Organizing to Live: A Caribbean Feminist Statement in the Time of COVID-19

This statement is issued by a group of Caribbean advocates and activists who participated in an open access online course, Society: Economy and Ecology (SEE) in the Caribbean: How Will We Organise to Live. Dedicated to late Guyanese activist Andaiye (September 11, 1942 – May 31, 2019), the course was developed to support thinking and activism for social, economic and environmental justice in the Caribbean

The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent shut down of the global economy unfolded a few weeks into the course. The disruptions caused by the pandemic shone a bright light on the fragile underbelly of Caribbean societies, premised upon a fundamentally extractive and exploitative outward-oriented economic model and characterised by poverty and socio-ecnomic and gender inequalities. It has once again highlighted a near complete dependence on tourism in some countries, with some estimates that the region could lose as much as 83% of earnings this year with continuing effects into the foreseeable future. Once again, we are confronted with the insecurity of our food supply and our dependence, given that half of CARICOM member states import more than 80% of the food consume. We have one of the highest net food import bills in the world, notwithstanding the abundance of land available for agriculture in most of our countries.

High unemployment and heavy reliance on the informal sector as a mode of survival means most Caribbean people simply cannot afford to stay at home. Moreover, in a region facing an epidemic of domestic abuse with little to no effective recourse, stay at home orders have only increased the vulnerability, especially of women and children, to ongoing domestic violence.

While the region has for the most part contained the spread of COVID, the pandemic now requires us to think forward so that we are better prepared to cope with the challenges posed by the pandemic: whether it is securing pharmaceuticals or medical equipment; or ensuring that all children and teachers have equal opportunities to engage in online educational processes. And to do all this as we approach the coming hurricane season, drought, coastal erosion, and other contagions in the not too distant future.

The crisis facing the Caribbean as a result of the pandemic is symptomatic of a persistent focus on GDP growth and reducing the role of the state in the economies without the requisite attention to social justice and economic and environmental sustainability. It is a crisis that has only been deepened with the wholesale imposition of structural adjustment programmes from the 1980s, effectively amounting to what the late Jamaican economist Norman Girvan described as the policy recolonization of the Caribbean by international financial institutions. The results are on the balance negative – many countries are immobilised by foreign debt; growing and obscene inequalities between income rich and income poor; consumption patterns that are completely at odds with the region’s productive capacity; and political governance elites and structures that polarise and fracture our small societies.

The COVID-19 pandemic allows us to collectively think about the region with even greater clarity. Andaiye’s question – how will we organise to live? – takes on new and urgent meaning. Already we are seeing some recent reports that tourist flights will be resuming in some parts of the Caribbean as early as June, reminding us that the most common response to a situation of economic crisis will be a business as usual and business more than usual approach. We understand the imperative of recovering livelihoods and state revenue needed to sustain basic social services such as health and education. However, we need to see this as a moment to pivot to economic diversification and social and cultural transformation. We cannot and should not return to business as usual when the business model that continues to drive much

of Caribbean development is ecologically and economically destructive, making us more vulnerable than ever before to the ravages of climate change. We cannot and should not simply return to normal, when normal has meant the ongoing and persistent economic, political, social and cultural marginalisation of the majority of Caribbean people.

It is time for a fundamental revisioning of the economic approaches that reduce Caribbean people to service providers in the tourism sector and consumers of imported goods. We have to revision our Caribbean as more self-sufficient and more regionally interdependent in meeting our basic needs for food and for energy, the two areas where we spend most of our foreign exchange.

Changing values means recognising other forms of ‘capital’ that are aligned with the values that have allowed Caribbean people to survive and thrive: human, social and cultural capital; the natural capital that exists in our soils and seas; the beauty of our landscapes. It means valuing the unpaid, low paid and disregarded work that keeps communities alive, and that has put poor people on the frontlines of the pandemic as the essential, life giving and life sustaining workers. It means rebuilding our Caribbean from the ground up around the principles of care and caring for each other. It means learning from and with indigenous communities that continue to offer lessons in how to caretake our lands and waters in our times and for future generations.

It is time to draw lessons from the strengths and achievements of our region. We do best when we take care of each other; when we express our culture; when we support creativity; and when we honour our rebellious history, refusing to be complacent about inequalities. We must reject emphasis on the individual at the expense of the relations through which we sustain life. We must reject externally imposed ideas at the expense of Caribbean rooted common sense and knowledge born of centuries of survival and resistance.

Our histories and traditions offer the most valuable repertoire that we need to draw upon today, revealing the power and creativity of the self-organizing everyday capacities of people: building solidarity through struggle and across our differences; opening spaces for dialogue; engaging in non-market based relations; creating new forms of family and community inside and beyond the Caribbean.

Most importantly, we need to think as a region working together in solidarity, and with care and compassion. We should draw lessons from and be inspired by the Cuban decision to send medical personnel across the Caribbean and beyond (while facing massive shortages, and in the face of a deepening US embargo on even the shipment of medical supplies to their shores). These are the principles upon which a truly independent Caribbean will be founded and our collective security assured. In such a time as this, we must cleave together in the greater sense of commonality of struggle and reject the continuation of inhumane and unconscionable sanctions that impose further hardships on poor and working people in our region and beyond.

We can make a different Caribbean possible if we commit. Will we organize to live? That is the question and the imperative.

SIGNED

Peggy Antrobus, Grenada/St. Vincent/Barbados

Andrea Calmet, Canada

Susan Collymore, Red Thread, Guyana

María Graciela Cuervo, Dominican Republic

Joan Grant Cummings, Anti-racist Pro-Choice African Caribbean Canadian Feminist,

Canada/Jamaica

M. Vanya David, President, Dominica National Council of Women (DNCW)

Amina Doherty, Antigua & Barbuda

Alexander Girvan, Environmental Economist, Trinidad and Tobago

Tonya Haynes, Educator, Barbados

Wainella Isaacs, Environmental Engineer, Tampa/Guyana

Halima Khan, Red Thread, Guyana

Joy Marcus, Red Thread, Guyana

Beverley Mullings, Canada/Jamaica

Stacia Newsam, Barbados

Adwoa Onuora, Educator, Canada/Jamaica

Kimberly Palmer, St Vincent/Canada

Kimalee Phillip, Organizer with the Caribbean Solidarity Network, Canada/Grenada

Shantae Porteous, Womens’ Advocate, Jamaica

Vanessa Ross, Red Thread, Guyana

Maggie Schmeitz, Stichting Ultimate Purpose, Suriname

Gaitri Singh- Henry, Educator, Guyana

Nadeen Spence, Women’s Rights Activist, Jamaica

Shawna Stewart, Director, WE-Change Jamaica

Leah Thompson, Attorney-at-law, Trinidad and Tobago

Alissa Trotz, Educator, Canada/Guyana

Maya Trotz, Educator, Tampa/Guyana

Judith Wedderburn, Gender and Development Advocate, Jamaica

Mariama Williams, Jamaica/Switzerland

Wintress White, Red Thread, Guyana

Alexandrina Wong, President/Program Manager,Women Against Rape (WAR) Inc.,

Antigua

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Written by WE-Change

WE-Change is a community-based organisation committed to increasing the participation of women in social justice advocacy in Jamaica and the Caribbean. WE-Change was launched on May 15, 2015 out of a need to address and respond to the 'invisibilisation' of lesbians, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women in the LGBTQ rights movement in Jamaica. The organisation is women-led, women-focused and intersectional in its approach to advocacy, and guided by the outcomes of the Beijing 1995 Platform for Action.

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