Sun | Oct 25, 2020

Peter Espeut | A pandemic in Lent: musings

Published:Friday | April 3, 2020 | 12:26 AM
Many Jamaicans plan to prepare fish for meals on Good Friday, an act the result of churches historic observance of abstinence from meat during lent as an act of penance.
Many Jamaicans plan to prepare fish for meals on Good Friday, an act the result of churches historic observance of abstinence from meat during lent as an act of penance.

The weeks-old islandwide closure of bars and other places of nocturnal entertainment, followed by this week’s nightly 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. islandwide curfew, has confined most of us to our homes. Where spouses tend to quarrel, and children tend to rebel, home may not really be the place of choice for many to spend quarantine or curfew time.

People thrown together in confined spaces are forced to relate to each other – to communicate much more than in less-stressed times. Many domestic arrangements are less than ideal, sometimes more transactional than affectionate. Times like these which could be opportunities for spouses to draw closer to each other, and parents to children, might become occasions for old wounds to open up.

Those of us who live in one room – which is really a bedroom and storeroom – often shared with others, cannot stay inside all the time. Some of us use home only for sleeping, and really live in street-corner society, taking our meals and our recreation among our peers of like gender and age group. For these, quarantines and curfews are socially and culturally disruptive; many are uncomfortable alone, having to face our real selves away from the braggadocio of preening and pretending.

Curling up in the quiet of the night with a good book is foreign to many Jamaicans who cannot read that well. Some of us are comfortable in our private rooms, with telephone, Internet and cable TV, turning social distance into social isolation.

Those of us better off can stock up on food and drink and stay home for days without going outside; but many others have to walk the streets every day hustling. It is these of our brothers and sisters who will suffer most during a quarantine or curfew.


Poverty in Jamaica often means no time for leisure; many in the informal economy live hand to mouth, hustling in almost every waking moment; if they do not work, then they and their families cannot eat. The dollar they earn today puts food on the table tonight. And so if they stay home today, there may be no food on the table tonight. And those whose hustle is in the evening hours – and who now have to stay home – will feel it in their stomachs.

And as more and more workers in the formal economy are laid off, misery in the society will increase. Those whose little savings are tied up in a ‘pardner’, and whose draw has become iffy, are living precariously. With the economy of Jamaica slowly shutting down, people are going to begin to go hungry; and a hungry man is an angry man.

And next week this time will be Good Friday, when the Season of Lent will come to an end. What a Lent this has been!


Lent is a time when we are asked to confront ourselves, and be honest with ourselves. None of us is perfect; many of us seek to become better people by putting aside those things that make us less than we can be, taming our base emotions and appetites by acts of self-denial. To curb our appetite for pleasure, we fast; to curb our attachment to things, we are encouraged to give alms – to give away not just things we own, but things we need; and to curb our boastful pride, we humble ourselves before God in prayer, mindful of the reality of our powerlessness.

Never has humanity seemed more powerless than in the face of the global spread of the novel coronavirus. Our impotence slaps us in the face! Just when we thought we were in control of our lives and our little worlds, we realise that there are forces at work greater than ourselves.

It is at times like these that we come to realise that we need each other. This is the time to feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty. Maybe those of us slightly better off will have to dip into our savings to survive, and to help others to survive. These are extraordinary times.

Death is a part of life; death can lead to new life. That is the message of the cross. May we spend this time of quarantine and curfew reflecting on our condition, and choosing how we can make a difference.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to