The dictionary defines Politics as the “activities associated with the governance of a country especially debate or conflict among people and parties to achieve power”. My exposure to politics began when I was ten years old. The year was 1999 – an election year – perhaps the perfect time to understand conflict between parties competing to achieve power. The competing parties, the Democratic Labour Party and the incumbent Barbados Labour Party, were each led by two leaders who were well-known to most electors and a study in contrasts.
The election campaign was exciting and dramatic. I attended my first political meetings snuggled in folding chairs and shrouded in a jacket much bigger than I. I fell in love with the frenetic nature of the atmosphere: the charismatic leaders, the call from the speakers and response from those gathered to hear messages of hope. The entire scene was quite familiar to a boy accustomed to the practices of Pentecostal worship. From these nighttime outings, I grew to understand that selecting the right leaders of the country matters, and their vision matters even more.
At the level of political and social concerns, there are many similarities between that time period and our current situation. Then, as now, the protection of the vulnerable was a concern; economically, investment-driven prosperity was the aim, while internationally, responding to the increased demands of a globalised world was becoming the norm. Twenty-three years on, however, politics has changed. This shift was deepened and accelerated by the COVID-19 experience, marked as it was by death and disease, and has led to changes in the way politics is practiced and, indeed, in the aims and objectives of governance.
In post-pandemic Barbados, citizens are demanding greater participation in the political process. They no longer merely want to know what is being performed in their names, they want proximity to that which is being performed. They want to see it, they want to scrutinize it and they want opportunities to indicate their agreement or opposition. Traditionally politics was a top-down enterprise where politicians articulated and set out to achieve their agenda having received the assent of the populace through an election held once every five years. That model is no more, and the pandemic accelerated its abandonment.
As a result of these increased demands by the citizenry, politicians and, by extension, the parties they represent, must construct an infrastructure of engagement. The pillars of such must include opportunities for politicians to listen to the citizens to hear their demands. One may argue that, on an island like ours, those demands are heard in the supermarket aisle, in the parking lot after church, and even in the high spirits of a rum shop. However, the vibrancy of our modern democracy demands formal structures which allow for discussion, approval and dissent. Post-pandemic, the appropriate considerations of the latter have been, and must continue to be, created. Our democracy, in the truest sense of the word, depends on it.
Similarly, politicians must now equip themselves to respond to “fake news”. The pandemic laid bare a burgeoning absence of trust and an ecosystem of misinformation and disinformation. Conspiracy theories are now the order of the day. And this has, in part, increased the responsibility of the politician to speak the truth and to speak it, whatever the personal cost, in an effort to protect the unwitting citizen and by extension the country. Skepticism mechanizes democracy, but make no mistake: mistrust, born of active and intentional misinformation and disinformation, damns the whole thing.
In post-pandemic Barbados (and, indeed, the world), Politics and policy must now do more. Politicians, and governments in particular, must better respond to the needs of the citizenry and also ensure that those responses take into consideration the global situation. The desires of citizen must not imperil the experience of the collective at the level of the state or the planet.
In practical terms this means government must provide housing for the thousands of Barbadians who are calling for shelter, but must ensure that such is Green, energy efficient and sustainably built in the interest of protecting the country and the planet from harmful emissions as we do what we can to stave off the inconvenient and unrelenting challenges of the climate crisis. Gone are the days when policies can be singular in focus and respond only to one need. And they are not coming back.
Moreover, the pandemic, with its restrictions on movement and human interaction, laid bare the vulnerabilities of some people. It showed us the extreme poverty that existed in the seams of our society and made clear the impediments to equitable and equal development. There are citizens – subjects of the democratic project – who have felt left out and ignored. That lack of recognition has had real-world consequences, not only for what they can achieve but also for how they define themselves; to paraphrase our island’s first Prime Minister: the mirror image they have of themselves as Bajans. Creating an equitable post pandemic Barbados means crafting an enabling environment for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, the elderly, women, and children, through legislation, policies, and programs that respond to immediate needs and also allow citizens to exercise their rights, and encourage their participation. This work, more than ever before, must be guided by a philosophy of inclusion which must be deep and transformative; anything else is a waste of time and would not meet the magnitude of the moment.
Further, today’s politicians must engage in building generational leadership. The idea of building a country to pass on to the next generation when they come of age is antiquated. Tackling some of the most pressing issues of our time – climate, and enfranchisement of the most vulnerable – requires youth participation. Any policy born of a process that does not include the voices and perspectives of those who are most vulnerable to and most impacted by the harshest effects of the status quo is backward.
Resilience is a post pandemic requirement. The world we create after COVID 19 must be one defined by resilience. What we build must be adaptable to the inconvenient and unavoidable fact that climate change is happening. Every citizen must be flexible enough in their personal and professional lives to change routines quickly if (or when?) the next big crisis, over which we will have little control, happens.
The pandemic has left us with a world vastly different from that which existed prior to its earliest beginnings, making it so that we must, in every area of our society but particularly in politics, order ourselves differently and aspire to more.