Post 373.

Our next crisis is one of food. At the end of March, Minister Paula Gopee Scoon assured that there was a six month food cover, and that food shortages would not be an issue. Supermarket owners instead signaled that food prices will continue to rise and predicted supply shortages. Agricultural economists pointed to a two to three month cover – this isn’t unusual when supply chains are working, but when they are not, shortages are to be expected.  Newspaper headlines have already highlighted that people are having difficulty putting food on the table.

The UN’s World Food Programme has predicted that the number of people suffering from acute hunger will double, to 265 million. More than the numbers, however, it’s their language that hits home, describing an oncoming catastrophe as “as hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock…to push them over the edge”.

There are multiple shocks to the region, from a decline to tourism to energy revenues. We are weeks from hurricane season and potentially devastating flooding, including of farmers’ fields. Venezuelan migration will continue, putting additional pressure on diverse population needs in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s an issue of supply chains, but for Trinidad and Tobago, it’s also an issue of excessive food imports, declining foreign exchange, decreased family income, and the long devaluation of local agriculture.

Here at home, 194,000 people make a living on minimum wage. If some of those jobs will never recover after this initial impact of COVID-19, how will people afford to eat? 

Labour and livelihood are directly related to food provision. In this context, women will experience the hammer blow hardest. They dominate in the lowest-paid jobs and there are fewer women in higher paying sectors. Given that women also undertake the majority of childcare regardless of whether they are employed full time, all those calling for the economy to open, while children remain home, seem blind to the cost and value of childcare, and women’s unequal responsibility.

Women are clustered in the service, hospitality and retail sectors where jobs will contract as consumer demand decreases. Many women also depend on the informal economy as self-employed or own account workers with little  financial protection – whether they are domestic workers or free-lance in the once-lauded ‘gig’ economy. Those that were in more secure jobs will receive contracts of shorter duration that cut costs on their health and other benefits as employers aim to save money. Those who were able to send remittances, often mothers, may now be among the millions of unemployed in the US, directly impacting children’s welfare.

When men also experience lower wages and unemployment, thousands of unresolved court cases for child maintenance will result in less support to women who still need to send children to school and provide sufficient nutrition.

So, the food crisis is gendered in terms of vulnerability of income and responsibility for food provision. Mainly, this situation has been seen as an historic opportunity – to cut excessive imports, to establish more autonomy from US agricultural outputs, to diversify outlets for regionally and locally grown food, to strengthen intra-Caribbean agricultural trade, and to reduce food waste.

In the meanwhile, at times of difficulty, women and girls become more vulnerable to exploitative options such as transactional sex, borrowing money, staying in violent relationships or going into debt to pay for food.

With greater dependence on food hampers and donations over the next year, there is also risk of shifting families to non-perishable, nutrient-poor, heavily processed foods, which are high in fats, salts and sugars, instead of fresh vegetables and fruit. This threatens to increase diseases such as diabetes, further deepening responsibility for care of ill family.

Women already labour longer hours than men both in the economy and at home – that means fewer hours to earn an income amidst greater responsibility for children. Calls for everyone to plant food gardens are good, and necessary, but also impose an additional responsibility on women as breadwinners, nurturers and food producers. This fits the myth that Caribbean mothers can work miracles and it enables blame when they can’t cope.

Multiple voices are pitching good, often long-proposed, food solutions. For each of them, issues of gender – defined by roles, responsibilities, and inequalities in access to resources and power – must be given a place at the table when we face what is being called ‘third shock wave’, which is hunger.

Post 288.

Back in Trinidad, the brown grass in my backyard makes the threat of hurricanes seem far away, but islands up the Caribbean chain are already looking ahead. I didn’t even notice the clock ticking its way into official rainy season until a few days ago when I was up at midnight watching lightning repeatedly tear down through Havana’s cobalt sky.

The next day, amidst heavy, dusty heat, I listened to a panel on climate change at a Caribbean Studies conference. You wouldn’t believe the words speakers threw around: Infrastructurality. Disaster capitalism. The Age of Disaster. The politics of recovery.

They made it seem like one morning you wake up and you understand why Indigenous People believed in Huracan, the god of wind, storms and lightning, because on some dark night you may be too powerless to do anything but pray.

Hurricanes decapitated Grenada’s houses, and almost decimated Barbuda and Dominica. They’ve submerged Havana and flooded roads in Kingston. Parts of Puerto Rico are still without restored electricity since last year’s Maria.

Disaster capitalism is corrupt or exploitative profiting off natural disasters, strategically using them to land grab or forcing privatisation in ways that make governments and populations dependent and pliable to foreign or corporate interests.

In Puerto Rico, people had to resist push to privatise not only electricity, but also public schooling, and push back against reconstruction loans at interest rates that meant permanent debt.

Climate change is the region’s singular crisis, caused by the impact of a global economic order that continues to arrive in waves on our shores. It’s a repeating story of these islands.

The colonial encounter with the Caribbean was fueled by enough profit motive and warped logic to fell thriving Indigenous belief systems, landscapes, ways of life and populations by the millions. The effects were cataclysmic.

Today, scholars consider fossil capitalism a contemporary form of extreme and devastating economic violence. It wields power over our life and death. It leads to overnight collapse of tourist capacity, agricultural output, public health provision and GDP, along with developed country status. It’s also our own brand of development so we have a hand in our demise, and no plan for saving ourselves.

A three-hour rain floods the Northern Range down to the Central plains, submerges Port of Spain, and drowns millions of dollars in crops. The best we can do is have strong, resilient infrastructure in terms of water provision, roads, buildings and the electric grid, but Trinidad and Tobago isn’t near ready.

If you are in a community prone to flooding, start hammering at the doors of your MP and Regional Corporation. Demand a plan that’s bigger than household compensation, which is increasingly going to be insufficient, and unable to protect us from what is considered a ‘tragedy of the commons’.

This is a tragedy that starts with our inability to protect the temperature balance in our shared planetary atmosphere and therefore to prevent worsening regional storms. It continues with our inability to protect our nations from the socialisation of losses resulting from privatisation of fossil exploitation gains. Finally, it ends with our failure to collectively decide what disaster and recovery measures are best for whole, interconnected communities.

We will not survive attack on commonly shared resources and realities through short-term, individualistic or selfish recovery strategies. For us, it’s not an ‘if’, but a ‘when’, once the global economic order continues as is.

Soon, our brown grass will turn brilliant green. Our Caribbean neighbours will become anxious about the eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes predicted. Besides climate change, there’s a natural climate pulse cycle that produced hurricanes in the 1950s and 1960s, and is back again.

Following Huracan’s sweep, the disaster isn’t just the damage, it’s also the recovery. Global media will descend to package stereotyped apocalyptic scenes of devastated citizens in need of rescue. What we need is resilient, regional power to stop this exceptional harm.

After its first category 5 hurricane in recorded history, Dominican PM Roosevelt Skerrit described Dominica’s state with the words, ‘Eden in broken’. This metaphor of Eden isn’t random.

The whole point of the Caribbean in the Western narrative of modernity is to be a perfect paradise, to be beautiful and consumable and an escape from elsewhere.

That was the story of the region repeated for five hundred years and it’s how we understand ourselves today; In Eden, under God’s eye, in fear of his wrath, wondering how much, this season, Huracan will weep with us along our tragic path.