Since November 15 this year, a coalition of unions and professional associations in Guadeloupe, a group of islands that is one of the “French overseas departments”, have been partaking in a strike action. This action, led by the health personnel of the Pointe-à-Pitre University Hospital and firefighters, was extended on November 22 to the neighboring island of Martinique at the call of 17 unions and people’s organizations.
In response to the protests, the prefect of Guadeloupe introduced a curfew on November 19 and mobilized around 200 police officers to ensure it is respected. In spite of the curfew, protesters remained on the streets, and on November 21 elite anti-terrorist brigades, heavily equipped with armored vehicles, were dispatched to “restore order” in Guadeloupe by the French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin.
The protests were sparked by an attempt by France to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for workers in the public sector on both islands, which has led the mainstream French media narrative to paint the protests as “anti-vax” and anti-science in nature. In reality, the root causes of the discontent are much deeper. They have to do with historical grievances stemming from France’s colonial relationship to the islands. Similarly to previous protests, most notably the 2009 general strike, trade unions and people alike are asking the French government to finally address the high rate of poverty on the islands, as well as a lacking social infrastructure and high cost of living.
Not anti-science, pro-liberation
While it is true that the Lesser Antilles have significantly lower vaccination rates compared to continental France (regions like Brittany and Normandy in the Northwest of France have crossed the 80% vaccination threshold, while only 38% of the population has been vaccinated in Martinique), these statistics should not be taken as a reflection of the Antillians’ resistance to science, unlike the narrative promoted by continental media.
The reality is that more than 90% of all health workers in Guadeloupe are vaccinated, a figure similar to those in the richest countries of Europe. If anything, the lower rate of vaccination should be taken as a sign of France’s unreadiness to break with its colonial ways, and insisting on a pandemic response that is based on personal responsibility rather than a strong health system.
When the first COVID-19 vaccines became available at the end of last year, they went predominantly to continental France. This was at least in part due to the lacking health infrastructure in Guadeloupe and Martinique, which was unable to meet the criteria required for storing mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna. Even once this issue was addressed, the difference in the vaccination rates between mainland and overseas France had already grown large. By the time the Macron government announced the introduction of mandatory COVID-19 passes this fall, the mainland was at around 60% vaccinated; Martinique was at 30%.
“We are not on the same ground,” Martinican activist Marie-Hélène Léotin pointed out in a blog post she wrote on the subject. “We will not be able to solve this situation of a health and economic crisis with an approach of getting elected and then flying in to ask the French government for more money. Money for what, if we don’t already have our own pandemic plan? The strategy to fight COVID-19 (in Martinique, PHD) must be thought out by us, Martinicans; it is not Paris that should decide,” she said.
The Pointe-à-Pitre University Hospital, the focal point of the current protests, was severely damaged in a fire in 2017. As a result, health workers and services were redistributed to private clinics. Following that, workers at the hospital joined a two-month long general strike against the high costs of living. In response metropolitan France made promises that led to very little improvement in practice. Today, both in Martinique and Guadeloupe, more than 30% of the population lives below the poverty line—twice that of metropolitan France—while prices are 30% higher than those in metropolitan France.
Communities of African descent in particular, still among the most unprivileged communities on the islands, experienced this calamitous management of the pandemic crisis as an injustice built upon previous ones.
A history stained by chlordecone
Past experiences with France making decisions on the health of Martinicans, as well as those of other overseas territories, have made a crucial mark on the population of the islands. The Lesser Antilles remain heavily polluted by chlordecone, an insecticide that was used in banana plantations for decades, even after it was proven to be toxic for the environment and human health. WHO labelled the substance as possibly carcinogen at the end of the 1970s. France waited until 1990 to ban its use—and then continued to permit its use for growing bananas in the Antilles for three more years. According to a 2018 study by Santé Publique France, the French public health authority, over 90% of people in Martinique and Guadeloupe remain contaminated with chlordecone, which has side effects such as prostate cancer, as well as cognitive and motor development impairments in children.
Even once the French authorities admitted to having wronged the people on the islands, they continued to stall the implementation of a concrete plan of indemnization. The mistrust of the Guadeloupean population towards France has risen even more because of water cuts and the lack of sanitation infrastructure. The water supply depends on cisterns and water bottles; several schools have been closed due to the lack of tap water. 56% of the population is not connected to a sanitation network, which is particularly worrying given that much of the COVID-19 public health advice depends on adequate access to water and sanitation.
The strike is not over
A month after the beginning of the strike on Guadeloupe, the conflict on both islands has not been resolved. Although negotiations have taken place between local elected officials and the striking workers, the central government is keeping itself away from the discussion, perhaps hoping that the end-of-year holidays will put an end to the conflict.
The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for workers in the public sector has been postponed until December 31, but this is perceived by the protesters as a minor concession from the government. And while some have drawn parallels between this process and the one that led to the signing of an end-of-conflict memorandum between the government of French Polynesia and 6 Polynesian unions on the other side of the globe, it is unlikely that this will be enough to calm the anger of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique, who cannot count even on the benefits stemming from the special status of partial autonomy like Polynesia.
Where the Lesser Antilles are concerned, it will take much more to convince the people to stop protesting, including resources for public hospitals and preventive health care, a significant drop in the price of basic goods, starting with food, equal access to water and sanitation, and more democracy and local power.
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Vladimir Nieddu is a trade unionist and health activist in People’s Health Movement France.