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A masquerader from the Zain Mas band on Carnival Tusday 2020 in Scarborough, Tobago.

The first half of the 20th century saw the poliovirus strike Trinidad and Tobago without warning. Polio is a disabling and life-threatening disease that spreads from person to person and can infect the spinal cord, causing paralysis.

In January 1972, there were 205

cases and 12 deaths as a result of the polio epidemic in T&T. The public healthcare system in Tobago in the 1970s was little more than a skeletal framework of today’s and with very few tools, inclusive of manpower, to manage infectious diseases and viruses like polio.

Former county medical officer in Tobago Dr Lancelot Austin notes that the system then was very basic and community surveillance for infectious disease was minimal. Dr Sandeep Kumar, now a private practitioner, also says most medical work was done by a general surgeon as there were no other specialists working on the island then. The then government, as a consequence of the polio epidemic, decided to postpone our Carnival by three months to mitigate against spread.

Four decades later and at the beginning of planning for next year’s celebration, the stage of the greatest show on earth finds itself dealing with a pandemic— COVID-19.

COVID-19 is part of the family of viruses that include the common cold, SARS and MERS and is spread from person to person or from touching contaminated areas. As of May 21, T&T saw 116 positive cases and eight deaths and from that number, Tobago recorded five positive cases and, one death. With a higher mortality rate than the poliovirus of 1972, similar concerns arose with COVID-19 and the need for mitigation is more evident.

One of the principal methods of mitigation includes physical distancing. In response to COVID-19, countries closed borders and significant stay-at-home measures have brought manufacturing, sporting and leisure activities to a halt globally. In light of these developments, National Carnival Commission chairman Winston “Gypsy” Peters says the decision on whether there will be Carnival in 2021 will be made in August.

Fortunately, after compliance with the World Health Organisation’s protocols, T&T has been able to flatten the curve.

In light of this data, a reasonable argument can be advanced that there is no reason to cancel Carnival 2021, particularly if the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Community Development work in tandem with the private sector to establish and enforce proper health protocols.

For several stakeholders, Carnival is a high revenue earner and sustains hundreds of jobs throughout the year. The Government’s investment in Carnival is also pivotal in demand creation for all the other services and commodities utilised by the various aforementioned sectors.

Government also generates significant revenue through the exercise through taxes and fees for a range of services connected to various activities and the country earns foreign exchange overall.

While the risks of mortality and morbidity related to COVID-19 and the additional burden placed on the healthcare system of T&T are clear, a balance must be struck between projected mortality and morbidity and a loss in revenue collection, lower employment levels, reduced sectorial development and cultural enrichment.

In this milieu, where is Tobago?

From January 26 to Feb 13, 2018, the total visitor arrival to Tobago was 1,996 with an expenditure of $9,388 per person and total revenue of $18,738.44. With the borders closed, the Trinidad customer-base may be the saving grace for Tobago and its tourism sector. Tobago must find novel ways and recalibrate its thinking to capture this domestic market.

The Tobago House of Assembly recently created the Festival Commission to manage all festivals and appointed former Secretary of Community Development Dr Denise Tsoiafatt-Angus chairman of the board. In a recently conducted survey on the socio-economic factors that could influence hosting a Carnival in Tobago, more than 80 per cent of respondents indicated that Tobago should have its own Carnival and they were dissatisfied with the present format of Tobago’s carnival. The current crisis may be an excellent time to look seriously at:

1. Tobago staging its own Carnival separate and apart from Trinidad Carnival;

2. Inviting stakeholders to discuss views to develop and implement a strategic plan for all festivals in Tobago;

3. Changing team members to allow creatives, youth, qualified and experienced persons a seat at the table to develop a responsive festival product;

4. Developing a modern marketing plan for clearly defined target markets, with visitor profiles and well-defined advertising and promotional strategies and systems for monitoring and evaluating in a bid to enable data-driven and competitive practices.

Tobago can at this moment begin its economic and entertainment decoupling from Trinidad, which in return will satisfy the dignity and self-determination of its people.