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Here to serve but not your slave
My wife and I were fortunate enough to go on holiday this year to a beautiful island in the Caribbean. Palm Island, a stone’s throw, well 10-minute boat ride (I’m not prone to exaggeration you understand) from Union Island, and some 45 minutes by plane to Barbados is a unique paradise described as the Maldives in the Caribbean.
The circumstances of the people that work on Palm Island (and history) are perhaps not too dissimilar to those that work in Cape Verde, a subject of a previous blog. Wages are poor, the staff are not exactly affluent, and work is hard to come by. Many have gravitated to Palm Island from nearby islands to find work and have subsequently stayed on Union Island, commuting every day after a long shift. Others stay on Palm Island in staff accommodation, returning home to their families every few months in St. Vincent and elsewhere. Whilst guests enjoy luxurious accommodation, great food and plentiful drinks, the workers receiving low wages, relying on a percentage of the service charge and tips, do not even have the luxury of a constant water supply on Union Island. Palm Island has its own water processing plant, Union Island does not. Hence the gardener telling me he had to pay $250 dollars to have water delivered to his home; £100 for the water and $150 for the delivery. The dry season is hard going and financially precarious.
The Island shut down during Covid and many of the workers returned home with no wages for the duration. Poverty is not an alien concept to them. Their lives and that of the visitors couldn’t be further apart and yet are intertwined by capitalism in the form of tourism. They need the tourists to sustain the jobs, the more tourists, the more in service charges and tips. Of course, the owners of the island want more tourists because it brings in more revenue. A moral dilemma for some perhaps, well for me anyway. I won’t be pretentious and state that I go to the island to support the local economy, vis-a-vie the poor people, I go there for a really good holiday. But here is the crux of the matter, and hence the title, I try my utmost to treat the staff with respect. I recognise that they are paid to serve me and other guests, and they do a brilliant job, but they are not my servants or slaves (the historical significance should be obvious). And yet I have witnessed people demanding drinks without a please or thank you, “give me a vodka”, “she wants a rum and coke”. I have seen people coming off yachts with day passes for the island, they came, they saw, they made a complete mess and they left…. You can clear up our mess! Glasses left all over the beach, beach towels left wherever, they last used them. “What did your last servant die of”, I ask, as they slope off into the rum filled sunset? “It certainly wasn’t old age” I shout after them. But it just seems lost on them.
I ask myself would they have treated me like that had I been the one behind the bar? I think not, perhaps the lighter colour of my skin may have persuaded them that I am worthy of some courtesy. But then who knows, it seems that some people that have money have a certain arrogance and disregard for anyone else.
Not all of the customers were like that, most were polite and some very friendly with the staff. But we shouldn’t forget the power dynamics, and above all else the privilege that some of us enjoy. Above all else it is a useful reminder that when people are there to serve, they are not your servant nor your slave and they and the job they do deserves respect.
When This is Over: Reflections on an Unequal Pandemic
This week a book was released which I both co-edited and contributed to and which has been two years in the making. When This is Over: Reflections on an Unequal Pandemic is a volume combining a range of accounts from artists to poets, practitioners to academics. Our initial aim of the book was borne out of a need for commemoration but we cannot begin to address this without considering inequalities throughout the pandemic.
Each of the four editors had both personal and professional reasons for starting the project. I – like many – was (and still is) deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. When we first went into lockdown, we were shown the data every day, telling us the numbers of people who had the virus and of those who had died with COVID-19. Behind these numbers, I saw each and every person. I thought about their loved ones left behind, how many of them died alone without being able to say goodbye other than through a video screen. I thought about what happened to the bodies afterwards, how death rites would be impacted and how the bereaved would cope without hugs and face to face social support. Then my grandmother died. She had overcome COVID-19 in the way that she was testing negative. But I heard her lungs on the day she died. I know. And so, I became even more consumed with questions of the COVID-19 dead, with/of debates. I was angry at the narratives surrounding the disposability of people’s lives, at people telling me ‘she had a good innings’. It was personal now.
I now understood the impact of not being able to hug my grandpa at my grandmother’s funeral, and how ‘normal’ cultural practices surrounding death were disturbed. My grandmother loved singing in choirs and one of the traumatic parts of our bereavement was not being able to sing at her funeral as she would have wanted and how we wanted to remember her. Lucy Easthope, a disaster planner and one of my co-authors speaks of her frustrations in this regard:
“we’ve done something incredibly traumatising to the families that is potentially bigger than the bereavement itself. In any disaster you should still allow people to see the dead. It is a gross inhumanity of bad planning that people couldn’t’t visit the sick, view the deceased’s bodies, or attend funerals. Had we had a more liberal PPE stockpile we could have done this. PPE is about accessing your loved ones and dead ones, it is not just about medical professionals.”
The book is divided into five parts, each addressing a different theme all of which I argue are relevant to criminologists and each part including personal, professional, and artistic reflections of the themes. Part 1 considered racialised, classed, and gendered identities which impacted on inequality throughout the pandemic, asking if we really are in this together? In this section former children’s laureate Michael Rosen draws from his experience of having COVID-19 and being hospitalised in intensive care for 48 days. He writes about disposability and eugenics-style narratives of herd immunity, highlighting the contrast between such discourse and the way he was treated in the NHS: with great care and like any other patient.
The second part of the book considers how already existing inequalities have been intensified throughout the pandemic in policing, law and immigration. Our very own @paulsquaredd contributed a chapter on the policing of protests during the pandemic, drawing on race in the Black Lives Matter protests and gender in relation to Sarah Everard. As my colleagues and students might expect, I wrote about the treatment of asylum seekers during the initial lockdown periods with a focus on the shift from secure and safe self-contained housing to accommodating people seeking safety in hotels.
Part three considers what happens to the dead in a pandemic and draws heavily on the experiences of crematoria and funerary workers and how they cared for the dead in such difficult circumstances. This part of the book sheds light on some of the forgotten essential workers during the pandemic. During lockdown, we clapped for NHS workers, empathised with supermarket workers and applauded other visible workers but there were many less visible people doing valuable unseen work such as caring for the dead. When it comes to death society often thinks of those who cared for them when they were alive and the bereaved who were left to the exclusion of those who look after the body. The section provides some insight into these experiences.
Moving through the journey of life and death in a pandemic, the fourth section focusses on questions of commemoration, a process which is both personal and political. At the heart of commemorating the COVID-19 dead in the UK is the National COVID Memorial Wall, situated facing parliament and sat below St Thomas’ hospital. In a poignant and political physical space, the unofficial wall cared for by bereaved family members such as Fran Hall recognises and remembers the COVID dead. If you haven’t visited the wall yet, there will be a candlelit vigil walk next Wednesday, 29th March at 7pm and those readers who live further afield can digitally walk the wall here, listening to the stories of bereaved family members as you navigate the 150,837 painted hearts.
The final part of the book both reflects on the mistakes made and looks forward to what comes next. Can we do better in the next pandemic? Emergency planner Matt Hogan presents a critical view on the handling of the pandemic, returning to the refrain, ‘emergency planning is dead. Long live emergency planning’. Lucy Easthope is equally critical, developing what she has discussed in her book When the Dust Settles to consider how and what lessons we can learn from the management of the pandemic. Lucy calls out for activism, concluding with calls to ‘Give them hell’ and ‘to shout a little louder’.
Concluding in his afterword, Gary Younge suggests this is ‘teachable moment’, but will we learn?
When This is Over: Reflections on an Unequal Pandemic is published by Policy Press, an imprint of Bristol University Press. The book can be purchased directly from the publisher who offer a 25% discount when subscribing. It can also be purchased from all good book shops and Amazon.
Capitalism and tourism: an ethical conundrum
After a two-year delay in our holiday booking due to the Covid pandemic, my wife and I were fortunate enough to spend a two-week holiday in Cape Verde (Cabo Verde) on the island of Sal. We’ve been lucky enough to visit the islands several times over the last ten years. Our first visit was to Boa Vista but since the hotel that we liked no longer seemed to be available through our tour operators, we ended up going to Sal. When we first visited Boa Vista, there was little to be found outside of the hotel other than deserted beaches and the crashing of the Atlantic waves on the seashore. There was a very large hotel on the other side of the island and a smattering of smaller hotels dotted around, but that was it. After several visits we began to notice that other hotels were popping up along the seashore and there was a definite sense of development to cater for the holiday trade. The same can be said of Sal. The first hotel we visited had only just been built and there were the foundations of other buildings creeping up alongside but in the main, it seemed pretty deserted. Now though there are hotels everywhere and a fairly new very large one not that far away from where we stayed.
The first thing you notice as a visitor to the islands is that this is not an affluent country, far from it. Take a short trip into the town centre and you very rapidly see and sense the pervading poverty. This is a former Portuguese colony, and it comes as no surprise that it played a strategic role in the slave trade until the late nineteenth century whereupon it saw a rapid economic decline. Tourism has boosted the economy and plays a significant role in the country’s population, and this became even more evident during our latest visit. The country is only just recovering from the pandemic and several of the hotels were still mothballed as were the various businesses along the sea front. I’m not sure what the situation was or is in the country with regards to welfare, but I wouldn’t mind betting that they’d never heard of the word furlough, let alone implemented any such scheme. Quite simply no tourism means no work and no work means no wages, such as they are. In conversation with a number of the staff at the hotel, it became obvious that they were not only pleased we were there, but that they wanted us to return again. We were often asked if we would come back and one person, I spoke to pleadingly asked us to return as ‘we need the job’. Of course, it’s not just us that need to return, it’s all the tourists. Tourism supports so many aspects of the economy, not just jobs in hotels but local businesses as well. I think the fact that we keep going back there says something about the lovely people that we’ve been privileged to meet.
But then as I sat one night contently sipping a gin and tonic, debating whether I should have another before dinner, I began to think about whether all of this was ethical. The hotel we stayed in was part of a large international chain. Nearly all the hotels are part of large multinational corporations servicing their shareholders. Whilst my relaxation and enjoyment is great for me, it is on the back of the exploitative nature of the service industry. A business that probably doesn’t pay high wages, those working in the service industry in this country can probably attest to that, so goodness knows what it’s like in an impoverished place such as Cape Verde. My enjoyment therefore promotes exploitation and yet vis-a- vie enables people to have much needed work and pay. Of course, I may have this all wrong and the companies are pouring millions into the country to improve living standards for the inhabitants, and they may pay wages that are very reasonable. But somehow, because of the nature of business, and the eye on profit margins, I very much doubt it. When businesses consider business ethics, I wonder how far they cast the ethical net? As for me, it’s a bit of Catch 22, damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But then so much of life seems to be like that.