Post 371.

“I’m feeling suicidal,” he said, as I inched down the window. Ziya and I looked at him, and I began to wonder about what I was exposing her to. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t wearing a mask, it was that I didn’t expect the social and economic costs of this time to appear so close so soon.

We were locked in the car on Easter Monday, waiting for my shattered phone to be fixed – the day before, I was talking with the Coalition Against Domestic Violence while hastily sweeping the house in an ill-fated example of tired working mother multi-tasking – and he now stood on the pavement signalling to me.

He had been employed in construction. There was an accident. He raised his shirt to show us, but I looked away for it was intrusive and degrading. He found out his employer had not been making his national insurance payments, and this affected his compensation.

He had come to Port of Spain, but had not been able to access any help. The police treated him like a vagrant as he walked the streets, but he wasn’t one (and, here, his voice broke by oncoming tears). He lived in Cumuto, and had no money for his four girls, all under 12 years old, and not enough money to get home. The school-feeding programme used to help, but now he didn’t know what to do. He was hungry.

He insisted he was not a vagrant, he just was unemployed. He thanked me for listening to him and for not looking down on him. He accepted money and promised to buy me a doubles when “this is all over,” when we meet again and share a meal. I thanked him for his offer, told him to speak to his local church for help to access a food card.

As he walked away, I said to Zi that his story could be true or not, but what was clear is that we should all give from whatever extra we have, especially in these weeks and months when widespread insecurity peaks. He could be an addict, but his hunger was real. We didn’t know his story, but what should stay with her is that every person has dignity, and wants that recognised as equally as everyone else.

I had been reading much about the economic and social impact of covid19 over the next year, including the effects on depression and suicide ideation, but this brief encounter made it immediate and human, and showed the inequality at its heart, to us both.

Inequality marks the boundary between those mainly worried about their health and those worried most about hunger, who think they will begin to starve before they get sick. Such inequality similarly sets apart those able to transition to online schooling and those children who will be left behind next term even more than they already are.

Inequality now divides those secure workers who retain benefits from those still fighting for them, despite being essential. Think of domestic workers still caring for the elderly despite the lockdown, and who have been struggling for decades for state commitment to ILO Convention 189, on decent work for domestic workers, even while labour leaders in Cabinet from each governing party ignored them completely.

Sanitation workers, who are among the lockdown’s heroes, have been waiting for backpay and wage increases, are managing higher risks of respiratory problems, remain exposed to hazardous waste, and over 2019 repeatedly protested decades of total disrespect. Rather than simply clapping, valuing their contribution requires our public support of their demands for workers’ rights.

We should refuse to return to business as usual when we have been given the opportunity to reset, to see each other as essential, to stop the waste of our time and money. If the machine that was running our lives can be reimagined, our society can choose solidarity and compassion, rather than insecurity, fear and inequality.

We know now that anything is possible. We can work from home and decrease traffic. We can do state business online. We can increase our investment in agriculture. We can celebrate workers. We can pivot governance around preventing unnecessary loss of even one life.

The long-term crisis is a social and economic one to be fought just as much as we are fighting for our collective health. Those who were already just making ends meet may now be on the verge of vagrancy, and are deathly afraid of the fall.

Post 370.

Like bandits in broad daylight, the US has dispatched warships to the Caribbean Sea, en route to Venezuela.

This is a fascinating lesson for a generation that has never witnessed US ‘big stick’ politics, having been born long after the US invasion of Panama in 1989, the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, the US installing of Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinoche in 1973, and the place of Cuba in the Cold War.

Most of my undergraduate students are born after 2000, in an era when focus on the psychological has taken over from analysis of the geopolitical. This generation would have been too young to remember the US ousting (in his words “kidnapping”) democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, but if young people across the Caribbean need a live example of US imperialism to mobilise against, this is it.

Analyses of this war-mongering and its intersection with the current oil and COVID-19 crises highlight how often global political brawls end up in our Caribbean gayelle, and this might momentarily direct our gaze away from our household challenges toward understanding how badman from Russia, the US, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, China and more fight in our contemporary world.

The military deployment of Navy destroyers, combat ships, aircraft and helicopters, Coast Guard cutters and Air Force surveillance aircraft has been justified by laughable reasons that nonetheless provide an excellent example of how imaginary connections are made everyday truths by state propaganda. This generation won’t remember “weapons of mass destruction” as a similar lie, but that’s how invasion and killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including children, was justified then too.

About 70 000 Americans die annually from a drug overdose, mostly from drugs from Central America and Mexico which breach US borders. Using this data, a White House press conference initiated a good ol’ Republican “war on drugs” arguing that Venezuela is a narco-trafficking state and that the warships are intended to stop shipments of illegal drugs which “penetrate” the United States “to kill Americans”.

Flexing its machoman muscles, the US military announced, “we are at war with terrorists, we are at war with COVID-19 and we are at war with the drug cartels as well…you will not penetrate this country…you are not going to come in here and kill additional Americans”.

The White House released conservative estimates that COVID-19 could kill 240 000 in the US. Guns kill about than 39 000 in the US annually, more than half of drug overdoses, but there’s no state “war on guns” in the US. Indeed, drug overdoses account for less than 3% of US deaths, behind pretty much everything else such as suicide, accidents, medical errors, and especially non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart disease which 2016 data suggest alone account for about 60% of deaths.

No surprise, no serious news sources are buying this Nancy story. The Department of Defense opposed it, reports Foreign Policy in its newsletter. US officials told Newsweek that it was “a move to deflect criticism about the administration’s mishandling of the outbreak at home”. War is always the best way to rally masses, suppress criticism as unpatriotic, and stimulate some manufacturing sectors, all of which would be convenient responses to the US’ collapsed labour market.

At any rate, though marketing it as a “framework for a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela”, the US government long has been trying to install an acceptable puppet who will be their man instead of Russia’s. Caricom has been dancing in this gayelle, refusing to meet with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Jamaica in January, and asserting Venezuela’s sovereignty despite its deep political and economic troubles. For to support invasion of one is to set a precedent for all, and that would be sheer hasikara. Indeed, if electoral corruption is a key criteria, and unmatched oil wealth, Guyana would be next.

By comparison, Russia has both already penetrated the US and has those men in suits on their knees. Its stand-off with OPEC has sent economies crashing and made US shale oil production unprofitable. It is securing its state interest in Venezuelan oil, and protecting it from US sanctions. Last week, Putin himself sent a Russian plane to New York with medical supplies even as the US is shamefully blocking medical supplies to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Barbados.

Though we may be cockroach in fowl party, as they say, this is happening in our seas. Our business is, therefore, that the Caribbean remains “a zone of peace”.

Post 369.

Forgiveness is a beautiful and powerful act of showing the capacity and strength to free oneself from an old hurt. This must be why Archbishop Jason Gordon was quoted as recommending forgiving your family “because the house is too small to hold unforgiveness on top of everything else”.

As many come to terms with being locked indoors with people who have hurt us in the past or may still in the future, figuring out how to survive psychologically requires emotional power, flexibility and insight – and good advice.

We could be home with sexually abusive adults or with homophobic parents. We could be home with partners quick to insult and anger or with cousins prone to lack of consideration. We could have been on the verge of divorce, but are now in each other’s face with our hate daily. We could be holding on to the date when we are all released to the outdoors by the state, but also living with uncertainty about the risks that then increase.

Now that we are in a prolonged period of psychological stress, perhaps from the sheer unfamiliarity of this time or from our disconnection with those closest to us or from depression that has fewer distractions, many may not know how best to cope.

Given the vast rates of everyday neglect, child sexual abuse and partner violence, affecting thousands of households and tens of thousands of lives, there’s a lot to forgive filling all the spaces in houses too small to hold unforgiveness.

Naïve pontification undermines deeply-held dreams of confronting harm and being heard such that the house includes trust and safety, sometimes for the first time in decades, and can expand beyond the meanness of hardened disappointment and cynicism

Our messaging, from pulpit to politician needs to be better. Forgiveness is an outcome, not a beginning. It is impossible where fear and hurt create the experience of both a desire for justice and its denial. It requires a process which can be painful and difficult, and simply espousing the value of forgiving can deepen self-blame among survivors for their inability to act normally and as if nothing ever occurred. Indeed, in complex ways, survivors often blame even themselves and forgiveness is a knotty process of disentangling from so much that creates fear, shame and silence in our relationships with ourselves as well as each other.

So, there’s an opportunity for pastoral care, psychologists and state press conferences. Be real with the population, recognising deep trauma that resides within the places where we are now confined. Respond with messages beyond updates on infection and calls for physical distancing, as crucial to life and death as an epidemiological approach may be.

Those daily press conferences can expand their communication with the nation and help many people who have never disclosed their abuse, who will now see their abuser daily, who are descending into dissonance about how to be themselves among those who don’t understand or accept them.

By guidance, I don’t mean a day of prayer nor do I mean telling people to forgive without also affirming their right to acknowledgement of harm, apology and consent to a new foundation for relationship.

It’s a good time to bring in our best psychologists – not pastors or priests or pundits or imams – to every press conference to provide focused coping strategies for individuals struggling in all these destructive households, in order to not assume some ideal (and fictive) loving and conflict-free nuclear family model as the target of COVID-19 emergency policy.

Now that we have been told to stay at home, families are caught in a public policy decision for which they may not have the guidance, process, tools, words or safety to cope. We need to be helped to do so for our old ways of walking away or not being at home until late or escaping to work or school or a bar or for exercise will no longer do.

All state press conferences should offer such coping strategies, assuming that homes are the very places where we may least want to be.

We shouldn’t start with the house being too small to hold unforgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift just as much as unforgiveness is a defence, and it takes communication, courage, love and truth to exchange them. As much as it is a beautiful ideal, we must now take seriously how to manage weeks, maybe months, in homes that have long had little room for so much of what we feel.

Post 368.

Name any number of stresses and you would find most of us are now dodging several of them daily. What are the implications of such higher stress when we are locked inside together? On the other hand, what are the implications for so many people who are living alone, and now without options for human contact?

Having rightly closed down bars and other public recreation spaces, mostly frequented by men, how will they cope? Men dominate public spaces, whether playfields, streets or rum shops, which are also spaces for establishing masculine identity and camraderie, and setting boundaries on the spheres of men’s lives within women’s control.

What happens to men, women and families when such spatial distinctions collapse and men are locked indoors? What new conflicts over time, power and decision-making are emerging, which we should publicly talk about and protect ourselves from inside our homes?

In a region where men, particularly older men, may also be among the higher numbers of those living alone, do we understand the realities of our different needs, coping strategies and levels of risk?

Behind our closed doors has become more complex than ever in a world where home may already have been lonely or unsafe, or a rest stop between places where one would rather be. Some may have already begun to lose income and are tense, with nowhere to turn.

Some are beginning to feel trapped or out of control. In response, they may turn to threatening and controlling behaviours as part of expressing frustration. Cases of abuse and the severity of violence in families might increase while options for running to family or friends are closed. For those victims, physical distancing can occur even while those around them help prevent the greater dangers of social isolation.

As with any crisis, women remain particularly vulnerable, whether because they dominate the service and retail industry as workers, and are at risk of losing those jobs, or because they predominate as nurses, and are taking risks that leave them distanced from their families, or because there is deepening isolation for those already being separated from friends and family by abusive partners, or who have been isolating themselves because of shame.

Girls’ risk of sexual abuse is especially high now that uncles, step-fathers, cousins and other men are more present and difficult to escape. The vulnerability we are all feeling right now can make victims feel even less able to report or leave, particularly if they are also women and girls with mental or physical disabilities. Many women in the Caribbean are also primary breadwinners and single parents, and the impossibility of balancing parenting and their profession will fall on them unequally.

Ziya’s school has shown a model response this past week – ‘live’ online sessions every day, three a day over the next two weeks on both mornings and afternoons, and assignments every day, but there’s no chance that, as a working mother and primary breadwinner, I could match their expectations and also accomplish my job.

It’s felt like going insane. The assignments come through a non-child friendly system where they must be downloaded, completed as word files or printed as PDFs, and then photos taken and uploaded. All week, I’ve wondered why primary schools don’t adopt a more empathic approach to learning, think about the child friendliness of the software, consider the realities of the learning environment children are in, send a package of material that could simply be done in the afternoons when office work is completed and two hours can be found to do assignments, and encourage home schooling approaches that don’t require a stay-at-home parent attentive to curriculum throughout the day.

While my mother is concerned about surviving, my friends reach out across their feelings of disconnection and my family panics about declining income, I worry about the implications of opting out of Zi’s school’s zealous teaching strategy or the implications of barely doing my job, when the days seem to demand one or the other.

Many people are protecting their health, but are deeply affected by the psychological and familial challenges of this time. Addressing them is as important as the health and financial responses.

Schools should remain closed after April 20th or we risk an infection spike that could particularly put the elderly at risk, for many of us can only work because grandparents provide after-school care. In the meantime, we need to rethink our assumptions about parents and homes, and our educational philosophy. We need to emerge, not only alive, but intact emotionally.

Post 367.

I’m intrigued by efforts to keep life going as normal. Recognizing the real limitations that people are facing, what’s wrong with slowing down?

Ziya’s school, like many, has done an amazing job of leaping into on-line teaching so that there are due dates for assignments and live stream sessions. It’s a twenty-first century tech-saavy response that should draw big respect.

However, while observing assignments and live streams targeted to students within typical school hours, I couldn’t help thinking of parents already struggling to work from home, inefficiently, and who now have to simultaneously manage on-line primary education.

I thought of the single parents with only one laptop or computer who would have to juggle their on-line meetings and deliverables, and those of their children. I thought of the parents who were still required at their workplaces or were beginning to worry about making ends meet, and wondered at the additional strain of such demands.

In striving to do our best to maintain content, are we working in silos without realizing? How might it be different if we understood our assumptions, as employers and educators, and targeted our efforts and expectations less toward the ideal and more toward the realistic circumstances of those we engage? If students can’t meet those expectations, are these failures theirs or even their parents, or a result of expectations that create more stress in order to be met?

I thought too of how economic inequality sifts our opportunities at this time. For there are parents and schools, from Toco to Cedros to Chagaramas, where children don’t have access to the connectivity, data or computers that could meet the standards of wealthier school communities. For those children already depending on school-feeding programmes, is this a moment that will deepen the class and educational divide?

As a university educator, I thought about my own students. Some are parents who wouldn’t be able to produce school assignments with the same efficiency. Some have moved back home and are left with poor internet capability. Some are anxious about their own health or their family. Some have a partner worried about a cliff-drop in income or one who is at risk for increased alcohol and substance abuse.

Being isolated at home, possibly losing income, caring for sick relatives, disagreement over roles and resources, and having fewer outlets for relieving boredom and anger will increase family conflict. Our social services and call lines are incapable of meeting public need. Some, and their children, are at far greater risk of violence.

There are also students who may not be ready for a fast move to a new on-line normal nor students for whom my classes are their highest priority. Organising group presentations on-line is far more stress and effort than doing so in person on campus. All these things are possible in this day and age, but to expect immediate adjustment is an option, not a necessity.

So, why don’t we opt out of trying to achieve as normal? What if we used this time instead to achieve, but a little less, observing that the world will not end, but that there may be some improvements.

Maybe, we spend less time rushing through the day, without traffic and exhaustion. Maybe, we do more talking now that we are home together. Maybe, children run about in the backyard, and get time without everyday extra lessons for SEA. Maybe, we spent more time with elders, who might be scared and feeling alone. Maybe, we call each other more, across the country and the world. Maybe, we question our old normal and ask if it was really our best. Could we be better about how we use our time, knowing why and how we pursue knowledge, in this moment?

I cut some lectures which didn’t risk my learning objectives. I cut down exam content. I reduced the number of final assignments. Maintaining last month’s rules would simply test survival under increased pressure and show lack of empathy.

I’m not only asking us to consider the balance between keeping up and slowing down. I’m saying that it is possible to enable new opportunities and give breathing space to better priorities. These weeks, and likely months, should be planned as if families, homes and economies are feeling, and soon experiencing, crisis.

Our educational institutions have an opportunity to respond to that in our approach to teaching and learning, in the interest of students, parents and teachers, as if inequalities and their implications persist amidst these weeks’ new realities.