Clad in black with a flowing cape and extravagantly oversized hat, artist Kurt Layne’s distinctively macabre ensemble blends influences from cinematic depictions of the American Wild West with West African culture. He cuts an impressive figure as he struts along a road, giving life to a traditional carnival character, the Midnight Robber.

He recently performed at the Tobago Carnival, where he took the opportunity to share his story of staying safe during the pandemic. His achievement aimed at educating people was personal.

“My mother had passed away from covid,” he said. “I would tell everyone, and especially those close to me, to always stay on track when it comes to following covid protocols.”

“Pow pow, I shot the COVID dead,” he declared, capturing the attention of a group of kids with his “Robber Talk.”

Kurt Layne’s ominous delivery calls upon the best of the character’s verbal prowess and energetic delivery to drive home a message of hope and optimism to his young listeners.

“Stop hands with us; each other doing their part and we will definitely be off to a good start!”

The twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was dramatically affected by COVID 19 pandemic. More than 4,300 died from the disease and the economy, which is largely based on oil and gas production, was hit by falling demand for fuel during the global shutdown.

The Caribbean nation reopened to public gatherings in April 2022 and six months later the first Tobago Carnival was launched on the smaller of the two islands, featuring Kurt Layne and other traditional festival favourites.

Dame Lorraine, a temptress with exaggerated voluptuous curves, is another of the traditional mas (short for masquerade) characters found in Caribbean carnival celebrations.

Played by Lesley-Ann Ellis, the character performs provocative dance moves in costumes inspired by French colonial plantation owners of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Dame Lorraine is not associated with extensive social commentary, but in this case Lesley-Ann Ellis is working a calypso song into the traditional dance to focus on encouraging people to continue sanitizing their hands and wearing face masks.

“This thing has got to stop coughing up your sleeve; stay away, let this virus leave.”

Both artists worked with the Verified Initiative developed by the United Nations with the support of the Social Impact Agency Purpose to combat misinformation about covid-19 and to provide reliable, life-saving information and fact-based advice about the disease.

In Trinidad and Tobago, under the leadership of the UN Information Center for the Caribbean – based in Port of Spain – Purpose worked with such local stakeholders as the Tobago House of Assembly to deliver messages relevant to the national cultural context.

Oral traditions

Oral traditions are perfect for getting across covid-19 information.

Students at Signal Hill Secondary School in Tobago worked with the Verified Initiative to develop messages encouraging vaccination against covid-19.

Student, Clorysa Gill, explained how the performance, known as ‘speech tape’ can captivate an audience. “When you say, ‘stop yh bow, Mr. Fiddler,’ the way you project your voice and the tone you say it, it can tell that you’re OK, people listening to my speech now.”

These pro-vaccination and anti-disinformation messages will resonate at, arguably, the biggest cultural festival in the twin islands, the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. The event, which brings together the 1.5 million inhabitants of the islands and attracts thousands of international visitors, takes place for the first time since 2020, on February 20-21.

“Carnivals like the one held in Tobago are the ideal environment to reach a large number of people with the messages of the Verified campaign,” said Liliana Garavito Canon, Director of the United Nations Information Center for the Caribbean.

“Among the many positive messages is one that says health and celebration can coexist,” she added. “Everyone just needs to act on the right information to protect themselves and stay COVID-19 free.”