Carnival, the annual colorful street party where revelers throw caution to the wind in an uninhibited, exuberant atmosphere, was canceled again this year in Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago, thanks to COVID-19 and its new highly infectious variants.
But one country did opt to have the show go on despite the global pandemic — and now that decision by Haiti, already knee-deep in a political and constitutional crisis, is receiving backlash.
The Bahamas, one of Haiti’s closest neighbors, began a temporary ban on all travel from Haiti as images of densely packed crowds partying during the celebration that ends Tuesday filled social media.
Bahamas Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield said the ban is in response to Haiti’s decision to host the pre-Lenten event, which has been barred in countries across the region. After struggling to keep COVID-19 cases down, the Bahamas is finally starting to see infections decline with an average of 12 new cases reported each day. The emergency order was imposed over the weekend. It took effect Monday and will be in effect at least 21 days.
“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.”
Haiti’s three-day National Carnival started Sunday and ends two days later with Mardi Gras. Recent reports from the country’s health ministry do not yet show a spike in cases. The country has registered 12,2016 laboratory-tested cases and 247 deaths since the pandemic’s outbreak. The resource-strapped nation has consistently reported lower case numbers than others in the Caribbean, despite little compliance with preventative measures like mask wearing, a trend that has perplexed scientists.
However, recent mass protests triggered by a dispute over the term of President Jovenel Moïse and the staging of Carnival, or Kanaval as it is referred to in Creole, in the country’s northwestern city of Port-de-Paix, have heightened concerns about a potential spike.
Video and photographs of this year’s festivities showed large crowds of mostly maskless Haitians dancing to the tunes of top bands such as Miami-based T-Vice. Former president Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly was also spotted on the narrow streets of Port-de-Paix performing while lauding his handpicked successor, Moïse. Even Moïse, who recently alleged being the target of a coup and assassination plot, got in on the fun. He and his wife were filmed dancing in the middle of the throng.
The country’s Ministry of Health, which is in charge of the COVID-19 response, did have a sign reminding Haitians that the coronavirus is still a concern. However, many did not wear masks and images showed hordes of partygoers packed in front of the ministry’s viewing stand.
Dr. Lauré Adrien, director general of Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health and Population, said a space at the event was provided by the organizing committee to the institution, which used it “not to broadcast music or maintain a festive atmosphere, but to distribute condoms to convey prevention and awareness messages against infectious and transmissible diseases.”
He said that while new variants of COVID-19 are a concern, in Haiti they have not yet been detected. He also pointed to the nation’s requirement of a negative test to enter. And he said the health ministry had community workers stationed along the parade route. As for the Bahamas travel ban, he declined to comment directly, but objected to the idea of Bahamian authorities “describing the Republic of Haiti as irresponsible.”
However, he said that because the neighbor 530 miles away requires a negative COVID-19 test to enter, “any new cases from Haiti are unlikely to influence the epidemic in the Bahamas.”
While in most Caribbean and Latin American countries Carnival has become an event to attract tourism, in Haiti it has been utilized as a political tool to pacify the population amid rising political tensions. Last year’s event was canceled after Haitian police officers and soldiers got into a firefight on the first day, and the year before it was scratched over more unrest accompanied by a debate about whether Haiti could afford the expensive street party while in the middle of deep economic contraction.
Moïse used the eve of Carnival’s official launch to attack opponents, telling them his government will not be destabilized.
“I must warn you: I am the head of state. If you do not stop with your actions, I will force you to do so,” Moïse warned, as he asked the population to join him in giving his opponents the boot. “When the person in charge says no, you have to listen to him.”
Haiti is currently embroiled in a constitutional crisis while also grappling with a surge in gang-driven crime. The opposition claims Moïse should have left office earlier this month. He contends his term doesn’t end until next year. Meanwhile, violence continues to engulf much of the country. Several government buildings were recently torched in the northern city of Gonaives, allegedly by members of the president’s own party, a human rights group said.
At least one person was killed and five others wounded, including the leader of one of the Tèt Kale party’s two factions, which are at odds in a dispute over money that had been badly distributed, according to the Fondayson Je Klere, or Open Eyes Foundation.
“Justice emerged as the main victim,” the group said.
Both Trinidad, the birthplace of the Caribbean Carnival, and Brazil, where the annual event is a huge tourist draw, moved celebrations online this year and invited fans to enjoy the party from their living rooms. Authorities in Rio de Janeiro even went as far as to threaten legal action against those who defied a ban against partying.
Though Brazil is recording a decrease in infections, the South American nation is still seeing an average of more than 1,000 deaths a day from the pandemic. There are, on average, 45,518 new infections reported each day. Since the pandemic started, there have been 9,866,710 infections and 239,733 COVID-19 related deaths in the country.
In Trinidad, infections are decreasing with an average of four infections a day. Still, the Caribbean nation, which shut down its borders in March, has opted to keep its borders closed. Overall, there have been 7,646 cases registered and 138 deaths.
Henfield, who said the Bahamas is also keeping a close eye on Haiti’s deepening political crisis, said it will reevaluate the ban after three weeks. Hopefully, he said, the timeline “will abate any spread.”