Last year, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic rippled through society, leaving a trail of unemployment and the rising threat of food insecurity. Things have gotten even tougher this year with the Government-imposed State of Emergency which was implemented to curb community spread, infections, and deaths.
As many are in desperate need of assistance, Catholic News’ Lara Pickford-Gordon puts the spotlight on the pandemic relief work provided by the Living Water Community (LWC).
The Living Water Community is using a digital platform for its Food Bank to render help while adhering to the regulations in May which restricted public gatherings—with a few exceptions e.g., banks, groceries— to five persons.
In an interview on May 31, LWC Director Rhonda Maingot recalled the long lines for hampers distributed at the LWC Centre, Frederick Street, Port of Spain last year. The digital platform was introduced January 2021, and again in May as the numbers of persons seeking help increased.
She said: “If they come to our Centre or call, we give them a registration site to go on…we would get in touch with them, send them messages and tell them when to come and when to collect.”
As the lockdown progressed, the LWC has been receiving calls from an additional 300 people weekly. “We have averaged in the last month 600 hampers per week that is just giving out at our Centre. Refugees is another story.” An estimated 2,400–3,000 parcels are distributed monthly.
During the lockdown, Maingot said many have lost jobs and are on the breadline. Families have moved back home, so “where you had one family, you now have two families living together and maybe one person has a job.” The LWC has been approached by persons from across the country including Point Fortin and La Brea and they are willing to travel to access help.
Maingot said through the digital registration, the LWC hopes to get other places to which people can go: “We will work on that as time goes on.” Arrangements are made to get parcels to persons who are shut-ins.
The generosity of individuals and companies has kept the Food Bank going. “We put a lot of different stuff in the hampers because people, business community and so would give us different things.” LWC also supplies meals to persons living in apartments in Port of Spain and at the Duncan Street Ava Maria Caring Centre where 150 street dwellers can get breakfast and lunch. Maingot said, “people have been absolutely amazing and generous”. She said Monday to Friday more than 300 received a cooked meal or sandwiches made by volunteers.
Responding to a question on what anyone can do to help, she said: “there are poor people all over and needy people all over, who have lost their jobs so please keep eyes and ears open for needs in your own community so that each community can serve their own community”.
Maingot said even as the pandemic is very challenging, there are opportunities for Christians to be disciples and to live Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
It’s a dignity situation
Shivonne DuBarry, LWC Community Based Protection Officer, Ministry for Migrants and Refugees (MMR), has seen the hardships experienced by the individuals and families who have come to T&T.
Last year, the MMR received thousands of requests and several migrants and refugees were helped. The number was reduced as the lockdown measures eased and businesses re-opened. DuBarry said most people want to work and take care of their families.
However, thousands of requests have come in over the past six to eight weeks. She added that recently with community spread and restrictions, almost everyone in the community served were out of work and unable to meet their food needs.
DuBarry said, during “normal time” persons skipped meals to save and send money home to their families, “with the restrictions, eating once a day has become the norm”. Parents are not eating so their children could have a meal. She went on, “People are doing what they can; those who still have access to some resources are sharing. A lot of people are on the verge of homelessness.” A common report is of mothers giving their babies sugar water or being unable to produce breast milk because they are not eating properly. Persons cannot afford even basic over-the-counter medication.
Explaining how food needs are met, she said, “We are trying, through our database, to identify the most critical cases and get help out to them as quickly as we can with our financial technology partner WiPay.” The company has provided a Quick Response (QR) code system for food distribution and ongoing technical support at no cost.
DuBarry explained that last year’s lockdown necessitated using a different and safer approach for everyone involved. An electronic system of receiving applications was introduced. Interviews are conducted over the phone, and persons send in a photo ID which is verified and recorded.
Based on criteria, a decision is made on whom gets assistance. “We send out a QR code which persons can take to a supermarket in their community. We have about 30 participating supermarkets …including Tobago, so people don’t have to go far, and they also have the dignity of choice.”
Alcohol and tobacco are not permitted with the code. In addition to the QR code system, the MMR supports community and faith-based organisations with hampers to distribute to persons in their communities.
There is the additional issue of intimate partner violence which has increased within families. DuBarry said the Ministry has received many reports of sexual harassment by landlords when rent is owed, rape, and attempted kidnappings to “sell the teenage girls”.
DuBarry highlighted some of the stories which brought a smile to her face.
A Venezuelan nurse called the Ministry desperate for food. However, when she was contacted, her circumstance had improved. “By the time we called her she said, ‘I got a job, and I don’t need this assistance anymore, can you please give it to somebody else because I know so many people are unemployed’.”
Another Venezuelan migrant who needed help, offered to give service in the office doing follow-up calls to others who had requested help. “We have people like that who are helpers,” DuBarry said.
Reports have been received about migrants across the country surviving through the generosity of landlords and neighbours. “Trinbagonians are just sharing plates of food every day and that’s the only reason children are not starving right now at a higher rate…You hear a lot about the negatives but there are so many people, especially in rural communities where people have no problem sharing a plate of food…and that is just a normal part of daily living.”