Our Covid-19 shutdowns here in Trinidad and Tobago started in March and as I write it is the 5th of September. Perhaps I have been facing challenges particular to small-island postcolonial Caribbean states, or perhaps my Covid-19-period experiences are particular to my individual situation. Likely it’s a mix of both. There have been times when you would forget what day it was. The world was suffering but still you thanked God for the small mercy of being able to wear jogging pants to teach online instead of your suit and stiff shoes. You felt bombarded by information, some of them “wives” tales that included boiling and inhaling ginger, and yet felt moments of happiness that your busy world had sort of paused and you could hang out with your hubby and step-daughter in the living room all day. I started dating my husband in 2013, seven years after his prior partnership broke up. We were already decades-long good platonic friends so two years later we got married. My step-daughter is in college.
I remember feeling confused by people’s unwillingness (or inability) to adapt to simple instructions. They said social distance—stay apart—and people would still come up and stand right next to you in lines or reach across you in grocery aisles. I began to frequent small neighbourhood groceries and could not understand when I saw persons lined up in droves outside of huge supermarkets.
In my family, I became the one to venture out. I was not especially fit but I was healthy. My parents live about a seven-minute drive away from my house and they are both over 65, so they fall into the at-risk category. Indeed, one was just recovering from surgery.
I was an early adopter of wearing masks—long before they were mandatory. My husband and I bought some fancy ones that were secured around the head not at the ears, and thus were comfortable, from a British-trained Saville Row tailor who stopped sewing suits and went into Covid-19-inspired enterprise instead. I bought empty spray bottles and methylated spirits at the mega pharmacy and sent masks and sprays to family members. Before August, the country had less than eight (8) Covid-19 related fatalities for a population of about one million, three hundred thousand nationals, but I was taking no chances. I encouraged my aunt who was an artist to begin sewing masks and she, too, began to get large orders and daily requests. I also reached out to three of my neighbours weekly to check on them.
The routine when going out was to mask-up and have a tiny spray bottle in my purse. At stores and business entrances they would take your temperature at the forehead or wrist, give you a squirt of hand sanitizer, and sometimes take your name and contact information. Very many places had erected sinks outside for handwashing with soap. Every fifteen minutes or so I would spray my hands with methylated spirits if I had been touching door handles, railings or merchandise. When I got back to the car, there would be a bigger spray bottle there. I would spray all my clothes and my shoes, and spray my keys and steering wheel for good measure. Then, when I got back home, I would try to remember to take off my shoes at the door, get undressed immediately in the bedroom and take a shower right away. When we bought groceries, we began to store them in a tiny front room that served as a guest room usually, and we would wash the groceries with soap and water. In the beginning, this was done with gusto and eight to ten bags of groceries could be washed at once. After a while, it felt tedious and we would do them over several days, washing two items at a time.
There are areas in our country that struggle for a consistent supply of water. I live in an average neighbourhood that tended to have a constant supply of water and only the rare instance of an inadequate supply. Yet, following the advent of Covid-19 shutdowns, there were days (and sometimes multiple days in sequence) when there was no water in our area. As such, we showered from gallon bottles we kept filled up, and bought water to drink. We have a large, covered black tank at the back of the house for such times but it increasingly felt like the tank would empty and we would be called upon to be resourceful. This meant filling up bottles on a small tap low to the ground in the yard of my parents’ house which was seven minutes away. In my country it is typical (or at least not unusual) for persons to take two showers per day, and with proper hygiene being a factoringthe risk of Covid-19 infection, the availability of water felt all the more important.
When the shutdowns first occurred, I would not go into my parents home at all but would speak to them seated in my car in the driveway beside their house, while they talked to me from the tiled porch-like area in front of their front door. I would drop off groceries and run errands like making payments at the bank.
The bank is always a major event. Some branches are closed and so the lines at operating ones stretch down the block on both sides, past several other buildings, with one line for the elderly and another for regular folks. My mom is unsteady on her feet, so when I go with her I carry the simple padded office chair that sits at my desk for her to sit on. In that manner, she moves forward in the line at measured intervals as the bank takes eight persons at a time. The line moves up every fifteen minutes or so. To their credit, the banks often send out officials to see if there is anyone with special needs in the line and this has helped us tremendously. Sometimes my mom insists on going when she needs an outing beyond her parents’ house. When we all went out to vote in August, I used this same chair method and it was very helpful. It also helped at my polling station, voters were orderly, observing the rules of mask-wearing and social distancing.
Food services have become very innovative – several small enterprises now offer to deliver market produce to your door. One popular supermarket chain allows you to order food via the messaging application Whatsapp for collection; once one arrives the entire process takes about ten minutes—they explain what they found for you from your list and what was omitted, and then you pay at a designated register. Another popular supermarket chain takes orders by a webform for curbside pick-up. Another typically crowded bulk shopping store also introduced curbside pick-up. Even so, there are still patrons who prefer to adhere to their old routines of in-person shopping—business as usual.
My husband and one of his best friends from graduate school decided to start jogging up a nearby mountain to keep up their fitness. Soon the wives joined along with our children. We would leave home very early, get to the base of the mountain at 5:30 am, walk and run up (fit ones ahead, slow pokes behind) and then get back down to the base by about 7:15 am and head back home. We wanted to push our lungs to function optimally as a good defense or strategy against falling sick, as well as craved the psychological respite from the uncertainty of everyday life in these times, and the relief that comes from an invigorating walk. Indeed, we tried to do this almost every day for two and a half months before the grown-ups were forced to acknowledge that our joints were starting to protest.
I myself am currently engaged in a research project, and it has been very hard to concentrate—very hard to get any research or reading done whatsoever. Sometimes I run just one errand, to come home and fall asleep on the couch out of mental exhaustion. I worry all the time about my sister and her family out in Atlanta. I worry all the time in general.
They tell us to social distance, not just standing six feet apart, but not interacting with anyone outside of your household either. That is so impractical in our society. I have retired parents to see about. My husband checks on his parents. My step-daughter checks on her maternal and paternal grandmothers and also visits her boyfriend. My father checks on his siblings. And on and on these points of contact ripple out. To not maintain these social linkages would be to forego what makes us ourselves.
As for me, it has been seven months, ever since the first shutdowns in March, since I last hugged my mom and dad. I want to hug them, but that might harm them. So, I act counter to every human instinct I have to do so. Staying away is now, somehow, an act of caring.
This is the state of care for me and perhaps others in my country and far away as well. As I always say, it is not what happens that matters, but how we respond afterwards that counts. I am trying to dig deep and find a response that works.
Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean