Reshaping Carnival for the age of coronavirus


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By Vincent John, leader of DUKA Mas Domnik UK Carnival Band

The belated cancellation of Carnival by Notting Hill Carnival Limited was no surprise, particularly as many mas bands had no intention of parading on the streets due to coronavirus.

One can only be sympathetic towards the bands that launched their costumes and expended resources in the expectation that Carnival 2020 would take place as usual. Similarly, the dilemma faced by the Carnival organisers who had to balance financial against public health concerns was enormous.

Had the Carnival been held on a business-as-usual basis, the anti-Carnival brigade would have been handed ammunition, with claims of disrespect, lack of empathy and ignoring obvious risks.

Covid-19 has shown us that the Carnival is a community-originated and led living cultural phenomenon, the significance, financial and social impact of which should never be under-estimated. As Carnival is embedded in our community, and because black and minority ethnic (BAME) citizens are most at risk of contamination and fatalities from Covid-19, it would have been irresponsible to have ignored the health factor.

The provisional decision of DUKA Mas Domnik UK Carnival Band in December 2019 to give Carnival 2020 a miss does, with hindsight, appear to be prescient; however, we did not anticipate that a pandemic would be the main driver. From the perspective of one who loves Carnival but must at the same time be realistic, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have adverse repercussions for Carnival in the next few years, particularly if the vaccines and medicines needed to halt the spread of Covid-19 are not forthcoming soon.

These repercussions include:

  • Most small and medium-sized mas bands will be under severe pressure in their efforts to participate in the Carnival due to increasingly challenging, potentially prohibitive, costs.
  • Masqueraders will face the dilemma of how best to use their reduced financial resources; much will depend on where participation in Carnival falls in their list of priorities.
  • Depending on how long masqueraders remain apprehensive or hesitant about the safety of attending large gatherings, it might take a couple of years for some bands to attract sufficient numbers to make their participation in Carnival viable, unless they collaborate.
  • Some bands depend on large numbers of overseas masqueraders making the annual trip to Notting Hill. They may face financial challenges in their own countries and may have concerns about travelling to attend a mass gathering.
  • The framework within which the Carnival is to take place may have to change, for instance security and stewarding. The providers of these services, who have been seriously affected by event cancellations, will have to take additional measures to ensure that crowds at Notting Hill, no matter how reduced, are protected from another wave of Covid-19. There are likely to be additional costs for procuring and distributing gloves, masks, thermometer guns, better screening etc, which will be passed on to the bands.
  • The crowd control challenges – which mas bands have been highlighting for many years, and which was one of the factors that influenced Mas Domnik UK’s decision to withdraw this year – will have to be revisited or redrawn.
  • The extent to which major funders such as Arts Council England not only sustain but increase their financial support to the artistic and cultural elements of the Carnival and particularly the mas bands who are already the paupers in glamorous costumes, will determine the future of both participation and artistic development. While there has been a proliferation of carnivals throughout the UK over the past decade, the uniqueness and social and economic significance of Notting Hill Carnival should by now be unquestionable and deserves more support, particularly at the grassroots level. The absence of funding streams will deprive the Carnival and the economy of much more than the lost investment.

The solutions to the problem outlined above and the new paradigm warrants close co-operation, rather than distant or unconnected silos of operations at mas band, arena and carnival organiser levels. It would not be seen as draconian or restrictive if funders, the authorities, partners and even service providers were to decide on a series of event preconditions. These could include collaboration, joined-up working of and between mas bands, membership of the arenas, structural connectivity between the five representative arenas, visible liaison and genuine consultation by the carnival organiser with the arenas and an overarching principle of respect for the cultural artistic components of Europe’s largest street carnival.

Not only will bands have a better chance of survival and ability or capacity to participate, but the iconic event will thrive, albeit in a milieu that requires a new approach where pragmatism, health and safety, community demands and conservation are assigned a much higher priority.