Like the rest of the globe, this year saw Caribbean nations focused on dealing with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, against a backdrop of rising infection rates, a steady stream of variants, and strong vaccine hesitancy—but while it was a primary concern, it was far from the only story that affected the region in 2021.
While 2020 will forever be known as the year COVID-19 made its global presence known, 2021 saw the vaccines designed to combat the virus being rolled out en masse. Prior to this, many Caribbean nations had closed their borders, with Trinidad and Tobago's staying closed for one of the most lengthy spells, even restricting its own citizens via a travel re-entry system that left many feeling demoralised and challenging whether the process was infringing upon their rights.
Curiously, although the arrival of vaccines in the region was initially welcomed with hope and optimism, vaccine hesitancy would soon become quite pervasive. Attempts by various regional governments to make vaccination mandatory for some sectors resulted in street protests, including one in which the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, was injured.
If there was a silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud, however, it regional creatives’ innovative response to the pandemic, evident in everything from fashion, art and literacy, to how they reimagined in-person festivals like Carnival—although St. Lucia has been the first regional territory to announce its intention to hold a “vaxxed” event come 2022.
Apart from our extensive coverage of the eruption of St. Vincent's La Soufrière volcano, environmental stories constituted an average of 25 per cent of our regional coverage this year, from a landmark ruling that could pave the way for environmental transparency in Trinidad and Tobago to displays of activism that helped save a century-old tree in Guyana.
Of course, environmental activism wouldn't be necessary if there weren't various environmental threats, which came in the form of quarrying and bauxite mining activities, pollution of waterways, poaching of protected animal species, and potential damage to marine areas from the oil industry, the effects of climate change and overfishing.
As the first significant storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season arrived, concerns about the effects of the climate crisis on the region persisted, even as tourism developers appeared immune, despite opportunities for more sustainable approaches.
By the time the COP26 summit rolled around in the final quarter of 2021, the region was speaking out for its own survival, and questioning whether some regional territories were actually walking their environmental talk. At the conference, Caribbean representatives advocated for certain parameters when it came to issues of loss and damage, and of major polluters—many of which did not attend the conference—to (literally) pay for their transgressions, which adversely affect Small Island Developing States (SIDS). All this, despite the fact that Guyana, a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member, is poised to become a major supplier of fossil fuels.
This year was certainly not the first that the issue of gender-based violence reared its head in the region. In fact, the issue has been such a recurring one that people were growing weary of its impact.
Trinidad and Tobago, southernmost in the Caribbean archipelago, used this year's International Women's Day to speak out against gender-based violence, even as Jamaica, to the north of the island chain, struggled with both the physical abuse of women and a spate of femicides.
Jamaica also grappled with an increased murder rate, in general, leaving its citizens to debate whether or not states of emergency are effective in stemming violent crime, especially in a society where the relationship between “uptown” and “downtown” is so complex.
The trial (and second conviction) of former Surinamese president Desi Bouterse for a series of dissident murders that took place after he came to power in a 1980 coup—and the award-winning Surinamese author Astrid Roemer controversially defending him—spoke volumes about the culture—at times state-sanctioned—of violence and gender in the region.
It is a culture that Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley spoke out against as it pertains to violent lyrics by some of the country's dancehall performers, explaining, “There has to be a zero tolerance approach to gun violence in this country.” Barbados also made headlines this year for becoming the world's newest republic, as well as the first country to establish an embassy in the metaverse.
Ever since its violent street protests in February 2019, Haiti had been experiencing unrest, revolving around issues of corruption and socioeconomic instability. However, President Jovenel Moïse always seemed to land on his feet.
That all changed on the morning of July 7, when Moïse was shot to death by a group of unidentified men, the country's first political assassination since the tumultuous “Baby Doc” era. As the region watched to see not only how the political situation would play out, but if and when the perpetrators would be brought to justice, it was not until October that one of the main suspects in Moïse's murder was held—on immigration charges, no less—in Jamaica.
To add insult to fatal injury, 2021 also saw Haiti experiencing an even stronger earthquake than the one that devastated the country back in 2010, but as always, the Haitian people have proved themselves resolute and innovative in overcoming challenges.
The Tokyo Olympics
The Tokyo Olympics took place in the midst of the pandemic, giving athletes who had trained so hard amid such uncertainty a chance to compete.
As far as medal opportunities went, the highlights for Caribbean sporting fans included the outstanding performance by the Jamaican women sprinters, who copped all three medals in the much-anticipated 100-metre final—especially on the heels of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce making her mark as the fastest woman alive—and the emotional win for triathlete Flora Duffy, whose victory gave Bermuda the distinction of being the least populous country ever to win Olympic gold.
In a year already punctuated by so many deaths due to the global pandemic, the region had to say its goodbyes to several of its giants this year.
In the realm of arts and culture, these included Jamaican reggae icons Bunny Wailer, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Robbie Shakespeare; the first woman dub poet Jean “Binta” Breeze, and Bert Rose, a driver of Jamaica's independence era dance movement.
Trinidad and Tobago also lost a dance pioneer, Torrance Mohammed, who died in May after falling victim to a violent street robbery. Steelpan arranger Lennox “Bobby” Mohammed (no relation) passed away on the same day, while later in the year saw the deaths of percussionist Peter Telfer, who pioneered the use of African drums in church, and Brother Resistance, who brought the country's unique brand of rapso music into the mainstream. Trinidadian master artist LeRoy Clarke also died this year, 31 years to the day that the country faced an attempted coup, the leader of which would pass away just three months later.
On National Heroes Day, Jamaicans paid tribute to the first Black US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, who died on October 18 due to complications from COVID-19. Powell's parents were Jamaican immigrants.
In the field of advocacy, the region paid its respects to Trinidadian writer and LGBTQ+ advocate Colin Robinson; Brandy Rodriguez, one of Trinidad and Tobago's most outspoken transgender and LGBTQ+ activists; and Jamaica-based attorney Nancy Anderson, who dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of the region's most vulnerable.