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Tourism/hotel employee Ricky Williams plays pan on street corners in Scarborough, Tobago, to earn a living as the tourism sector is negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Ricky Jeremiah Williams of Lowlands to feed his family, he must brave the hot sun for hours daily and play his steelpan.

Playing pan is how he has earned a living for years, having worked mostly in the hotel industry, entertaining tourists with his music.

He is now one of the thousands of people who were directly or indirectly employed in Tobago’s hotel industry before this country’s first COVID-19 case and subsequent closure of the international borders in March, 2020.

The number of people now without jobs in that sector is “staggering”, according to President of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association, Chris James who estimates the industry employed almost 8,000 people before the pandemic.

“We had over 6,000 persons directly employed in the industry part-time or full-time. A couple of hundreds more were indirectly employed as artistes, farmers, craft makers. The unemployment rate is staggering. Right now, we have zero per cent occupancy.”

He said only a handful remain employed, providing security and cleaning services to hotels and guesthouses.

James said the industry’s stakeholders understand the situation as they, too, are struggling to survive.

“We know the industry is suffering worldwide, and we are no different. We will survive.”

For pannist Williams surviving means playing at every corner so that patrons could put money in his bowl made from a cleaning supply bottle.

He said he has to do his duty and provide for his family.

“At the moment, I have to buy pampers and milk for one of my daughters. I have two daughters, and I have to provide for them. I have no work other than playing pan right now,” he told Guardian Media as he stood in the midday sun in front of Republic Bank, Crown Point on Friday.

Williams said he plays his pan anywhere and hopes passers-by enjoy his music.

“It’s something I was gifted to do from a very young age.”

Last year, when Secretary for Finance and the Economy in the Tobago House of Assembly Joel Jack presented Tobago’s 2021 budget, he said the island’s tourism sector accounted for a sizeable percentage of the island’s Gross Domestic Product in 2019.

Jack said the pandemic is expected to impact the tourism sector the most.

The Government made a $50 million grant available to the sector’s businesses for refurbishment works to their properties.

Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis told reporters at a recent press conference that $18 million was already spent on upgrading hotels and guesthouses.

Workers, like Williams, directly and indirectly, employed in the industry were eligible for rental and income grants, food hampers, and food cards from the Government and Tobago House of Assembly.