The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on a rural community in Trinidad
'Regular poverty' looks like this. A school in rural Central Trinidad has around 500 students. More than 20 of these students attend school for the state-sponsored meals given to those in need. Survival first; everything else including education is secondary. During lunchtime, they cannot devour all the contents of the boxed lunch. Half must go home to siblings who aren't old enough to attend school and benefit from the programme. Leftovers must be taken home every day- there is no other way to be fed.
I had to pause after typing the above. Is this really oil-rich Trinidad? How could this be, in a country with one of the highest GDP per capita in all of Latin America and the Caribbean? Are we in the year 2020? Have I become too insulated from reality?
I came from rather humble beginnings, yet I always had the 'luxury' of a filled pantry. The variety wasn't much, but never depleted. I guess it's the reward my parents reaped for donating endlessly amidst their own struggles. The 'guilt' of having adequate food once again crept in. Sometimes it's a fleeting thought, other times it inundates your senses.
Schools are now closed, possibly until September. For Longdenville/Talparo Councillor Ryan Rampersad, he and many of his colleagues must race against 'hunger pangs'. They must find donors, chefs, and transport drivers to have hot meals delivered to these students and their families. Yesterday is already too late. This time he manages to pull off a well-coordinated operation. But his phone keeps ringing. The text messages keep his phone on a 'permanent ping.' There is a staggering demand for food among the less fortunate. A demand he has never experienced in his 15+ years of community work.
This is a new level of desperation.
Ryan rises early each day, and judging from the time of our conversation, goes to bed very late. The life of a Councillor is akin to climbing a rugged mountain. Straining the body's muscles. Dehydration. Often without proper gear. But reaching the summit and taking in a breathtaking sunset makes the journey worth it. The small wins in life.
He is out there every day, trying to make sense of this pandemic and assess the immediate and long-term needs of those he is mandated to serve. But he is a seasoned community soldier. He knows of the varying degrees of suffering. The faces. The success stories.
His involvement in his temple's outreach activities was the springboard to his political life. He became a director of the non-profit SEWA (Social Establishment for the Welfare of All) at the tender age of 15, and the group distributed hampers throughout the villages of Flanagin Town, Brasso, Brasso Venado, Los Atajos, and Tabaquite. He wanted to strengthen his impact and decided to contest the Local Government Elections position of Councillor for Longdenville/Talparo in 2013. With the support of regional leaders, he could make an even bigger difference.
There is no room for inflated egos in his world. You must be visible and draped in humility. Ryan lives in a flood-prone area of Trinidad, and when the rainy season starts, Councillors are expected to wade through the waters distributing food, assisting marooned families, and coordinating much more relief efforts. Driving through dilapidated roads is a norm. Becoming a journalist is part of the job too. You have to capture suffering in order to effectively tug at the heart strings of potential donors.
To alleviate a deteriorating economic crisis among the most vulnerable, the Government has disbursed food cards for those in critical need, and there are also grants for those with lost incomes. However, there are challenges to accessing these life-saving mechanisms, and Ryan is witnessing this first hand. There are hiccups in obtaining the cards for his communities. He and his colleagues have also completed four outreach activities to aid persons in completing the grant assistance forms. Sounds simple right? Fill out a form, drop off at designated points, and receive payments. No.
The list of required documents is a hurdle for many. Some are either squatters, renters, or living with others and do not possess utility bills in their name- for renters, one must obtain a copy of their Landlord's deed. Some cannot read. He confesses his frustration with the tedious process, but he remains determined. There's a fifth outreach coming up next week, and he anticipates that this exercise will in total aid 1000 persons.
Ryan shares another heart-wrenching incident with me. A couple weeks ago he was distributing hampers, and with two extras in hand, Ryan was scanning his surroundings for anyone who may have needed this lifeline. He noticed a father with four children in a yard. He walked over and gave them a hamper. The man never asked for it, but accepted it with grace. That very afternoon, Ryan received a Facebook message from the man's sister. He was a single parent, and was feeding his family boiled green figs and salt for four days straight...
Accepting one's destitution is crushing, especially in a society like Trinidad where patriarchy is still very much alive. I know of many who are reluctant to ask for help; society is unforgiving of men who cannot provide. Every day I become more and more concerned about the pressures we place on men; for me, they are often omitted from the "gender-equality" narrative.
Ryan also has to cope with the obvious constraints of not being able to respond to all pleas. A mother called him one day. She had ran out of food for her family, and he couldn't render assistance at the time. The following day around lunchtime, another call came in from the same parent. Her children had not eaten in 24 hours. I thought to myself- 24 hours of saliva and water only? Ryan had the situation promptly assessed and within hours the family had food.
It's the norm for families to be in this condition, a dilemma Ryan is all to familiar with. But with COVID-19's scathing hit on the economy, many minimum wage employees who do not ordinarily get Government assistance are reeling. Many of these persons live paycheck to paycheck and with the closure of many businesses, their food supplies are running out faster than Ryan can fathom. The volume of starvation is unprecedented.
There's much more work to get done, including preparations for the dreaded rainy season ahead.
I asked the obvious question, the purpose behind my "Covid Chronicles" series- how do you cope?
"I have a strong support system. My wife is a teacher, and when it comes to our children's education, there are no compromises. My parents are next door, and my in-laws are five minutes away." He is able to do what he does because of their strength. " I take my children along with me so that they can understand what real poverty is like. I try to keep them grounded. They spend a lot of time running around their grandparent's garden, playing with ducks."
Councillors too are the heroes of this pandemic, from both sides of the political fence. They are racing to save their burgesses from a worsening food crisis. It's been about 6 weeks since the economy has stool at a virtual standstill. For those suffering, they are gasping for air. They are praying for country's economic wheels to start churning again. Fast.
Anyone wishing to donate can contact Councillor Ryan Rampersad at 379-2035 or reach out to him on Facebook.
(Photo of Councillor Ryan Rampersad)
"Mankind at its most desperate is often at its best."