Among the many tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic have been startling revelations of glaring political, social and economic inequalities. For example: In the Geneva Observer, Djemila Carron and Paul O’Keefee describe the “overcrowded and difficult spaces” in certain refugee camps in Africa as well as the deficiencies of the humanitarian system for refugees.
Carron and O’Keefee pointedly rebuke humanitarian international organizations in their description of the lack of trust between the refugees and the humanitarians in Kenyan camps. They cite one refugee who told them that “the hypocrisy of the humanitarian system has reached a peak” during the pandemic as the workers seem more concerned with their own interests than those of the refugees. According to Carron and O’Keefee, those already in a strict confinement in the Kenyan camps are forced to deal with indifferent humanitarians in addition to the violent police who brutally enforce the national lockdown.
Also in Africa, a New York Times article reveals that “South Sudan, a nation of 11 million, has more vice presidents (five) than ventilators (four)…In all, fewer than 2,000 working ventilators have to serve hundreds of millions of people in public hospitals across 41 African countries…Ten countries in Africa have none at all.”
Further evidence of inequality has been documented in the United States where there is a disproportionate impact of the virus on people of color. The Guardian reports that “In a survey conducted across 14 US states, the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recently found that 33% of people who had been hospitalized with Covid-19 were African American, yet they represented only around 13% of the population of those states. According to research from Johns Hopkins University, of 26 states reporting racial data, African Americans account for 34% of Covid-19 related deaths.”
So while the Western media focuses on their own vulnerable group – mostly those over 65 with some pre-existing health condition – vulnerable groups around the world as well as people of color in the United States have been in the background.
Why is this so?
During times of crisis, people tend to look towards their own safety. And just as individuals toward inward, countries also look out for themselves. It is not surprising that nationalism is on the rise and multilateralism attacked. Donald Trump is closing the borders to immigration just as George Bush closed down the United States after 9/11. Multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations are ridiculed, if not blamed. Each person for himself; each city, state or canton for itself; each country for its citizens.
The pandemic has brought out simple survival instincts. Social distancing is more than just a strategy to limit the spread of the virus. It is a physical representation of individuals turning away from others. Yes, there have been acts of generosity. People are helping to deliver food to the elderly. Front line health workers are putting their own safety on the line. Each evening we applaud them on our balconies. But, fundamentally, we are all worried about our own safety and the well-being of those close to us.
Beyond physical safety, many in the West are worried about the basics of food and jobs. The long lines of people waiting for handouts reflect how tenuous survival has become. Those who thought they had enough resources for shelter and nutrition are facing basic needs for survival.
What about the Other? In the midst of organizing for personal survival, can we think about the Other? The statistics about people of color and the poor in the United States as well as the situation in refugee camps and in Africa are the culmination of the failures in public health systems throughout the world. Those in countries with functioning health systems are indeed fortunate. But if most Western countries were ill prepared for this pandemic, those less privileged were even less prepared.
So as the West tries to catch up to take care of the needs of the majority of its citizens, can we expect the rich and powerful to look out for the vulnerable within their borders and outside? Organizations like the WHO and foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have worked to guarantee a minimum level of health throughout the world. Vaccination programs have been implemented along with development programs that have tried to reduce absolute poverty. And there has been some progress.
But the pandemic threatens those advances. Aid money will dry up as donor countries inject huge sums of money to try to salvage their economies. Tens of millions are unemployed. Industries will shut down. It is predicted that the economic consequences of the pandemic will be worse than the Great Depression of 1929.
Given those priorities, can we expect considerations for the most vulnerable within borders and beyond? Are there duties beyond borders? Is it too much to ask people to be anxious about their own welfare and at the same time be empathetic with the plight of others?
There will always be inequalities. The Marxist/Leninist ideal of general equality has proven a failure. The growing inequality within Western countries and around the world (the 1% owning as much wealth as a significant part of the population) has been well documented.
The question is whether the pandemic will accentuate the inequalities or introduce a “new normal” with greater awareness and sensitivity to those at risk. Faced with all our vulnerability during the pandemic, will we be able to reach out to others as we would hope they would reach out to us? While the instinct for survival and self-preservation is natural to all animals, can we show a higher level of consciousness in an interdependent world?
Reports from refugee camps in Africa and statistics about deaths of people of color should force us to rethink our fragile, privileged situations. While we stay at home, can we empathize with those who are more vulnerable and have no homes? And if we can, will concrete steps to reach out to them be part of the “new normal”?