There is a popular saying in the region that when America sneezes, the Caribbean catches the cold. In similar vein, Ebola’s arrival on the US mainland, increases chances of the deadly virus making its way to the island territories. Merely a hop, skip and jump away, the region has strong economic and historical ties with the US. Daily flights to many North American cities keep these economic and communal links alive. Already in the grip of a serious outbreak of the infectious Chikungunya virus, concerns have grown about the spread of Ebola; concerns that are not far-fetched since the Christmas holidays and the annual cycle of Carnivals generate high levels of air travel and sea travel. The annual Carnival calendar includes spin off festivals around the region as well as in metropolitan cities of the US, UK and Europe with significant numbers of Caribbean immigrant communities. The last of the 2014 Carnivals in Montserrat, St Kitts, St Croix and the Bahamas Junkanoo will go ahead as planned. However, Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), the twin island republic that touts its annual Carnival as the “greatest show on earth” has started weighing the pros and cons of canceling Carnival 2015. The T&T festival is carded for February 16 and 17, 2015. Carnival enthusiasts, investors and bandleaders think it is too early to cancel the festival because of Ebola fears. For the governing administrations, however, the challenge lies in balancing the economic benefits of hosting the festival against the potential risk of an Ebola outbreak. Is T&T or the wider Caribbean equipped or prepared to handle the risk of either a single infection or an outbreak?
Managing Virus Risks?
Beefing up border controls and fortifying the healthcare infrastructure would be critical to any efforts in T&T to limit or contain its Ebola exposure risks. The examples of Nigeria, Senegal and the US have illustrated the importance to swift identification and isolation of infected persons followed by thorough contact tracing. So far, T&T has joined other territories including Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, St Lucia and Suriname in imposing travel bans from the most Ebola affected countries in West Africa. Caricom will convene a meeting next week to formulate its members’ collective and strategic response to a possible Ebola outbreak as well as to the current mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus that has been causing debilitating ill health among large numbers of the population.
Although T&T is ranked among the wealthiest of English-speaking nations, largely because of its oil and natural gas based economy, the islands do not score high marks for either border control successes or healthcare infrastructure. Flagged as a transhipment point in the illegal drug trade, the twin islands have struggled with an influx of drugs and associated crime over the past few decades. Plans to take border surveillance up a few notches were scuttled after a contract with BAE to purchase three high tech Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) was canceled in 2010 after the transition to the then newly appointed Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration. Alternative plans are afloat.
T&T’s healthcare system that is a hybrid of universal and private healthcare, attracts numerous complaints from the public. Common among these complaints are lengthy wait times at Emergency Rooms at public hospitals and the unavailability of beds. Public hospitals and private doctors’ care are often decried because of the exorbitant fees and charges. Drug shortages for minor and serious illnesses, including cancer, are regular occurrences. The sketchy record on neonatal care has repeatedly been a cause of concern.
These weaknesses have been underscored as T&T (and the region) have struggled to control the spread of the Chikungunya virus. The virus has no cure and medical advice includes bed rest, hydration and the use of ibuprofen, naproxen or paracetamol; never aspirin. With wide spread cases of Chikungunya being reported weekly, the nation’s Health Ministry has confirmed a shortage of ibuprofen that has been dispensed for treatment.
The economic impact of canceling Carnival 2015 in T&T would be significant. The festival generates somewhere in the vicinity of $3B (TT) annually. Carnival bandleaders and other artists make significant financial investments with the expectation of reasonable returns. Small and micro entrepreneurs also plan for greater returns on investments during this Carnival season that formally begins immediately after Christmas and ends at the dawn of Ash Wednesday in the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian calendars. The season also generates an uptick in short term employment opportunities that helps to buoy the economy in the first quarter.
As the Culture Minister consults with major stakeholders involved in Carnival, the public mood remains ambivalent about the cancellation. In 2015, general elections are constitutionally due within months of Carnival celebrations. In the unfortunate event of an outbreak, the election will probably be postponed as has occurred in Liberia. Notwithstanding, T&T Carnival enthusiasts around the world who have already purchased or made down payments on their costumes, air fares and hotel accommodation are also anxiously awaiting final word: Will T&T Carnival go on?
T&T Carnival has been cancelled only once before and it was also for public health reasons. In 1972, a decade after the country celebrated its political independence from Britain, the islands were hit by a polio epidemic. Carnival instead took place in May that year. One of the islands’ most famous calypsonians, Lord Kitchener recorded two calypsos to mark the event: “Rainorama” and “Polio or No Polio: We Want We Mas”.