Commentary by Dr. Dhanpaul Narine
One moment it was going great. Liberty Avenue was bustling with activity. You knew the stores were doing brisk business when Uncle Basil Persaud sold out the wiri wiri plants and had to get more thyme and squash. You knew that business was good when Rishi Record Store was overwhelmed, pressing instrumentals. Rishi was born in India. He is married to a Guyanese that grew up in New York, and their children love everything about Guyana.
This was a genteel world where the Punjabi store sold star apples, the sari shop prepared for the next festival, and the computer outlets couldn’t keep up fixing the screens of smart phones. Dave West Indian store showed off his coconut water and sugar apples. The sights, sounds, smells and warmth of different cultures are typical of immigrant communities and Liberty Avenue captured the dreams. But those dreams came to an abrupt halt and in slow motion. It was as if someone pressed a switch and closed the schools, banks, the salons, restaurants, airports, and stadiums. Suddenly, we were in another universe and with a new vocabulary. Masks and sanitizers, and intubation, flattening the curve, and essential services, and those dreaded infection rates, seared into our consciousness and changed our world forever.
Liberty Avenue became a ghost town, one of the epicenters of Covid-19. The months of March and April were frightening and scary. Streets without traffic, closed storefronts, faces covered with masks and long lines outside the essential places were the new normal. But worse of all were the hospitalization rates. If the numbers could tell the story, the loss of loved ones would be known for being abrupt, the umbilical cord that was cut without ceremony. The sick left for hospitals and in some cases, never to be seen again.
The procession at funerals, and the rituals that were part of the departed souls, could not be observed. Bereavement was put on hold to be replaced by zoom technology and virtual mourning. Funeral homes in Richmond Hill worked overtime to allocate times for viewing and cremations and burials took place as far as Connecticut. It was a dark and depressing world. There is yet to be definitive studies on Covid-19 but there is no doubt that the Indo-Caribbean community experienced one of the highest rates of infections and mortality.
The unfolding narrative shows that the spike was caused by a combination of factors. What happened in areas such as Flushing and Astoria could be applied to Richmond Hill as well. Population density, the lack of preventive measures such as the wearing of masks and the use of sanitizers, and mixed messages, among others, saw a rapid increase in the rates of infection. There is no question that many people believed that Covid-19 was a passing phase, and that it would go away soon, especially when they looked at the beaches in Florida and California.
The current situation is that the virus has spread to the other states while New York is in Phase Four. The essential workers did remarkably well, as did all those that participated in the food pantries, and helped in other ways. Liberty Avenue has regained its smiles, if only slowly. Gratitude should be extended to the frontline workers that continue to brave the conditions to bring relief to the suffering. A number of organizations pitched in and provided food for the essential workers and they too should be commended.
Caribbean politics is never far from the lips of the immigrant community and this continues to be played out on the Avenue. In the middle of the pandemic, there were national elections in the Caribbean.
Guyana’s election took place on March 2, 2020. It should have been a straightforward affair. After all, the parties and the observers said on the day of the elections that it was fair and free. It went that way for nine out of the ten Regions. Then came Region Four and Mr. Mingo’s muddled math. He confounded the world by providing bed sheets to read spreadsheets; and this was after he was twice ordered by the courts to get it right. The result was that Mr. Mingo, in full view of the international community, changed the numbers. Legal challenges followed, right up to the Caribbean Court of Appeal and a third visit there looks likely.
In the meantime, the Government of Guyana has lost not only the moral authority to govern, but also the ability to make friends and influence people. Anyone that dares to criticize the government finds him or herself in its bad books. The recent hearing on Guyana, by the Organization of American States (OAS), shows how isolated the government has become in the international community. It has no friends of repute and the strategy is to lash out at all and sundry. As soon as one dares to oppose the government, that person or organization, is subject to the vilest tongue-lashing.
The international condemnation keeps piling up. It has reached a point where not a day passes without someone calling for the government to make way for a smooth transition. The stubbornness of the government to listen has shown the ugly side of Guyana that would take years to mend. For example, the racial divide is played out on social media every minute, and what is clear is that in the heat of party politics, people have lost respect for each other. But there are encouraging signs too.
There are a good number of persons that have risked their reputations by taking a stand. Dominic Gaskin is the son-in-law of President David and Mrs. Granger. He would be expected to take the side of the family firm. But this has not happened, much to the chagrin of APNU supporters. Mr. Gaskin has repeatedly stated that APNU lost the elections and that it should gracefully demit office. He has found himself on the bad persons list, as have Sir Shridath Ramphal, Sir Ronald Sanders, Prime Minister Mia Mottley, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Congressman Gregory Meeks, and a host of other persons and organizations.
There were a number of rallies in Liberty Avenue that called for democracy in Guyana. They were broad based and inclusive. While the declaration is still awaited in Guyana, its next-door neighbor, Suriname, showed how it should be done. Desi Bouterse, the former president, relinquished office in favor of Chan Santokhi. A smooth transition of power took place and Bouterse wished his successor well. President Santokhi will have to work with the other parties if he is to succeed. The election in Suriname took place long after that in Guyana and the results were declared in about two weeks.
Guyana has entered the Guinness Book of Records for taking the longest time to declare an election result. Trinidad’s election is on August 10, 2020. At this rate, the odds are that a declaration can take place in Trinidad, while the Guyana government moves from one court to another, and its politicians invent various tactics to delay the process.
It was all so different in 2014 when Mr. Granger and his entourage visited Liberty Avenue. They promised the good life and a number of people believed. But five years after, and with an election that they lost, the good life has eluded many Guyanese. It is only a matter of time before a new administration takes over, or Guyana is confined to a long period of infamy.