Post 397.

I had been quite disturbed a few weeks ago when I overheard a conversation between Ziya and a friend. They were discussing Donald Trump and whether he had Covid-19, at a time when his purported infection, vaccine experiment and full recovery were campaign fodder. One said that she heard he had it, the other said that he could be lying, and I thought what a world in which to be growing up, when children have no idea if adults, and leaders, are telling the truth.

Over on Saturday night for Ziya’s 10th birthday sleepover, the little friend sat with us watching Kamala Harris’ speech. Zi had been excited about the campaign and the debates, and knew early on that there could be a Dougla like her as the first woman Vice President, making US history. She was aware that my family in the US had been feeling unsafe, fearing a triumph of Trump and ascendancy of the ‘white right’. 

We had even discussed what that phrase meant one night, and I had ineptly explained what politically left and right referred to, going back to Karl Marx and, from there, muddling the rest from working mother exhaustion. 

So, it had been a few weeks of discussions whenever her antenna picked up snatches of campaign news and opinion, like a nine-year old version of BBC news. And, it was big tears the night of the vice-presidential debate when I made her go to bed because it was late. 

As we watched Harris’ victory speech, I was immensely relieved that there was an articulate, tough and well-raised woman speaking directly to children, regardless of their gender, whose words could be believed. I was gratified as a mother that they could have this memory at such an influential moment in their development as girls, whether Indian-descended or from the Caribbean, from the African diaspora in the Americas, or from migrant communities. 

Whenever a woman anywhere cracks a glass ceiling, it should be celebrated for that crevice has been opened up for others to join in breaking it. That there are still firsts for women today is astounding, but, in every country, there are still such old, resilient limits for girls and women to insistently crack. 

When that woman is also connected to the Global South – to both India and the Caribbean, when she understands contemporary immigrant experience – which so many of our migrating family members have lived, when she is able to speak knowingly about the systemic violence of US anti-blackness, and when she looks like she could be family to any of us – which is very Trinidadian, there’s a more intimate sense of connection to her achievement. 

Then, there was Harris’ message about standing on the shoulders of those that came before, and their struggle, determination, strength and vision. “Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before,” she said, while girls wearing rabbit-eared bandows and playing with party balloons, watched from our living room.

At the time when the internet sexualises adolescence more than ever before, when hypersexualised Netflix movies like “Cuties” show terrifying trends in how girls are being impacted globally, a mother could do with moments like this; with a powerful woman talking about climate justice and racial justice. At a time when US pop culture continues to overwhelm the region’s local content, an alternative message to girls that isn’t about beauty, brands or bling provides a much-needed respite.

From the experience of Obama, we know that the Biden-Harris term may be defined by less virulent forms of US imperialism, anti-immigrant policy-making, white supremist backlash, man-made climate destruction, and wealth concentration amidst impoverishment of working-class families, but these will not be ended by two centre-left individuals in four years. Though, as we have seen with PM Mia Mottley, there are possibilities to inspire and pivot the world toward more sensible and caring leadership, to mend some trauma, and to soften a public discourse which, so much like ours, has become mired in the inane and insulting. 

Women’s political leadership always secures a symbolic shift, but the substantive difference of the next four years will emerge through partisan negotiation, lobbyist pressure, and the strength of activist movements’ demands. It’s clear that the presidential campaign will be for Harris in 2024. Between now and then, Zi will enter adolescence and encounter inevitable disappointments, but may also learn to continue to choose hope, decency, science and truth.  

Post 395.

SEA results last week were an unwanted wake-up call. Until now, before Ziya started Junior 4, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to school. She always did well enough, though there was room to improve. She was well behaved even if dreamy in class. She was always creative, curious, conversational and observant, and I was never worried. Mostly, I wanted her to be happy.

For me, childhood is a time for emotional, ethical and social development, for less homework and more play or extracurricular activities. I would have home-schooled if I could and dreamed of a school where learning was a joy, not experienced as pressure or terror. Having had mostly average marks until I began university, I also believed Zi would excel when she found her passion and was ready. You have to trust each child to grow in her or his own way. Children are not cogs in a machine.

I was clearly being naïve, and only just woke up to the reality of the SEA machine. One that sorts those kept in the system from those flung to the floor, however unfair its process or conclusion.

There’s so much to say about this exam, from children’s tears when they don’t get into their first choice school (as so many won’t), to the narrow testing of learning styles that will always limit our assessment of their intelligence, to the 20 per cent list built on a clique of religious or familial contacts, to the confusion of parents when similar exam marks result in very different school placements because these are shaped by convoluted and obscure metrics.

There were so many parents who had to convince disappointed children they were still smart and well-rounded, that they knew their work better than one exam on one day showed, and that there was still reason to be proud. It was a little heartbreaking to see children’s shame after trying so hard. I realised that to try to protect Zi from that, momentum begins now.

So enters the juggernaut of after-school lessons. Lessons teachers are booked already, two years before the exam. Many students will drop everything for lessons seven days a week in the months before. You can barely find any lessons teachers available if you wait until Junior 5. It’s like the system slowly pulls you in if you want to survive. That’s the reality I’m now preparing for, wondering how to do my job and make the much-needed revision time on afternoons, whether after-school activities will still be possible, and whether the decisions I’ll make will be the right ones.

We consider SEA to be an opportunity to learn resilience in anticipation of the difficulties of the real world, and a hard lesson in why and how to beat books. Months of practice tests won’t make students smarter, but they do set the foundation for future skills in writing exams. In some schools, teachers will provide extra lessons for their classes for free. Others, crossing inequalities of income, will search around for ones they can afford. Others will try on the basis of what our public education system provides, both its good and bad, its teachers who empower and those who insult, its schools with connectivity and those without. We will see the impact of this year of covid19 in SEA results as much as two years from now.

I’m writing this because I’m noting how my own teaching and learning philosophy is compelled to shift. There’s a technique to excelling in these life-shaping moments, and drilling and repetition is key. I don’t think this is what connects children to their own self-esteem or humanity, or see their place as stewards of our nation’s ecology. Some become unable to cope with the stress or get bawl up week after week for not hitting the marks they need.

The threat of failure casts a long shadow, though many do come through and thrive. Often, they arrive at university with fears of making mistakes or speaking out, and a need for detailed instructions rather than a capacity to work things out for themselves, and must develop a whole new skill set for self-directed learning, collaboration, and solution-focused thinking.

I’m also tracing the SEA story backward, like bread crumbs, two years before the highest marks make front page and students’ placement becomes public record. Amidst budget debates, if you talk to parents struggling with results as well as those beginning to gear up, concerns are really about their children’s lives.

Post 392.

The Children’s Authority’s press release on September 20 is a red flag regarding children’s increased vulnerability. Abuse rates were already high prior to covid19.

On January 29, the TTPS Child Protection Unit reported a 137 per cent increase in criminal acts against children, including a 45 per cent increase in violent offences such as cruelty, between 2017 and 2019, years when the economy slowed and unemployment soared.

Similarly, in its 2018/2019 report, the authority highlighted “an increased number of children lacking care and guardianship…and children in need of supervision…While for Trinidad, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect continue to be the highest categories of reports of abuse, in Tobago, sexual abuse, neglect and children lacking care and protection were the highest categories of abuse received.”

The highest number of cases were reported during April-May and during October, with an average of 361 reports recorded per month.

Children 10-13 years, and children in the areas of San Juan/Laventille, Tunapuna/Piarco and Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo in Trinidad, and in the areas of St Andrew and St Patrick in Tobago, were at highest risk. In terms of reports, sexual abuse accounted for 23 per cent and neglect, 20 per cent, but note that ten per cent of children lacked care and guardianship and another seven per cent were in need of supervision.

Girls experienced significantly higher rates of sexual abuse than boys (34 per cent to ten per cent), and boys experienced slightly higher rates of neglect than girls (23 per cent to 17 per cent). Strangely, the authority doesn’t sex disaggregate perpetrator data, but, historically, sexual abuse of girls by uncles, cousins, fathers and other trusted men is a consistent risk. Girls are most vulnerable to abuse in the homes where they are now confined.

Children with special needs are always more vulnerable because they are more dependent, and less able to break silences about their conditions and experiences. Migrant children are a new category still insufficiently integrated into our social services, and at risk for sexual exploitation.

The numbers show children’s complex and stressful circumstances. Sexual abuse reports increase up to 16-17 years, but physical abuse reports decrease. Reports of children in need of supervision increase significantly at 14 years while reports of neglect go down after 13 years old.

Given that “children in need of supervision,” “lacking care and guardianship” and “neglect” comprise the most reports (except for children 14-17 where sexual abuse is the most reported form of abuse), it is not surprising that mothers account for 40 per cent of perpetrators, for they have unequal responsibility for child care and financial provision under more severe conditions of economic stress and poverty, both of which have increased as the economy contracted since 2015.

This brings me to this week’s press release. In it, the authority reminded parents to “ensure children are left in the care of trusted and responsible adults” and that “older children should not be given the responsibility to supervise younger ones.” This is hopeful, but nearly pointless to say when daycares and schools are closed, and many parents do not have the luxury of working from home.

Across the country and at different levels of employment, women’s jobs are at risk because they have no one to stay home and look after their children. Children are being left at home by themselves or with older children because parents have no better choice, not simply because they are irresponsible.

State decision-making always affects the most vulnerable, in this case economically insecure and single-parent households, and children. This occurs whether such policies intend to or not, and whether state officials acknowledge this impact or not. Covid19 public health decisions have increased children’s vulnerability to abuse. Gender-sensitive and child-sensitive decision-making would have required these very officials to forecast this likely scenario and build in a response.

Child abuse is not a virus, but it is a public health issue for it impacts thousands of children each year, harming their mental, emotional and possibly physical health, and literally reproducing such harm over a lifetime and even generations. We cannot finger-wag at parents who cannot cope with the effects of the economic, social and policy crisis created first by the crash of a petrostate and now by the pandemic.

What we need is a state that will spring into action to ensure options for children’s safety with the alacrity it responded to our risk to covid19, and with the sense of these as intersecting vulnerabilities. The authority highlighted an existing problem which will only worsen. Whose responsibility is it to prevent the rise in reports typical of October? I fear for our children.

Post 389.

I’m writing this on the first day of primary school, as I start the school year working and mothering from home. I started out the morning feeling like we were on top of the world’s crisis and able to ascend it like mountaineers on the Himalayas, and by midday was significantly humbled.

Even with practice from last term, and better ideas of how to organize Zi’s time and mine, it’s still demanding.

I now pack Zi a lunchkit so that I won’t be in the kitchen in the middle of work hours, and there’s a table in the living room with access to a computer and connectivity. It’s as enabling an arrangement as possible, which is why the stress I’m experiencing, despite all these privileges, is so important to acknowledge.

Losing my work space, and being unable to switch my mind fully to work, has unhinged my focus, productivity and ability to think. Half of my brain is minding child all day, and ten work hours are not as efficient, and yet are more tiring. I leave my desk earlier to spend more time with Zi because she needs more social interaction. She’s entering Junior 4, so her workload will increase, as will the time I’ll need to put to her homework and revision.

It’s been months since I wrote a column with the luxury of one uninterrupted hour, and so I get up earlier or stay up later to find some quiet. By December, my sentences may read like computer code.

Even with schedules carefully explained and daily chores outlined, one eye has to be on their roll-out. Did you drink enough of the water I packed? How much of the sandwich did you eat? I said to read for half an hour, wasn’t that just 15 minutes? This is how you did your chores? Without extracurricular activities, the hours stretch.

Unless children spend excess time on a device, time has to be filled. As every parent knows, too much quiet is highly suspect, suggesting some surreptitious activity, and little happens without parental supervision even while work simultaneously calls. Unless you are in a two-parent household, an unequal burden of care means hour-by-hour attention in two different directions. Even in two-parent households, many women will put in more care work, with impacts on their mental health, work capacity, other responsibilities and exhaustion.

Last term, Zi deeply missed time with other children, reminding me how much childhood is meant for social development, and outside physical play. I have to figure out how to manage our isolation, because this second time around will likely wear her down. Even if we create a bubble with a school friend, as parents looking out for our children’s well-being, how to ensure safety from risk?

And now that children over eight, in a private car with their parent, must be masked, even taking a drive has become claustrophobic.

All new realities with which children must discover how to cope. Beyond my walls are women who cannot work from home, and have nowhere to leave their children, with no plan from the State nor from employers. Working women with children with special needs. Women whose partners may be essential workers and who, therefore, cannot leave children with grandparents as they used to, because their family is now a risk. Women working from home, with more demanding child care responsibilities than mine, whose employers may not be understanding. Women without the quality of online teaching that Zi will get, who will have to work, care, teach, revise, and balance everyone’s needs at the same time. Women who are not working, whose children do not have internet and computer access, and those who may be living in violent conditions or with others whose behaviour is unsafe. For many of them, this was Day 1 too.

The majority of UWI students are women, and some of these mothers may be in my classes. As I prepare to teach, I’m thinking about Ziya’s context for learning, and adapting to theirs too. This term will be a daily learning experience of how to be more organised, care for families’ health, and stay sane.

I keep telling myself that none of us know how to do this well, or at all. It’s like regular parenting: mostly you improve because you’ve made mistakes.

On just Day 1 of this challenging school year, as a working mother, I’m recognising how much survival will require realistic expectations of ourselves and each other.

Post 388.

New MP to the House, Vandana Mohit, shouldn’t have posted about covid19, the PNM and karma. She should also have been sensitive to the fact when you are an Indian woman making such statements about the PNM, those statements will be critiqued for their implicit targeting and alienating of Afro-Trinidadians/Tobagonians. Her use of religious language unmistakably played to Hindu nationalism, and her statement would have been received by a UNC base as politically deploying both racial and religious code. In such a tense post-election national context and at a time when mortality rates will rise, kuchoor was bound to result from such a message and its cheap political scoring.

That said, Senator Laurel Lezama-Lee-Sing also left my eyebrows raised. In response to then sitting PNM MP Maxie Cuffie’s atrocious and unrepentant framing of the UNC in terms of homicidal anti-blackness, with his reference to the party keeping the “knees of the UNC off our throats,” the PNM PRO’s entire response was, “The letter is under the hand of Mr Cuffie and therefore is not an official position of the People’s National Movement.” Nothing else came from the party, despite public backlash about its highly divisive and insulting contents. No apology, no recognition of hurt caused.

In comparison, Lezama-Lee Sing went to town on Mohit’s Facebook post, which was not an official position of the party, calling on her to “apologise to the nation for this nonsense, to recognise the error of her ways, and to commit…she will do better, that she will give more thought before spewing hatred and discord.” She continued, “The oath to which she will subscribe when Parliament convenes demands so much more…and we the people will accept nothing less.”

Both Mohit’s and Cuffie’s statements played on divisiveness and stoked a base. The response to them should not have rolled out a double standard, or impunity for one and blame for poor race relations on the other. It’s like playing a game you are pretending you are not playing, and we the people deserve better.

I think about this especially because Lezama-Lee Sing and Mohit are smart, articulate, hard-working, and ambitious young women with brilliant political lives ahead of them. By brilliant I don’t mean only in terms of their own career path, I mean in terms of their capacity as a younger generation less poisoned by the implicit biases entrenched in their political elders. I mean in terms of their potential to not just follow their parties’ bad habits, but to transform them.

These two, and the other young women (and young men) that are the bright stars of succession planning, hold our fate in their hands. Imagine if we could entrust them to not play the game so cynically and willingly, and rather play on their strengths and their genuine desire to see the country improve. They could usher in a shift from racial codes and logics that harm and dehumanise as part of normal political campaigning.

I admire both these young women. I want to see them, and others whose parliamentary record will emerge over these next five years, do well. Not simply on terms set by their parties, but on terms set by non-partisan hopes of “we the people.” Across race, class, dis/ability and sexuality, we need more of a generation willing to do better than those who came before so their transformational possibilities shine. Low voter turn-out and significant disillusion tell us this plainly. Mauvais langue cannot continue as our rallying go-to.

Thinking further about women in politics, I noted the PM’s swearing-in ceremony comments on August 19. Referring to Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly and Lisa Morris-Julian, Dr Rowley championed putting the nation’s children “in the hands of two mothers.” As Newsday quoted, “They are responsible now, not just for their own family, but the family of the children of TT.”

Motherhood requires an immense skill-set, which usually can never be cited on a resume, so it was intriguing to see it drawn into public life, and the nation cast as a matrifocal family; woman-headed though patriarchal.

But, Ashlee Burnett, young chair of the TT chapter of CIWiL, put it best, “The notion of linking women’s capabilities to serve by how well they can manage the home, not only reinforces a stereotype of traditional gender norms but it also takes away from the years of hard work and effort put into ensuring that they are both competent and the best for the job.”

The double-standard here again signals transformation much-needed by another generation.

Post 386.

Last week, I suggested there would be nine to 13 women in the Lower House. Now, that number is 11, with only two of these being Indo-Trinidadian women, not one of whom is from the PNM despite claims that the party is nationally inclusive.

TT’s parties need to show their commitment to more equitable representation of women (across race, disability and sexual orientation) in ways that increase their numbers in the House, where the nation’s decisions are made. At 26 per cent as of today, we have actually moved backward, and there is little to celebrate about a near shatter-proof glass ceiling in 2020.

Such marginalisation of women is ever more important as the world faces health and economic crises that will exacerbate gender inequalities, but is blind to such inequality as a substantive issue.

Globally, men are 75 per cent of parliamentarians, 73 per cent of managerial decision-makers, and 72 per cent of executives of global health organisations. As UN Women points out, disaster preparedness and recovery plans also rarely include women’s needs and interests, and tend “to be developed with little or no sex- or gender-disaggregated data and little input from national gender equality representatives or women’s organisations.”

The PNM’s manifesto, our guide for the next five years, similarly highlights the low priority given to ending gender inequality. The manifesto was based on the Prime Minister’s Road to Recovery Committee, comprising 14 per cent representation by women, two of whom represented the public service, with one of these acting as secretary to the committee.

The long active women’s movement was completely excluded despite the fact that, on the ground, women provide the majority of care as front-line workers in hospitals, schools and community organisations, and as carers of the ill, aged and children at home. Women also work in the hardest-hit sectors such as accommodation and food services, retail trade, administrative activities, and the informal economy, already predominate in the lowest income brackets, and will be less able to benefit from economic stimulus plans because of their greater responsibility for unpaid care work.

None of this is acknowledged anywhere in the manifesto. It is oblivious to a sex-disaggregated picture of the economy, the extent to which it shows unequal distribution of income, ownership, labour and opportunity, and the explicit need to address this as part of national recovery.

Women are mentioned on two pages of the manifesto, where they are characterised in terms of motherhood, welfare and vulnerability. Advancing gender equality, as a goal and responsibility of democratic governance, is not integrated across economic planning, agriculture or housing.

Some women will benefit from plans outlined. However, given that women are a minority of manufacturing business owners, own account employers, contractors or construction workers, for example, means there will inevitably be inequality in women’s direct inclusion and benefit from the manifesto’s plans. Gender-blindness in the recovery committee led to invisibility or insignificance of such outcomes. That said, the one civil society representative, who should have raised this issue seems to have focused on ensuring that single fathers are mentioned five times.

The manifesto includes a commitment to “implement policies which improve the lives of women and children such as the National Policy on Gender and Development,” but doesn’t speak to approving the policy. This may continue the status quo where parts of a draft policy, not formally approved by Cabinet, are being implemented, creating significant policy and public confusion.

The manifesto also commits to fund shelters, transitional facilities, and strategies to end gender-based violence. This is welcome. Thus far, shelters, victim and witness support, and the GBV Unit have received vastly insufficient funding to meet public need. The Government will also be formulating a second national strategic action plan to end gender-based and sexual violence, after letting the last one lapse for four years. Here, resourcing the plan, so the Government puts money where its manifesto says it will, is key.

UN Women (in Policy Brief #18) calls on governments to 1) ensure that decision-making bodies are gender-balanced, 2) harness existing gender equality institutions and mechanisms in the pandemic response, 3) ensure that gender equality concerns are embedded in the design and implementation of national covid19 policy responses and budgets in ways informed by sex-disaggregated data, and 4) include and support women and women’s organisations in covid19 response decision-making.

None of this was promised, and is yet to be seen. I’ll wait to celebrate when we see basic commitment to, as the UN puts it, “building back better” than before covid19.

Post 383.

The school term finally ended, one like no other in our living memory. The experience our children had will connect them as a generation for the rest of their lives.

Ziya’s school taught classes every day, covering some math, English, Spanish, social studies, music and PE. The children learned a lot, both about distance and connectivity.

As a working mother, I was grateful. It’s challenging to work and parent simultaneously, and school provided a few well-organised hours of focus. I’d listen with one ear while the teacher chided the class for not knowing all the words to the anthem, reminded them not to eat at the computer, repeated the importance of learning to listen, and tried to instill all kinds of manners. With their voice present daily inside my home, I grew grateful for how much teachers contribute, freshly appreciating their daily commitment to filling gaps in our parenting. Teachers, like nurses, should be better paid than CEOs.

Meanwhile, soon after knocking water over her laptop and frying its electronics, Zi became computer-proficient. She could type, upload her assignments and check her own e-mail. Suddenly, she understood e-mail. I loved seeing her upskill even as I noted our own entanglement in the expanding digital divide.

There’s no doubt about it, computer and internet access are a privilege, and will deepen systemic class distinctions in exam results and school places. They will exacerbate unequal opportunity for children globally, which is why access to the internet is increasingly considered a human right. Our children are in a world so different from our own childhood.

One evening, when she was resisting a rule I had insisted on, Zi even threatened to put me out of the “Zoom meeting.” It was like a newspaper headline marking a historical moment. We were lying on her bed, not actually in a Zoom meeting, and I could only shake my head at post-covid19 lingo for punishment for giving trouble. Imagining the new vocabulary that will define school chatter and news-carrying in September makes me smile.

Zi loved dressing up in clothes she chose, attending class in shorts, eating breakfast leisurely, having lunches together, and being near to us all day. She missed her friends and wandering the hall in her school terribly, but when term opens, it will be clear that there was much we gained during this time.

Prior to schools closing, she was racing from school to extracurricular activities to her grandmother’s or her dad’s, and then home. It seemed we were always arriving back late from my work hours and hustling to bed, or getting home and spending the evening doing homework. The whole week felt like a rush. It was a joy and labour of love, but pace.

Being freed of traffic, experiencing school without stressful demands and the anxiety of tests, inventing ways to occupy herself on evenings, and simply staying in one place seemed to enable her to mature and mend. We cooked, gardened, took walks, and it genuinely felt like she exhaled. She just needed to come off the treadmill and its breakneck haste.

I began to think about the costs of our emphasis on achievement. Seeing her now, more loving, independent, settled and calm, I know her heart would not have grown as much at the speed she was functioning, with the rotation of activities she was doing, or with even the number of people she was interacting with on a weekly basis.

You have to know your child. Some need greater stillness and quiet, time between transitions from one place to the next, less pressure and fewer personalities, and the room they are given becomes filled with emotional growth.

I wonder how many children are like her, keeping up and even thriving, but with inner needs that our world undervalues or speeds past. I think about the children whose aggression would subside, whose silences would break open, and whose capacity to navigate difficult feelings would improve if they had to manage a little less for enough time, could fit into themselves, and, without fear of failure, slow down and breathe.

I’m in awe at how little I understood this, perhaps because there seemed simply no chance to stop until everything ground to a halt. I’m alarmed by the fact that I would have pressed her through, which at the same time would have held her back. What she lost in schoolwork, she found in her heart. After a term like no other, it’s the lesson I’ll remember.

Post 376.

Forecasts predict long-term dislocation. Each of us has to figure out how we will adapt. Many incomes will not simply bounce back, particularly among those working in non-contract jobs, the gig and digital economies, and the creative industries.

Trinidad and Tobago has many in these fields – photographers, musicians, filmmakers, graphic artists, web designers, hairdressers and make-up artists, dancers, writers, event planners, youth workers, tour guides, exercise instructors and computer technicians. All of the buy-local, green and artisan markets over the last years showed our immense and vastly under-exported creativity in making art, soaps, candles, woodwork, clothes, bags, books, cocoa-based foods and products, jewelry and condiments.

These workers were doing exactly what the World Bank had pushed as its economic ideology over two decades. They were being entrepreneurial – selling their individual skills on the free market, being agile with how they networked and marketed themselves, and earning incomes through supply of specialized labour to meet demand. They were free to work the hours they chose, to pick the jobs they wanted, and to enjoy other aspects of life without the exhaustion and oppressiveness of a 9-5.

Entrepreneurial is a big word for what these workers would better describe as an everyday hustle, without certainty of another job, without the wage security that comes with greater professional experience, and without the reassurance of health, vacation, pension and other benefits. Most wouldn’t have annuities, wouldn’t qualify for a home mortgage, and may not leave enough for their children to pay for their funeral. It’s likely that their limited saving are already close to depletion, and many are beginning to wonder how they will pay for food by the end of the year, particularly as they may be in increased debt from these months when rent payments are deferred, but not entirely forgiven.

For all these creative, independent and often brilliant people, there’s small chance of a return to 2019 incomes at the end of lockdown or upon opening of the borders or in a year. The economic data predicts a contraction and miraculous change would require that energy prices rise and create liquidity – which is not likely in the short-term. Government funds have principally been spent on welfare – which is necessary, but also our model of economic trickle-down and our primary mode of political campaigning.

They have not yet been spent on transforming economic opportunity for these independent earners who fall outside of the energy, manufacturing, big retail and agricultural sectors, or state jobs. There would have to be a distinct recovery plan, heavily integrated with private sector sponsorship and marketing needs, that includes this vast array of individuals in ways cognizant of the underside of entrepreneurship, which is the unpredictability of hustling and difficulties planning their businesses beyond the short-term.

This broad sector is extremely diverse – hairdressers may survive because they have loyal customers with regular needs. Social media workers may invent new prospects out of the technological turn that COVID has wrought. Entertainment and film industries will struggle with advertising funds where available. High quality, locally-made beauty care products can benefit from us thinking regionally. The fact is, however, that that technological and creative sectors often fall through the cracks in planning and economic stimulus as well as export development. That is because they are seen as beneficiaries of energy wealth, not as income generating or foreign-exchange earning sectors on their own – leaving their potential untapped.

Along with stimulus are new ways that individuals like these may want to organize group health plans, shared saving schemes, and collective standards around contracts and fees, or be helped to do so by ministries of culture, trade and finance. Gig, creative, wellness and technological workers exist and their experience provides first-hand perspective on individuals negotiating survival, savings and success, and having to reinvent themselves. State, private sector and collective organizing can together support safety nets and innovations that forecast and follow the money.

Realistically assessing informal workers’ recovery over the next two years suggests that tough decisions are ahead for many. Some may have to move back into family homes. Some may have to rethink their individual business model. Some may have to learn a new skill that puts food on the family table, though it sacrifices some of their dreams. Some will have to plan, and save on less than before, for generational, technological and market changes are also both threat and opportunity.

The point is, let’s not lose sight of these entrepreneurs, and both the potential and risks of their innate creativity.

Post 374.

As Ziya distractedly watched TV, I watched her pour extra sesame seeds from some crackers into a bowl. I counted how many likely fell on the rug, and thought of how I’m constantly cleaning throughout the day even while I’m home working full-time.

I paid less attention than I should have when she went into the kitchen, pulled out flour and poured water, while I again prayed simply for minimal mess. Half an hour later, she had made dough with parsley and rosemary picked from the plants she had helped pot over the last weeks, and covered it all with a cloth. My nine year old made bread.

Each family is different. Some mothers are simultaneously remote-working, cleaning, caring, supervising on-line schooling, and engaging in extra-curricular activities at home. Some describe feeling like they are failing. Where they are teaching, schools have cut down on workload, yet working and single parents may be barely managing. Those reeling from economic shock are worried about their children’s nutrition and schooling. Thousands of mothers are now back at work as part of this phase of opening, and worrying where to leave their children.

Still, each of us has small victories at this time. We need to notice them as signs that, amidst more effort and less productivity, and more stress and less certainty, there are precious moments that provide a bridge from one challenge to the next.

Now that it’s daily and not just on weekends, Zi has washed more dishes, folded more clothes, helped with cooking, taken walks, biked, made art with whatever supplies (including all the masking tape) she could find, and had to learn to deal with a different reality where places are closed, friends are distant, and health is at risk.

On the days when I was too busy to notice what she was doing, there was more television, boredom and loneliness. That’s life for children of working mothers. Eventually, she would figure out how to survive – learning life-long lessons in independence and resilience.

In many ways, her capacity, calm and creativity improved now that we were not rushing out each morning, spending evenings on homework, and then rushing her back to bed. Her complex personality began to flourish because she needed to achieve less, and life became a little less demanding for her even as overlapping responsibilities increased for me. She experimented more with everything, even empty boxes, because she had time. I loved the break from the academic rat-race.

Meanwhile, there is no substitute for seeing each other throughout the day, having a chance to hug up, eat lunch together, and for much more conversation. It’s taken me time to appreciate that as a gift. I’ve had to grow from an old pattern of treating my family as an obstacle to my work deliverables to remembering that they are and should feel like a priority. I’ve recognized that maybe, the whole time, I was out of sync with the emotional beings now in front of me.

The newspapers are full of economic analysis, but I retreat to reading how other parents are managing, laughing with their stories, learning from their strategies, finding community with those who are happier to give children space for self-directed learning, life-skills or just to be, as well as feeling compassion for others overwhelmed by children home with little to do and fearful of their future failure. Such stories provide a qualitative picture, and point to realities and priorities, in a way that statistics can’t.

If the PM and his ballsy recovery team thought of workers, not just as having families to feed, but as parents with nowhere else to leave their children, how would they incorporate recognition of childcare? What multi-tasking stories would they hear?

Tens of thousands of children are usually in school at this time, often attend camps during school holidays while their parents continue to work, or in a usual year are at greater risk of sexual abuse and neglect because safe and affordable care options are unavailable. A child-centered approach would highlight the responsibility of care during economic recovery, draw on how children are coping and growing, and consider what they need.  

Zi and I are both learning, earning small victories. I keep thinking that, by September, we will finally have worked out a routine, just when she has to go back to school, and I’ll deeply miss this time with all its messy mix-ups, sacrifices, tinkering and fears, and combinations of string, glue, paper, and crumbs everywhere.

Post 372.

Our societies were already defined by exclusion, inequality, and lack of sustainability prior to COVID-19.  Now, Trinidad and Tobago can no longer rely on oil and gas revenues to distribute the basic welfare provisions that kept so many from homelessness, crime, illness and starvation. We simply will not be earning what we spend.

Increased insecurity means that we will not be able to buffer ourselves against the next crisis, whether epidemiological or ecological, unless we plan our recovery as if we are already protecting ourselves from such an inevitability.

To be honest, I’ve struggled with what those options are, and their realism, and will explore them over the next weeks in this column.

On the one hand, as the Guardian Weekly noted last month, “whenever a crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear”.

On this basis, I’ve wanted to argue that we commit to economic and social justice, which is more than welfare provision to women and the poor, as the goal around which we plan national growth. How will our economic recovery also renew the possibilities for women to carry less unequal burden for care; how will it prevent increasing distance between rich and poor; how will it include an education transformation that doesn’t leave so many alienated from learning, how will it create greater inclusion for those on the margins?

Even as we emerge from this period, we also have to keep in mind that the biggest threat to all future generations remains climate-related destruction and death. Around the world, both governments and corporations are rolling back environmental protections in the wake of a focus on the economic recovery.

I’ve wanted to call for us to not lose momentum. Climate change, like COVID-19, is a global disaster which does not respect borders or identities, and requires the very global collaboration, respect for science, speed of response and individual investment in preventing unnecessary deaths that have shaped our lives these past weeks. If we understood the climate crisis as far more lethal, we would find the funds to invest in renewable energy and low-carbon alternatives on every front, so many of which are our endless resources in the Caribbean. “We would see these kinds of emergency packages that would get people off of the fossil fuel grid and onto a clean grid right away” says May Boeve, executive director of the climate advocacy group 350.org.   

These are the big issues of social, economic and climate justice which require not just big ideas, but much bigger political will. I’ve been drawn to them, knowing as we now do that everything we consider harmful can be stopped, regardless of the impact on international travel or school exams, if we decide an emergency response is required. If we think of the injustices we were living with all along as a disaster, we could decide this was a time like no other.

On the other hand, I’ve been drawn down from thinking that every big idea is one we should be allowed to consider to focusing on the nitty-gritty of immediate protections. Corruption and mismanagement has been the major harm to our financial wealth since independence. This is why our national savings are so small – they have been stolen and wasted by our very own, leaving us less able to protect our most vulnerable or turn our economies around on our own. Enact procurement legislation so that it no longer occurs from today.

Negative growth across the region and increasing indebtedness – both individual and national –  means harder times for most, increasing hunger and hardening anger. We need hope that comes from alternatives, imagined with our broadest, most inclusive ideas of justice at their heart, quieting the cynicism we have all felt that nothing changes, at the very moment when everything absolutely can.  

Frankly, the whole society – every cook, cleaner, caterer, cashier and child carer –  should have a say in how we will survive, including on the basis of cooperative-based and solidarity economy models, such as bartering and sharing. So many development solutions can come from listening.   

From the midst of economic and emotional despair, we must therefore find on a future defined by each other’s resilience and renewal, and do so collectively and transparently. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move beyond recovery of an older order and, instead, birth long dreamed and long overdue possibilities.