Carnival in the Time of Covid-19

Carnival in the Time of Covid-19
haiti carnival, coronavirus super spreader, port-de-paix
Revelers dancing during carnival. Photo via

New Orleans cancelled. Brazil said next year. No way Trinidad said. But Haiti said “hell, yes” and went on to organize three days of a super spreader carnival in Port-de-Paix, the largest city in the northwest department. 

Why President Jovenel Moïse held the carnival that drew streams of maskless revelers is confounding in its recklessness. It is true that the virus is not as deadly in Haiti as it is in neighboring Dominican Republic and most parts of the world. Haiti’s health care system has not been overrun and the number of cases remains relatively low. And doctors like Dr. William Pape, one of the country’s leading infectious diseases experts, acknowledged that Haiti has not seen any acute cases in a while now. 

However, the government has not done any significant testing across Haiti. It doesn’t know how widespread Covid-19 is in Haiti. 

Therefore, Haitian leaders should not obfuscate their responsibility as world citizens and make decisions as if Haiti is really on an island of its own, uncaring about how its actions affect others. 

Unlike in the United States, testing is not free in Haiti. A Covid-19 test costs between $80 for an instant result and $50 for three-day wait. That kind of money is way beyond the means of the average Haitian. So how do we know the true spread of the disease?

The virus is mutating fast; we don’t know what happens next. We must not let our guard down. I’m thrilled that Covid-19 has spared Haiti because Lord knows, Haiti is not equipped to deal with what we’ve been under the last year in the U.S., sheltering in place with an economy shut down to fight this deadly pandemic. 

Last month, I went to Haiti for a reporting assignment and was pleased to see an aggressive campaign to get people to wear masks and follow social distance practices. There were ads emblazoned on billboards across Port-au-Prince. You can’t turn on the television or radio without hearing a public service announcement about the scourge of Covid-19.

Having that campaign, however, is akin to washing your hands and drying it on the ground — to use an old Haitian proverb. It seems that this campaign to warn people about Covid-19 from the government is disingenuous at best and cynical at worst. It appears that they got a grant to do the campaigns so they have to  spend the money, but they really don’t care what people do. 

Unfortunately, there is no way to explain why organizing carnival is bad on so many levels. The gathering  achieved none of the intended consequences of giving people a couple of days out of the year to forget their miseries or to give Port-de-Paix a financial shot in the arm. 

The decision to hold carnival so angered Bahamian officials that they barred travel from Haiti for 21 days. These Caribbean nations, unlike Haiti, depend on tourism for their livelihood and are protecting their interests, no matter what Haiti wants to do in its side of Hispaniola.

Bahamian Prime Minister, Darren Henfield explained his country’s decision to the Miami Herald’s Jacqueline Charles this way: “We didn’t have a regular Junkanoo as we normally do, Henfield said referring to his nation’s annual New Year’s Day street party that usually features bands performing in the streets. “We are just concerned about a mass gathering in a carnival-like atmosphere that can be a potential super-spreader.”

To be clear, I’m a huge music fan and love carnival. For 14 years, The Haitian Times has organized a festival, sponsored a carnival float at Brooklyn’s Labor Day parade. We’ve built a stand on the Champ-de-Mars and invited scores of friends to party with us. 

Although I personally have not been to carnival since Michel Martelly became president, I followed it online. Holding the carnival during a pandemic kept away thousands of Haitian Americans for whom carnival was an opportunity to flee the brutal winter to bask in the ubiquitous sunshine in their beloved but deeply troubled homeland. 

It’s obvious that the carnival failed to generate much revenue for the country or Port-de-Paix, specifically as many people with disposable income did not travel to the festivities. The winner here are the musicians whose livelihood has been decimated when everything shut down last year. 

I’m sure that wasn’t one of Moise’s concerns in holding carnival. He could have created a program to use carnival funds as an economic lifeline to help the artists. He could have held a socially distanced parade, require people to wear a mask and limit the number of people who can follow their favorite bands. Even after doling out some money to the performers, there would still be money left in the coffers to help others in need. 

Haiti has always struggled to monetize its carnival unlike Brazil, Trinidad and New Orleans. There’s very little pageantry associated with it. There are no elaborate costumes. The décor is scant and flimsy. The biggest issue is that even Port-au-Prince is unable to host this gathering. It doesn’t have the infrastructure to host those who would come. 

I remember one year where Haiti was going to an unusual period of calm and diaspora and even foreigners went down to carnival en masse. Many people ended up sleeping in hotel lobbies. Restaurants ran out of food and rental car companies didn’t have any inventory available. 

That was a clear case of what can happen if Haiti were to solve some of its basic issues. Instead, we’ve been focused on this circular firing squad dreaming of an outcome we haven’t done the work to achieve.