Do you think celebrities think about the practical parts of traveling to the Caribbean—and other parts of the so-called Global South—before they hop on their private jets for their COVID vacations? Not like, whether their assistants packed the right selection of swimsuits or if they have enough sunscreen, but the really practical stuff. You know, like the number of ICU beds in the countries they’re visiting, and how likely they are to cause an outbreak that might overwhelm that country’s capacity to handle it.
Probably not, right?
I ask because, according to their Instagrams, Gabrielle Union-Wade and Dwyane Wade are in Jamaica to celebrate the latter’s 39th birthday and they seem to be having a great time, taking in a private concert by Beenie Man, riding horses in the ocean, bussing a wine (sidenote: not whine) and looking all loved up. I’ll give them some credit; unlike other celebrities who have caught masked staff in the backgrounds of their photos, they’re very careful to create the impression that they’re the only ones there. But… they are not. And that’s the problem, isn’t it?
I’ve written before about why I think celebrities have a responsibility to model the behaviour we’re all being asked to follow, especially during a public health crisis that requires all of us to make drastic changes in a bid to control it. It goes without saying that no one should be going on vacation right now, but as someone who’s from another small Caribbean island—Trinidad—I’m not actually angry these two aren’t being good role models. Or at least, that’s not the only reason I’m angry. It’s also about the profound lack of regard for actual human lives.
To be fair, the Union-Wades aren’t technically breaking any rules. Jamaica re-opened for business last year and the island’s government has rolled out stringent new entry requirements, including a negative COVID test and health screenings. (Though, for the record, the CDC recommends against travelling there.) But just because you can go on vacation, doesn’t mean you should. Travel was the reason for the virus’s initial spread, after all. And maybe the Union-Wades didn’t look up the number of ICU beds in Jamaica before their getaway, but I did. Prior to COVID, there were 30 for a population of more than 2.7 million, which works out to just about one per 100,000 people. According to another report by Inter-American Development Bank Group, that number has more than doubled since the onset of the pandemic, but—as always seems to be the case when we talk about ICU beds—that still may not be enough to meet the demand as the number of cases in the country rises.
Public ICU beds are an imperfect metric to measure a country’s capacity for handling COVID-19. (In Trinidad, there are 24 ICU beds for a population of 1.4 million, but strict quarantine measures helped control the infection rate, so their system hasn’t been overwhelmed.) They are a handy shorthand for access to treatment, though—as the infection rate rises, so does the likelihood of serious cases, which drives up the need for those beds. In Jamaica, there are 25 infections per 100,000 people right now, according to Reuters. If just three of those 25 require treatment in an ICU, they have more demand for beds than they can accommodate… which means some people just don’t get the care they need, and can even die.
I get that this is not top of mind for the Union-Wades, who can afford whatever healthcare they could possibly need or even want. But shouldn’t it be? Especially if you care about social justice and equity in other areas of your life?
Their trip is obviously not a one-off; this week alone, Alicia Keys celebrated her birthday in Mexico and Michael B. Jordan continues to post photos from his recent trip to St. Barts with girlfriend Lori Harvey. Drake was in Turks & Caicos in December and Barbados over the summer. Kylie and Kendall Jenner were just in Mexico. Dua Lipa has been, like, everywhere. I know we were all on Lizzo’s side when she was kicked out of her vacation rental early, but I think we all forgot the part where our girl was on vacation? Even my queen, Rihanna, went home to Barbados over the holidays.
But it’s not just celebrities who feel entitled to a vacation in a warm place, and who cares about the consequences. This isn’t even a pandemic-specific thing. There has been a lot (A LOT) of writing about tourism as cultural imperialism, particularly in the context of Caribbean islands, which were also literal colonies in the not-so distant past. In a 2017 Bitch article, Bani Amor argued that “ever since European colonization gave birth to the Western travel narrative, the ‘traveler’ has had a tendency to gender the land before him and even the vessels who bring him to his destination, using cliches of ‘virgin forests’ waiting to be ‘explored’ and ‘wild’ (read: Indigenous) terrain unacquainted with the poke of flag... In feminizing place, patriarchy demotes it to the realm of the female, that is, not valued but valuable, and when we add capitalist imperialism to the mix, she is ceaselessly plundered for her resources by settlers.”
This dynamic didn’t end when these islands claimed their independence; it just shifted. Westerners still view this region as a resource, it’s just not about coffee, rum or sugar anymore. Now, it’s about leisure and luxury… But in all the ways that matter, the land and its people are still being mined for someone else’s benefit. Tourism is environmentally devastating. The people who work in the industry are paid poorly, lack job security and often don’t even get the benefit of health and safety protections, even though the sector generates billions in annual revenue. (Not that money stays in the region. High rates of foreign ownership mean “the majority of this income—perhaps as high as 80 cents in every dollar—'leaks out’ of the Caribbean,” according to USA Today.) And while the news we get in North America is about tourists being sexually assaulted, there’s not as much coverage of the sexual assault workers experience at the hands of guests—because they’re encouraged to keep quiet to protect the business. All of which feels worse to think about during a pandemic.
Though, I do wonder how much we actually are thinking about this right now. One of the reasons I’ve been stewing over these celebrities and their trips for so long is because with a few exceptions—Kim K, Dua Lipa, those annoying British influencers who are all in Dubai—most celebrities aren’t catching any heat for their selfish decisions at all.
That’s for sure because of the exploitative dynamic between North America and the Caribbean, which makes it easy to centre ourselves in these conversations. You can tell because when we do criticize them, it’s over the way their selfishness and privilege relate to us. So, flaunting their wealth makes us feel bad about our own comparative lack of privilege, and when they don't practice civic responsibility, it makes us feel bad that we have to. Which is all true, and things I’ve said, too! But I think it’s telling that when we think about the people who are suffering the most from these celebrities’ selfish decisions—the workers who are making sure they have a pleasant experience, and the residents of the countries they invade with their entourages—it’s after we think about ourselves.
Also, we need to acknowledge how much of a role media plays here. When I saw magazines posting about the Union-Wades’ trip on Instagram, they weren’t talking about where they were as much as they were celebrating their love or stanning their fashion. I get it; when Rihanna and A$AP Rocky spent Christmas in Barbados, I posted about how much I liked them together on Instagram, but I didn’t mention my more complicated feelings about her getting to go home when I can’t. Partially, that’s because I sometimes feel like a broken record when I point this stuff out. (Which makes sense, because it happens so fucking often.) But it’s also because… Rihanna. I love her 🤷🏽♀️
The thing is, ignoring where these stars are when we cover them isn’t telling the whole story.
That’s also why I brought up social justice earlier. So many of the stars I see travelling profess to care deeply about equity. They’ve been outspoken advocates for racial justice, spoken convincingly about their dedication to body positivity and sent powerful messages against homophobia and transphobia. But their empathy doesn’t seem to extend to the people who stand to suffer the most from their decisions.
And honestly, that’s true for all of us. I love travelling. I can’t wait to travel again. But if this pandemic has shown me anything, it’s the necessity of living my values. I can’t talk about the ways I have been exploited and then turn around and be exploitative. Which means it’s not enough to just skip vacations during the pandemic. We also have to think about how and where we travel when we can again. Because if you care deeply about equity, you have to care about it everywhere, not just where you live.
The new fashion influencers who romanticize living off the land.
Former Atlantic managing editor Jennifer Barnett’s absolutely incendiary post about the abuse she experienced from her then-boss, James Bennet, during their respective tenures at the magazine. (She quit; he ended up leaving soon after to run the opinion section at the New York Times… then leaving the NYT after running that controversial op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton. But don’t worry, The Economist literally just hired him for a one-year stint as senior editor, thoroughly proving Barnett’s point.)
Writer Iman Sultan’s argument that Lana Del Ray’s career has been built on cultural appropriation.
Food & Wine’s culturally inappropriate food styling—and their surprisingly thoughtful response to the criticism.
This gorgeous personal essay about growing up undocumented—and why being the daughter of immigrants has had a bigger impact on the writer’s identity.
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