The attack of COVID-19 on Caribbean culture
Updated: Sep 7
COVID-19 brought the world to a screeching halt earlier this year. Borders, cities and entire countries went into lockdown, ramping up the effort to try and stop the spread of one of the most aggressive and contagious infections we’ve seen in recent history. The effects on the global economy were devastating and experts predict the recovery could take years.
But as countries begin to ease restrictions and the world seems to be in the very early stages of entering into what’s being called the “new normal”, the West Indian community is faced with an unprecedented threat to the culture on a local and international level.
Toronto boasts a colourful Caribbean community – one that goes on full display particularly during the summer. There are several boat rides, fetes, outdoor events and of course, Toronto Carnival. It’s the largest Caribbean festival in North America and brings in over a million tourists each season - and the province of Ontario benefits greatly from hosting, raking in a whopping $400 million each year.
Like many diasporic communities in larger cities, people have built businesses around the culture. Costume designer Melinda Rickson owns Endless Trims, a mas and arts and crafts retail store in Scarborough. As a new mom and business owner, it’s an especially tough time for her and her husband.
“In January, we had clients in the store everyday for Mondaywear, people were designing for Toronto Carnival, wedding designs were coming in…it was going to be a big year for us,” she said. “But when March came, it was just dead.”
Rickson’s industry is very niche, and very unforgiving. And being a woman of colour in somewhat new territory meant it took a while for her to learn the ropes. But after two years of learning the market while building her business, she found her groove. With sales soaring as this year’s international carnival season kicked into high gear, she had no idea her busy period would be cut short by a global pandemic.
“We invested our lives into it this year. I put my whole life savings into it,” she said.
And trying to replenish those savings will be especially difficult in the time of COVID-19.
“As a small business owner, the money is not there. The money from my mas section is not there. There’s just no income,” she said.
Rickson’s story rings true for tens of millions of people across the globe right now. But in the Caribbean community, where much of the culture, the customs and the economy thrive off of physical closeness, a lot of people are left vulnerable. The city’s photographers and videographers, chefs, makeup artists, venue owners, food trucks and souvenir distributors will all suffer at the hands of the pandemic.
“From section leaders to band leaders, we’ve all been greatly affected. This is people’s livelihood,” she said. “There are people who just make mas for a living. The other thing is that there are people who make their entire yearly salary during the summer months and that opportunity is gone.”
Dr. Jay is a key player in Toronto’s soca scene. He’s the man behind the city’s biggest, baddest and longest-running events. He’s been a trailblazer in forging the path for many of the younger soca DJs who have risen to popularity in recent years. But despite a long career, he’s never seen anything like this and says that this summer is sure to be different from all the others.
“Between the months of May and September, there would’ve been about 10-12 international carnivals, plus events in those cities and then I do my own events in Toronto,” he said. “From Soca or Die in Berlin, Germany to travelling to Ibiza, Cayman Islands and Bermuda. As of right now, there’s nothing.”
Dr. Jay and Rickson both would’ve spent much of their summer making costumes. The two are well-known section leaders in the city, and their designs are quick to sell out once registration begins. For Rickson, this would’ve been her twelfth year as a section leader.
“At the beginning of the year, I designed my costume for 2020. I looked at it and thought ‘Damn, this is better than anything I’ve ever done,’” she said.
But anxious, loyal masqueraders won’t get to see what either had in the works – at least not yet. With the City of Toronto announcing the cancellation of what would’ve been the 53rd year of the festival in early April, there is a lot left in limbo.
Earlier this year, several islands announced they would not be going ahead with their annual carnivals. And for an island like Jamaica, where celebrations were set to take place in April, vendors, designers, masqueraders and travellers were left scrambling.
“Places like Jamaica, Antigua, Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Bahamas, those are a few islands that really got hit hard and last minute,” said Rickson. “My clients from those places had already put down their deposits. We were working really hard for them because we didn’t know whether their carnivals would get cancelled or not. Then, last minute the government came through and said no carnival. So there goes all the work we did trying to put together all those orders.”
When it comes to last minute cancellations due to COVID-19, this year’s Return Fete is probably the first thing that comes to mind for would-be attendees of one of Dr. Jay’s biggest annual traditions in Toronto. Originally scheduled for the unlucky date of Friday the 13th back in March, his audience was divided on whether the event should still go on. With all the costs already fronted for an international cast of DJs and artists, he announced it was cancelled just a few hours before the start time.
“We would all like to go out and congregate and party and have a good time but safety is so important,” he said. “I don’t want to have an event and then there’s an outbreak, or you hear that somebody was a carrier and got other people sick. I couldn’t live with that.”
Hundreds of commenters flooded his announcement post on Instagram with support and understanding for his decision.
The effects of the pandemic reverberate through the community at every imaginable level – and grim statistics suggest we have a lot more to be worried about than the cancellation of an annual event. U.S. and U.K. statistics show that the virus disproportionately affects black people.
“A lot of our people are dying,” Dr. Jay said. “It affects our communities at a higher rate. In the beginning a lot of people didn’t know what it was or whether they should take it seriously, but at this stage everybody knows somebody who’s been affected.”
Between now and when things pick back up for the community, the carnival industry as a whole and for them as entrepreneurs, they’ve found ways to fill their time.
“I see this as a time to reinvent myself,” Rickson said. “I’ve also been trying to build a website for the business. My husband’s been on my case because I spend all my time building this website.”
And for Dr. Jay, he’s returned to his radio roots by making people wine from six to nine on Sunday evenings, a familiar vibe for those who grew up listening to Soca Therapy on what used to be Flow 93.5.
“Due to the travel, I wasn’t able to put in those hours at the radio station because I was always out of the country every other week,” he said. “So now that I’m home, I’ve done the radio show virtually on Instagram Live and it’s done fairly well and people enjoy it.”
Over the last several weeks, Dr. Jay has brought in soca artists like Kes, Edwin Yearwood, Destra Garcia and Shal Marshall for interviews and conversations. And people are locked in. Last week’s show scored viewership of nearly 5,000.
So just how are people in the community coping? A simple scroll on social media will tell you. Some are baking. Some are cooking. Some are taking parties from the venues to the living rooms. Some are zooming and others are FaceTiming. For both Rickson and Dr. Jay, both emphasize the importance of family.
“I’m just grateful for the time I have with my son, Aiden,” Rickson said. “At this point, if the season was still on, I would miss so much of what’s happening with him, I wouldn’t be able to see it. He’d be with his grandma and I wouldn’t be able to embrace the moments I have with him right now.”
And Dr. Jay says taking it day by day is how he gets by. “I’m trying to make sure my immediate family is alright, check in on those who may be living alone and just reach out to some people that I know and make sure their spirits are up.”
But they seem to have different ideas on the future of carnival – at least in the foreseeable future.
“Going forward, I think carnivals will be very organic,” said Dr. Jay. “I believe that in the Caribbean, people may celebrate on their own but I don’t think that there will be a lot of visitors flying in. Until there’s a globally recognized vaccine, I don’t know if any country is going to want to risk a second or third wave.”
Rickson, on the other hand, thinks things will come back with a vengeance.
“West Indians have a perseverance about them. Nothing can stop them. I just feel like when this is all over, they’re going to come back with a vengeance and I’m going to prepare for that,” she said. “I have faith. And I know things will get better.”