Family gatherings, spectacular fireworks displays and traditional military parades have been a ritual for many citizens on August 31st. But as Trinidad and Tobago prepares to mark its 58th Independence Day anniversary on Monday, for the first time in our history an emptiness will course through the veins of every patriot as there will be no major celebrations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many major events usually scheduled for the day have been cancelled, including the annual parade by various arms of the country’s protective services at the Queen’s Park Savannah and Dwight Yorke Stadium and the fireworks displays hosted by the ANSA McAL Group.
The cancellation of the Independence Day Parades was confirmed by National Security Minister Stuart Young yesterday. He said after careful consideration of the current pandemic, it was felt this was the safest option.
However, the Group added it was also looking at how future events would occur, “In the meantime, ANSA McAL has already begun and will continue to engage in wider conversations about the impact of fireworks on people, communities and animals. We are committed to ensuring that the annual Independence fireworks display can be enjoyed by all in a safe and responsible manner.”
Thousands of citizens usually flock to the various venues to view these festivities on Independence Day donned in red, white and black flag colours or waving national flags in a spirit of patriotism. As she sifted through her many memories of past events, however, former First Lady Zalayhar Hassanali maintained that an absence of the Independence Day parade was no excuse to be less nationalistic.
“There were representatives from all different organisations and it (Independence Day celebration) was very exciting and well prepared and well-executed. It was a great occasion and I think everybody enjoyed it,” Hassanali told Guardian Media.
“But we have to realise that this year it is different and we cannot expect a parade, that doesn’t prevent us from being patriotic.”
Although saddened over the inability to witness the traditional event as in years gone by, Hassanali said the steps taken to stem the spread of COVID-19 will only serve to strengthen the nation.
Historian Professor Bridget Brereton also agreed that while unfortunate, the decision to postpone the ceremonial observance of the day was necessary and that the absence of the parade, which has been the centerpiece of Independence Day, presented a timely opportunity for citizens to examine how symbolic the day is.
“I hope people will reflect and think about independence. I also think independence carries responsibilities and that all citizens, especially in this particular crisis, have the responsibility to protect not just their health but those who may be more vulnerable than them.”
According to a senior official within the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force, preparations for the military aspect of the parade begins as early as six months prior to Independence Day. Members of the Regiment, Coast Guard, Air Guard and Reserves and T&T Police Service make up the major formations with contingents from the Fire Service, Prison Service and as of most recently, Traffic Wardens, all adding to the spectacular display which kicks off at 7.30 am.
A flypast from aircrafts of the Air Guard almost always sends onlookers into a frenzy. The inspection of the parade by the country’s Commander-in-Chief, President Paula-Mae Weekes, is then followed by a national 21-gun salute to pay homage to the momentous occasion.
But the cancellation of this year’s parade may have tugged at the heartstrings of David Nelson more than any other. As a member of the Defence Force, he has participated in the parade for nearly 30 years. However, only this year the country’s official flag-bearer torch was passed from Hubert Diaz to him.
Diaz had carried the national flag at all major national events during a long career before passing on the responsibility to Nelson, who said the opportunity to make his presence felt on Independence Day would have epitomised his devotion to the country.
“Tears might have come from my eyes. Being on the parade and looking at the parade are two different things, I was always there standing at attention, waiting to march, but standing and looking in at the parade would have been priceless. Everyone would have been looking at this new flag-bearer it would have been a true honour for me,” Nelson said.
But Nelson’s love for country trumps even the most tumultuous of times in its history and he still intends to wear his heart on his sleeve come Independence Day.
“I’ll be doing a walk in Tobago, from Charlotteville to Crown Point. If you’re aware of the island, it’s one end to the next, it’s a 33-miles journey. I’d be starting from midnight, one minute after 12, when our flag was hoisted and it will take 11 hours to do this whole event.”
For many, waking up on August 31st and not being able to share a space at the Queen’s Park Savannah with their fellow citizens or not witness the selflessness of the nation’s military via the televised broadcast is unimaginable.
But as the coronavirus tightens its grip on the country, many “Trinis to the bone” contend that the most patriotic act everyone can do will be to stand side by side and adhere to the health protocols in order to save Trinidad and Tobago.