Covid-19, the August Emancipation Festival and the Olympics are all worthy of a separate commentary. Nonetheless, there is currently a confluence of these issues, so I will take the bold step of taking a collective, cursory peek at all three.
Like the rest of the world, the Virgin Islands has engaged in fighting the war against the global pandemic for the past 19 months. Covid-19 is highly contagious, transmissible, and deadly. The VI fought through the Covid war with strict, focused, and aggressive actions. These actions included a) closing its marine coastal borders, b) quarantining, c) curfew, d) isolating in secure bubbles, d) masking up, e) social distancing, f) avoiding crowds and crowded spaces, and g) adhering to hygiene protocols. Fighting these battles, the VI took the fight to Covid-19, putting it on the run, holding it at bay, and earning some Covid dividends.
But engaging in fighting the war against Covid changed lives, livelihoods and circumstances. Specifically, the battles had a devasting and profound impact on the economy, particularly tourism, one of the territory’s economic twin pillars (financial services is the other).
Moreover, per Worldometer, the VI through June 27 cumulatively had confirmed 298 Covid cases and one death. The VI and VI residents were on the verge of reopening and returning to some sense of normalcy. Then, shockingly, the unexpected happened. The number of active cases rocketed past 1,600, and 36 precious lives were lost.
I extend my heartfelt, warmest condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones to this deadly virus. The previously hard-earned Covid dividends vanished quickly. Undoubtedly, a change occurred, driving up the number of active cases, increasing Covid-related deaths, creating gloom and uncertainty, and catapulting the territory into an immediate crisis. Consequently, the Ministry of Health and Social Development should urgently commission a study to determine what changed and take the necessary corrective and preventative actions.
Further, it is one’s freedom of choice to take the vaccine or not. However, when that individual freedom of choice imperils the health and safety of the community, the community has a responsibility to act to protect the health and safety of the collective citizenry. The evidence is clear and overwhelming that vaccines are safe and effective. The benefits of vaccines outweigh any potential risks. Vaccines prevent people exposed to the virus from getting severely sick, reduce hospitalisations, reduce or prevent the need for Intensive Care Unit stays, and help avoid being on a ventilator or dying.
The other option is for many people to contract the virus and develop an immunity to the disease (herd immunity). The downside of that approach, though, is that too many people die unnecessarily.
Every life matters. So get vaccinated. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for your family, friends, co-workers, community and so on. It is important to note that currently, in the United States and other locales, most of the patients hospitalised for Covid-related illness are unvaccinated.
Moreover, though the numbers of known active cases in the VI have fallen below 100, the Covid war is still raging with new variants emerging, including alpha, beta, gamma, lambda, delta and so on. According to medical experts, the delta variant, the dominant strain in the US, is more contagious and infectious than the original strain. As such, VI residents must be vigilant and adhere to the health safety protocols to prevent, control, and mitigate the spread. Importantly, VI residents should take precautionary measures to avoid overwhelming the small health system, burning out medical staff, and so on.
The United Kingdom passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807 to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. It banned owning, buying, and selling humans as property throughout the colonies. Yet slavery persisted. The slave trade and slavery itself were too profitable to abolish.
Nevertheless, Parliament passed the Abolition Act of 1833, abolishing slavery in most British colonies. The law received royal assent on Aug. 28, 1833 and took effect on Aug. 1, 1834. VI slaves finding out they were physically free cut loose in the villages and Road Town, celebrating their newly granted physical freedom. And for 187 years, their descendants have been celebrating their emancipation.
For the past two years, however, Covid has streamlined the celebrations. The first Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in August are official holidays celebrating emancipation.
To preserve culture, the community also must also live it in many forms, such as social values, customs, traditions, beliefs, poetry, music, food, theatre, film and so on. In a recent interview, Culture Director Dr. Katherine Smith noted that the way the VI celebrates emancipation is equally as important as the reason for the festivities. Reflecting purposely on the reason for celebrating the season is critical to preserving the culture.
Dr Smith also noted that the VI emancipation celebrations must connect to heritage. The past must be linked to the present, as well as looking outward towards the future.
Our cultural heritage is a true sense of who we are as Virgin Islanders. The VI must work continuously and with deliberate focus to strengthen and heighten its cultural heritage. Emancipation celebrations must be deep and rich in promoting local heritage and culture. Local artists deserve a meaningful opportunity to showcase their talent and skill. Further, to put emancipation celebrations in perspective, Virgin Islanders must take a close-up look at the place from which their ancestors came and where the VI is today.
Moreover, as a part of the Abolition Act, the UK borrowed about £20 million (£17 billion in today’s money) to compensate slave owners (around 46,000 individuals and groups, according to University College of London) for losing their chattel property — slaves. Many powerful British families, including current business and political big shots in the UK, were among the recipients, according to USA Today.
The £20 million equated to approximately 40 percent of the UK’s budget at the time, and the UK didn’t fully pay off the loan until 2015. Ironically, this means that black Britons contributed to repaying a loan incurred to pay slave owners who possibly owned their fore-parents. However, up to this hour, neither slaves nor their descendants have received a farthing for the brutalising, dehumanising, and exploiting treatment slaves endured. Passing the Abolition Act of 133 was not a panacea for making slaves whole. Slave labour built the UK’s economy, funded the industrial revolution, and created individual wealth opportunities for many white Britons.
Meanwhile, slaves had a hard, brutal and inhumane life. The Barbados Slave Code of 1661 was the model for brutalising slaves. They worked from sunup to sundown in the sweltering heat. They were poorly fed, housed, and clothed and had poor or no health care. They did not get an education or get paid for their labour or get leisure time off. They had no legal rights and were not recognised equally as humans. Slave labour was the main production factor of the economy, yet slave masters prohibited slaves from enjoying the benefits from the fruits of their labour.
Call for reparations
At emancipation, slave owners did not pay slaves severance, and their only possessions were the rags on their backs. Though some limited progress has been made, slaves’ descendants, starting way behind the starting line, are still at a pronounced disadvantage. They are at a disadvantage relative to health, education, inequality in law enforcement, jobs/employment, housing, banking, military service and so on.
Reparations are a reasonable and practical remedy to make slave descendants whole. Reparations entail much more than cash payments, however: They can entail enacting and funding plans, policies, programmes and so on to address the racial disparities in education, health, employment/jobs, sports, military, law enforcement, housing, banking, government and so on.
Further, with resources declining or depleted, coupled with a drop in sugar prices, emerging competition from beet sugar, a series of hurricanes/gales, revolts, and a cholera outbreak, colonialists sold their landholdings to slave descendants. They declared that the VI was supposedly a desolate, poverty-stricken place and its only use was as a bird sanctuary. The VI people were left to struggle almost on their own.
Nonetheless, being hardy people, they persevered, employing the purchased land to develop the peasant economy.
Incidentally, the VI is now prime real estate, and gentrification is in full bloom. Fast forwarding, the VI attained a measure of self-governance, starting with the ministerial system in 1967.
Nonetheless, colonialism and neocolonialism are still thriving. Some colonialists harbour the false belief that people of African descent lacked the skill, mental capacity, ability and so on to lead and manage effectively. And some of our behaviours are feeding that false notion and arming and justify colonialists to take control.
Virgin Islanders, fix thyself and starve the colonialists of the opportunity to take control. Moreover, the time is nigh for the VI to decide what course of self-determination it wants: independence, free association, or another option. Set a date for a referendum and let a majority of people determine the way forward.
The XXXII Olympiad recently concluded in Tokyo, Japan. The Olympics showcases the talent and skill of athletes from around the globe; it is where the best of the best athletes compete and shine, fulfilling dreams.
Participating in the Olympics takes preparation, skill, talent, hard work, home country support and so on. Moreover, it is a tremendous feat to make it to a final event at the Olympics.
For the VI, a tiny locale of about 30,000 people, Aug. 2 was a red-letter day in sports. The territory fielded Kyron McMaster and Chantel Malone in the 400-metre hurdle and long jump finals, respectively, at the Olympics. This was a tremendous, memorable and historic feat — and a first for the VI and VI athletes. Though neither athlete medalled, they are both winners and champions, setting the personal example and standards for current and future generations of VI athletes.
Their achievements demonstrate that the VI is a land of possibilities and that making it to the Olympics is possible and more than a dream. Mr. McMaster and Ms. Malone, congratulations! You made the VI and Virgin Islanders at home and the diaspora abroad extremely proud.
Their historic achievements must be more than a temporary emotional high that dissipates with time.
The VI must keep the fire fuelled and burning. Sports in the territory tend to rise and fizzle. For example, softball, the national sport, rocketed to the top in the softball universe in the past but now is on life support. E. Walwyn Brewley, after whom the territory’s premier softball facility is named, indicated that at international competitions the VI team has been among the most feared. Other teams and officials were frequently impressed and amazed at how a small territory could produce and field so much talent.
The VI, then, should have fielded a competitive softball team in the Olympics in Tokyo. To build on the success at the Olympics, the government must work with zeal to commission a committee on sports, sports development, and sustainability. The VI must effectively invest in sports facilities, training, coaching, personnel, competitions and so on. Moreover, VI residents must strongly support local sports.