The Cayman Islands is still in the midst of a forgotten humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of families facing Christmas without the means to pay for power, water or food, a charity leader has warned.
Though the islands may have escaped the worst impacts of the health crisis, it has not been immune to the economic consequences of the pandemic.
At the headquarters of Cayman charity Acts of Random Kindness, director Tara Nielsen is receiving scores of new requests for support every day.
There’s the 103-year-old woman who had her power cut off. There is the Jamaican mother of a Caymanian child who has lost her job but can’t get government support because she is not from the island. There are countless others, including many who are receiving the $1,000-a-month government stipend, that still need extra support to meet their basic needs.
“This is what wartime looks like,” Nielsen said. “It is hunger and homelessness and mental illness. People are fighting for survival every day.”
There are 850 case files, many of them representing large families, in a thick binder on her desk.
The vast majority of them are people turning to charity for support for the first time in their lives.
She said they were used to being the breadwinners in their families and asking for help from a charity was a last resort.
At the height of the crisis, with soup kitchens springing up across Cayman, she said the community was very focussed on helping those in need. But as some sense of normalcy has returned within Cayman’s borders, the attention has drifted as the problem has worsened.
“Everything is bright and cheerful and there is Christmas music and lights everywhere; it is almost as if people are living in two opposite dimensions,” Nielsen said.
“The sense that we are in crisis is fading. The problems are out of sight and out of mind.”
A combination of business closures, job losses and emergency pension funds running out are making the issue worse as Christmas approaches, she said.
Many of the measures introduced to alleviate financial pain during the lockdown – including grace periods for utilities bills – have only served to kick the can down the road.
ARK has been getting multiple applications from people for assistance in making payments to CUC, dating back months. The main requests relate to water, utilities, rent and food, but Nielsen is also concerned that thousands of people who have been laid off have been left without health insurance.
Nielsen said the support being provided by government through the monthly stipend and the Needs Assessment Unit was, in many cases, not enough to meet the needs of Caymanian families. There is also a significant number of non-Caymanians who are still on island who do not qualify for any support.
She said it was not as simple as saying, as many have, that they should go home.
Some can’t afford flights – often upwards of $2,000 – to return to countries where COVID is rife and they have no employment.
The mandatory repatriation fee of $200 required by government for work permits has not been put towards exit flights and would not come close to covering the cost in most instances.
Other foreign workers still have some shifts in Cayman but aren’t making enough money to survive.
“We are advising people, if they can, to go to their home country – to go to wherever they have a roof,” said Nielsen.
“But it is not black and white. Some have Caymanian children that are in school here, others are hanging on in hope that the borders reopen in a month and their job comes back.”
ARK has committed $25,000 in January on rent payments alone. Nielsen said the charity had received a lot of support from the community.
But she is concerned that many people, whose lives have returned to normal, don’t realise how bad things are for those who continue to be impacted by the COVID crisis.
“Sitting with clients and hearing their stories is so moving and, in many cases, it is quite easy to help.”
A $100 CUC voucher or a Foster’s card is enough to elicit tears of gratitude.
ARK also provides some gift cards to parents of young children to help them get presents for Christmas.
“There are people who can’t buy their kids anything,” she said. “It’s a really sad feeling because they believe in Santa and they want to know why he doesn’t come to their house.”
As Cayman Islands residents make their final preparations for Christmas, she hopes they will consider supporting those who can’t enjoy the festive season.
“Instead of buying a $50 scented candle for Secret Santa, buy a CUC voucher for someone who needs it,” she said.
Nielsen’s wish for next year is that Cayman starts to address what she sees as some of the systemic problems of providing aid to those who need it most.
“We have to start finding solutions. The problem is not going to magically disappear on New Year’s Eve because it is not 2020 any longer.”
- To support ARK’s ‘Kindness Connects Us’ holiday campaign go to www.caymansark.com