First to go were the final two days of the ancient Venice Carnival, the impressive closing parades of the Carnival of Nice in France, and the distinctive celebrations in Basel, Switzerland. In the Swiss city a few hardy souls ventured out in costume on Carnival Day to roam the near-deserted streets to ‘mourn’ Carnival, in defiance of a ban against such gatherings.
While other pre-Lenten carnivals in the Caribbean, South America and Europe narrowly escaped the rapidly approaching lockdowns, almost all the major events scheduled for March, April and May have been axed. Two of the earliest casualties were Maspalomas in the Canary Islands (14 March) and Cape Town (21 March). Berlin’s Carnival of Cultures (1 June) has succumbed too, but several other events – Jamaica Carnival, Ocho Rios Carnival and Florida’s Caribbean Festival ‑ have been shifted along to October in the hope that the viral crisis will have passed by then.
Reports indicate that other events postponed or cancelled this year include Bahamas Carnival, Batabano and Braccanal on Cayman Islands, Guyana, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and Toronto Caribbean Carnival and Tobago and Saint Lucia Jazz Festivals and Barbados CropOver carnival
In the UK, organisers of Oxford’s Cowley Road Carnival (5 July), St Paul’s Carnival, Bristol (4 July) and Luton International Carnival (8 May), have told disappointed residents and visitors that these events would not be taking place this year.
Quoted in the Bristol Post newspaper, executive director of St Pauls Carnival CIC board LaToyah McAllister-Jones said: “Obviously we are hugely disappointed not to be able to stage Carnival as usual in July this year but it is absolutely the right decision in the current situation.”
McAllister-Jones added: “We’re currently working on a ‘digital carnival’ campaign which will bring some of the magic of the event to people at home over the next few months while they face isolation at home.”
That’s a strategy many other organisers might wish to start developing now, as the cancellation of Leeds West Indian Carnival, scheduled for the August bank holiday weekend, shows that no European summer carnival is safe from the curse of Covid-19.
Traditional British community carnivals have been cancelled right across the UK, from Cromer in the east (21 May), Neyland in the west (11 July) and Shanklin in the Isle of Wight (4 August) to Edinburgh Festival Carnival in Scotland (19 July).
Current thinking among experts is that Covid-19 will remain a severe threat to public health for between four and six months. However, several major UK Caribbean carnivals – among them Reading, Derby, Leicester and London’s Notting Hill – do not appear to have declared a position yet.
Commentators on social media have suggested that a late cancellation will cause unnecessary long-term financial damage and upset to carnivalists. Others have already accused carnival organisers of being irresponsible and selfish by not cancelling given the risks of large public gatherings. Even if organisers intend to press on with their events, clampdowns by councils, police, emergency services and insurers are certain to prevent most of this year’s carnivals and other music events going ahead.
With global economies shredded by the shutdown, millions out of work and countries’ funding almost wholly focused on keeping health and essential public services running, the cupboard will be almost bare for carnivals in 2021. In response to the crisis in the arts, the Arts Council of England has launched an emergency response fund, with £90 million available for National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) and further grants for non-NPOs and individual arts creatives. For more information and details on how to apply for help, go to artscouncil.org.uk/covid19
Despite the huge value of carnival arts in helping people overcome the traumas of the pandemic, it’s unlikely that many governments or potential sponsors will see Carnival as a priority for funding. In the months to come, therefore, it will be up to the Carnival community to come together in a spirit of unity and ingenuity to transform this mess through the magic of music and mas.