The nonchalance of structural disadvantage: Trinidad and Tobago and Covid 19

Shelene Gomes and Elron Elahie
St. Augustine, 30 de  Junho de 2020

As in many places, the peoples of Trinidad and Tobago are faring differently during the Covid-19 pandemic. Disparities of income, geography, race, mobility and disability, among others, largely determine how people can cope. The poor are not able to practice social and physical distancing to the same degree as the rich or those with greater economic stability. With many persons trying to stay afloat financially and others simply dismissing public health guidelines, in this post we highlight one specific group: refugees and migrants from Venezuela in Trinidad and Tobago, in particular on the island of Trinidad. This Venezuelan community has faced more acute exclusion and hardship during the coronavirus present. Since 2018, tens of thousands of Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled to Trinidad and Tobago for a chance at a better life; working to provide relief for family members at home or simply trying to survive.

Migration is not recent to Trinidad and Tobago, where we’re located, nor within the wider Caribbean. There is a much longer indigenous and immigrant colonial and pre-colonial history in the Caribbean generally. While Trinidad and Tobago’s well-developed oil and natural gas industry makes it one of the richer Caribbean countries, and a migrant destination country within the Caribbean, it remains on the periphery of the world economy – more feeling the effects of the international political economy than being able to change them. But being on the periphery of the world economy has its advantage at this crisis time.

By early June, the general situation in the country appeared to be stable. Within a population of 1.3 million, at the time of writing there have been 130 diagnosed cases, 113 discharged patients and 8 deaths. There are hardly any new cases, but international entry remains limited to citizens, and selectively so. There has been a phased re-opening of businesses following a great deal of pressure from private sector entertainment and consumer sectors, inclusive of bars and spas. The largest public university is set to reopen. Of course, during the month-long lockdown period ‘essential’ businesses such as food stores, petrol stations and hardware stores remained open.

However, within this broadly positive news, there are some disquieting elements. For example, the processing time of coronavirus tests is unreasonably long, indicating the state’s uneven capacities, and not only those of the population. There are media reports of ‘Covid-19 parties’, persons out in groups, not wearing masks and, as expected, poor supplies of public utilities like water. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent restriction measures, Venezuelan refugees have been subject to harsh realities, such as exploitation from local employers/exploiters, language barriers in English-speaking Trinidad, threats to personal health and safety as a result of exposure to domestic and financial abuse, as well as exclusionary attitudes from large segments of the local population. Though their experiences are not homogenous, the impact of Covid-19 on the local economy and the absence of sustained government fiscal and social support have forced thousands of refugees and migrants to depend on fruit from neighbours’ trees for sustenance and to grapple with eviction. Homelessness is a very real prospect for this community. While temporary social assistance government grants do help households and small business owners, there are worrisome reports of inability to access these monies. Moreover, migrants are generally excluded from these relief programmes.

There are optimistic signs, however. Many cash-strapped but concerned Trinidadians have collectively and individually provided various types of support, along with international agencies and local non-governmental organisations. Community groups have come together and organised food collection and delivery to Venezuelan families across Trinidad, in which one of us participated between March-June. Within this situation, there has been an interesting reaction by many Venezuelan migrant communities to Covid-19: nonchalance. For a number of refugees, the virus’ largest threat is the diminution of financial means to support themselves and their families. In delivering aid, some relief providers interpreted migrant behaviours as disregard; breaking social distancing and health practices that were introduced in the interests of public health to prevent the contraction of the disease. Unlike an outright dismissal of preventative measures manifested in Covid-19 parties, beachgoing, and refusals to wear masks, members of the refugee and migrant communities displayed an unchanged physical familiarity, communicating and interacting within small and intimate spaces  out of necessity.
Some of us have been more fortunate than others during this pandemic. Yet we are well-aware that ‘luck’ depends on our structural positions. Wealthy migrants, like well-off locals, are not as vulnerable as the poor within the coronavirus present. These factors of income, geography, citizenship and mobility determine our capability to cope. If, as Achille Mbembe writes, “the worst is yet to come” with Covid-19 we must reckon with these structural disparities. Providing temporary aid is necessary but not enough in the long term.