackling this inequality.
It is in this context that many Caribbean states in response to Covid-19 have reacted rapidly – and faster than many Global North nations – to either close or limit access to their borders, and impose nationwide lockdown on citizens to prevent the spread of the disease. This includes in some instances refusing entry to their own citizens for a period of time. In Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), the Prime Minister upon confirmation of the first case within the country, implemented measures including the immediate closure of schools, universities, restaurants and bars, and limited group gatherings to a maximum of first ten, and then five people. Within a week further new measures were announced that have led to a full lockdown on both islands and only the movement of workers in essential services permitted. Many better off citizens have asked in paternalistic terms for the Prime Minister to go further and issue a State of Emergency, as they believe the population needs to be locked down through police measures rather than citizen responsibility, with little recognition of the historic differential treatment the police afford to distinct social classes and geographic locations on the islands.
Border lockdowns have also taken place across the region including St Maarten, Grenada, Jamaica and Guyana, to various effects. The Jamaican government implemented a nightly curfew from 8pm to 6pm expected to run until April 8th. Similar to T&T, some individuals are exempted from this curfew including those working in healthcare, government, national security and tourism. Guyana has closed schools, suspended international travel, and public servants have been placed on rotational shift.
For small island States in the Caribbean these quick border control responses, especially when detection was at a minimum level, play a great role in the attempt to prevent further spread of Covid-19. At the same time, it is important to note how the broader lockdown measures impact groups disproportionately across class. It is also imperative to understand that in a region with some of the highest domestic violence and gender based violence rates in the world, alongside high levels of matrifocality and female headed households, and a relatively high proportion of women in low paying service jobs that are the first to be let go, the class implications of these national lockdown are also explicitly gendered in their outcomes.
In terms of employment, across the region tourist industry occupancy rates are 0 to 3%, and the bedrock of employment for many is cutting staff across class lines, some permanently and others temporarily. Some with pay, some without pay. In an immediate response to this inequality of treatment, the National Trade Union Centre of Trinidad and Tobago (NATUC) condemned what it called the “callous, insensitive and inhumane decision of the management.”
Within the region, the wealthy, by virtue of their class power protect themselves in virtual fortresses in the form of gated communities, luxurious beach houses and exclusive high-rise apartments each with accompanying private outdoor space, paid help, and private security. Social distancing works for these groups because their class position separates them from the majority of the population.
The ever shrinking Caribbean middle classes too are still in a position to adhere to calls by the State to stay indoors and practice physical distancing. They have the necessary capital, housing and various modes of private personal transport to buy food in bulk and stay isolated for a long period. Furthermore, many have the means to work from home.
Many essential workers who perform daily jobs dealing with sanitation, customer service, and tending the houses and social care of the middle and upper classes are members of the large Caribbean working class. These groups often cannot afford to stay at home, nor do many have the budgets for two weeks’ groceries or have homes with numerous rooms and extra space for self-isolation. To afford basic needs many still have to go to work for precarious wages earned by the hour. They have to utilise public transport such as maxi taxis and move in crowds. And their communities are more heavily policed than others – including unlawful police harassment – to ensure they do not hangout in front of their homes or on streets.
Across Caribbean nations, national discourse has also been virtually silent on groups comprising the underclass – those denied participation within the society such as refugees, those out of work, in prison or homeless. Homelessness and vagrancy are a rampant social problem in the region. Recent reports coming out of T&T suggest that inadequate social measures have been put in place to inform and protect this vulnerable group and that healthcare institutions have denied them service.
In some Caribbean prisons and remand yards, which were already some of the most brutal and poorly maintained in the world, and who’s populations are heavily represented by the working class, the few privileges inmates had such as family visits, have been curtailed. Fed international news through illegal smart phones about what is happening in prisons around the world, including situations where some prisons have been emptied, 250 inmates in Trinidad rioted and attempted a breakout on March 17th. A ringleader broadcast the breakout live on Facebook, complained about not wanting to die in prison from Covid-19, and provided screen time for various inmates to tell their families they loved them. 100 heavily armed prison and police officers responded. In Jamaica, Guyana and T&T the Ministers in charge of jails have confirmed they will not release low risk or short-term inmates; however authorities have also acknowledged that this position may soon change.
Another important consideration at this time is the political issue of displacement and refugees within the region. For example, instability within the Republic of Venezuela – made worse by unethical sanctions enforced by the USA – has led to thousands of its inhabitants fleeing to nearby territories such as Guyana and T&T. Again, refugees in the Caribbean are another group severely underprivileged, with no fixed income, taken advantage of and employed precariously within many sectors, and who put extra strain on underfunded state services.
A further concern of Caribbean nations is the response from global financial institutions such as the World Bank who have already suggested conditions on any financial support as a way to enforce structural reforms post-pandemic for the benefit of financial markets and not for the benefit of social justice and reparations.
The x-ray of Covid-19 has further revealed within the Caribbean and globally the social harms of rampant neoliberalism. For example, if this pandemic continues for several months, the question of how do you feed populations whose capacity for local food production was destroyed by neoliberalism become ever more important. On the other hand it is also an opportunity to provide local farmers throughout the region with sustainable income and enact a paradigm shift whereby Caribbean states foster regional integration centered on food security.
We now must wait to see if the measures taken by Caribbean authorities and populations will be enough to stop the spread of Covid-19 on societies already placed precariously by historical events along the fault lines of global racial capitalism.
Nirmal Maraj is a Teaching Assistant in Sociology at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. Dylan Kerrigan is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leicester and a Visiting Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West Indies. They have worked together previously on research examining media discourse on violent crime and the various ways marginalised communities are represented in within Trinidad and Tobago media.