Ruminations in Quarantine
By Saria Jadoon
What is worse for the planet’s poor: death by starvation or contagion? Because there is no other alternative in a world of plenty, they should not become a thorn in the flesh of the rich, more specifically, their lungs. That toxic air has already blackened them is beside the point. The middle class is slightly better off, albeit only for a short time. To return them to work, a paternalistic state can mull over offering its older population as an oblation at the shrine of stock exchange; at any cost, the spiky wheels of neoliberal economy must not come to a halt. One after the other, healthcare systems of the most affluent countries in history have been decimated by an influx of patients and shortage of medical equipment whereas stockpiles of smart bombs and fighter jets rest pointlessly in their repositories. From their aerie lodges, the Marie Antoinette(s) of twenty-first century gripe about mandatory social distancing after a surfeit of Netflix and cake. Covid-19 has unleashed a spectrum of collective torment on the human race unprecedented in a generation but thankfully, very few are acquainted with its components in entirety. Suffering is never welcome and we are neither Syria nor Kashmir. However, the pervasive desperation in our societies brings home comparable privation of disparate multitudes and defilement of Mother Nature by Homo sapiens. It is our orientation in the following months that will determine the legacy we leave for posterity.
The only denominator is humanity: –
A lot of us are guilty of frivolously disseminating ‘Made in China, won’t last long’ tropes about the novel virus and castigating PRC’s political system and food preferences at the onset. It goes without saying that investigation into the conception of this pernicious pandemic must be high priority – censurable state practices, once ascertained beyond doubt must be called out and where possible, human and monetary losses indemnified. However, nothing warrants racist backlash against Asian-looking people in the West soon after Covid-19 went ‘viral’. Within a few weeks, China recovered and marvelously so with relatively low body count and little propagation outside Wuhan. Before long, epicenters shifted elsewhere and hyper-nationalists and religious zealots found familiar targets to vilify. Sunni Pakistanis were quick to attribute the dispersal of infection to Shia pilgrims travelling back from Iran before waking up to another potential source: Raiwand. In India, Muslim preachers were vehemently reviled as ‘super-spreaders’, conveniently overlooking the marches and cow-cola parties organized by Hindu supremacists and attended by hundreds. Farther in the land of Enlightenment, doctors in a television program unabashedly suggested to experiment the corona vaccine on Africans – as if they were lesser humans or their lives did not matter.
Revolutionary fervor prevailed over the dire needs of Iranian population as the Khomeini regime repeatedly declined international assistance and Trump administration refused to ease sanctions. Neglectfully behind time at home, the leader of the sole superpower vacillated on the global front too.
Consequently, the first fatality of a post-Covid-19 order must be divisive politics and the dogmas charging it. Alongside the arrant ineptitude of populist leaders, the pathogen has debunked their ‘us vs. them’ portrayal of national and international life. Barriers scream out their futility in an air they cannot split. The Great Wall of China could not contain the microbe in its precincts and robust immigration controls failed to impede its ingress into the United States of America. Every nation for itself until you are neck-deep in a crisis you are unable to subdue on your own and invoke divine intervention. But mosques have closed their doors so have synagogues, temples and churches.
Priests who dubbed the contagion as God’s wrath at growing homosexuality tested positive for the virus in due course. A similar desolation envelops the Jerusalem, Vatican, Varanasi and Mecca and their devotees. As people of varied geographical, ethnic, economic and political cultures fall prey to a singular SARS-CoV-2, the only celestial intercession has descended in the form of medical practitioners who have been working indefatigably without protective gear, risking their own lives in the process. In the United Kingdom, children of immigrants hold on to the trenches as Cuban doctors traverse continents to alleviate the burden on fellow practitioners. Pandemic has yoked Palestinians and Israelis in a similar quandary as the psychic bars between Russia and Europe crumble and they rush to console one another. Other rescuers who are stepping up to the challenge by donating safety and sanitary goods, respiratory aids and comestibles are temporal beings so are the law enforcers, soldiers, volunteers, journalists and essential workers toiling around the clock to ensure the well-being of fellow citizens. At once, the plight and offering of persons are not colored in hues of race, gender, wealth or doctrine. Humanity is the only ideology that offers salvation. Although, the death-dealing, financially denuding pestilence has indiscriminately affected vast swathes of the globe, the ensuing course of action has varied considerably, especially in countries headed by empathetic and accomplished women. Eschewing xenophobic rhetoric, partisan politics and crony capitalism, these states proactively managed the crisis by methodically locking down cities, assembling requisite medical services, prolific testing and announcing economic relief measures for individuals and businesses in need. This is markedly different from strongmen at the helm temporizing, shutting down the entire state on a few hours’ notice, playing down the disease as flu and cautioning countrymen to be prepared to lose a loved one on way to achieving herd immunity. Just as policy responses to a common predicament diverge, so does the capacity to withstand it.
Inequality breeds vulnerability: –
It is rather facile to reaffirm the now hackneyed instruction to wash one’s hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer for almost twenty seconds several times in a day, cleanse surfaces, confine oneself to home and maintain safe distance from other humans. All is well for the well-off unless they are unwell. Across the glass towers are communities that do not have clean water to drink or running supply for household use and they number in billions, concentrated mostly in Asia and Africa. Many have never seen a disinfectant in their lifetimes and can barely afford it. Therefore, a natural ritual such as deterging hands may not be so trouble-free for a humongous section of the population – no water or soap, water and no soap, soap and polluted H2O. Millions of families dwell in housing units sometimes as meager as a single room in shanty towns and squalid urban quarters with no proper sewerage system or healthcare facilities. In many countries, jails have open toilets and are overcrowded. Hospitals are scanty, inadequately provided, under-staffed and burdened beyond capacity. Teeming with rodents and fetid odors, these are breeding grounds for contagion much less the environs to curb its transmission. Much like cleanliness and social distancing, limitation to home is also no less an amenity. The shelter-less have no place to seek refuge and 820 million are already hungry. Almost half of the world’s population earns barely enough to feed themselves for a day and cannot subsist without going to work regularly. If these daily wagers go out, they are susceptible to disease and would starve if they do not. At times the sole breadwinner, they are only a hospital bill short of plunging into extreme poverty.
Despite lending backbone to the economy, blue collar workers and there are many of those in vital services – from the janitor to salesperson – continue to labor long hours for paltry wages, no paid sick leave or job security in perilous conditions. Who is to blame for their inability to abide by safety protocols – the destitute or the overarching system that moderates their circumstances? Many others may be able to stockpile on grocery and the coveted hand sanitizer but for how long? Funds may exhaust in some weeks or months; small and medium businesses may not be able to outlast closure, leaving no substitute for the unemployed tens of millions.
It goes without saying that the organs of the affluent are as susceptible to Coronavirus as that of the impecunious but unlike them, they inhabit spacious, well-supplied compounds in salubrious neighborhoods and can call for medical assistance at home. Capital cannot buy immortality as yet. True. Irrespective of financial status, the emotional toll of losing a loved one is profound – in this instance, aggravated by inability to bid farewell and appropriately inter. But the rich have holdings that can sustain them for years without having to worry about discharging their utility and assorted bills. Indeed, monetary repercussions of the virus have also jolted the coffers of billionaires and conglomerate firms but these losses amount to a tiny fraction of their colossal wealth and a submissive state will readily step in to ameliorate the damage because these entities are too big to fail. Contrast it with the too trifling/expensive to save outlook taken towards enterprises of lesser influence and citizens with limited means. They form the majority and are compelled to select between equally appalling options. This disparity in living conditions precedes the pandemic which has only made its grisly ramifications a bit more palpable. It is imperative to recognize that the debilitating and cyclic inequality that robs billions of meal, sanitation, health, education, opportunity and dignity is not ineluctable. Over the last three decades, governments have actively exacerbated this divide by under-taxing giant corporations and levying disproportionate dues on the working class. While the rich continue to innovate to evade their liabilities, spending on vital services such as education, healthcare and social security has been ruthlessly pared and privatization has reduced these fundamental rights to luxuries. That just 1 per cent owns two times more wealth than 6.9 billion people is obscenely unfair and must be atoned for through progressive taxation that redistributes resources to those in the bottom stratum. A universal basic income may have sounded like a radical idea in the past but the cataclysmic virus has unequivocally revealed the pressing need for a living stipend for all. The earth is our shared home and as such must be equally livable for its inhabitants.
The continued survival of our species is inextricably linked with the environment: –
The 2002-04 SARS epidemic broke out from China and so has the Covid-19. While the latter is purported to have started in Wuhan with the consumption of bats or pangolins kept in insanitary conditions alongside other wildlife, the former passed on to humans from civet cats in the Guangdong province. Both of these maladies can be traced to the wet markets of the Middle Kingdom which openly trade in ‘anything that flies except a plane and anything with four legs except a table’. These infamous bazaars take in a variety of bizarre species from wolf cubs and monkeys to turtles, serpents and frogs to placate the culinary preferences of citizens for whom feasting on exotic animals has become a status symbol. Besides being ideal birthplaces of zoonotic infections, these markets are operated in horrid conditions – terrified, sick and injured beings jumbled together in the abattoir and slaughtered in filthy, merciless ways. With no welfare laws in place, terrible atrocities are committed against marine and terrestrial creatures. This is detestable. Moreover, despite solid evidence of the public health menaces posed by live animal markets, it is criminally negligent on part of the Chinese government to continue to permit these contagion incubators to function long after the SARS outbreak. Therefore, Beijing should not only apologize for jeopardizing the lives and livelihoods of billions but must also be rigorously pressed to make lasting changes to its treatment of fauna. That said, it is time to assess our own dietary habits not only out of compassion for animals but because our insatiable appetite for meat is deleterious to our health and that of the planet. Millions of square kilometers of forests have been cut for grazing pastures and industrial livestock worsens the greenhouse effect because methane gas emitted by ruminants during digestion is twenty-one times more damaging than carbon dioxide is to the atmosphere. In addition to sparing us from cancer, obesity and varied ailments of heart, cutting down on meat consumption will also positively impact our soil, air and waters – apparently, they have found a breathing space in recent months.
This spring is unlike any other we have seen in years. The novel virus holding humans captive in their abodes has enabled other species to reclaim their habitats and also give an occasional knock on our doors. Anthropogenic noise has given way to blustering winds and chirping of birds in clearer skies. As brown belts of pollution subside, mountains shrouded by smoke for decades have become perceptible. Life is flaring up in limpid waters; mercury is falling, animals are rejoicing and wild flowers blooming. Over the Arctic, the biggest hole in the ozone layer has closed. But the good news about the revival of the planet is accompanied by enormous agony and foreboding. It took a deadly virus, hundreds of thousands of fatalities and trillions of dollars in business losses for an inhalation of benign air. And this fresh aerosphere may turn out to be nothing more than an interlude when normality is restored and humans return to their rapacious ways – indeed, double down on carbon-releasing exploits to make up for financial losses. However, it is erroneous to presume that environmental protection and economic development are mutually exclusive. For years, climate activists have vociferously advocated for a Green New Deal and been ridiculed by naysayers as alarmist and fanciful but if ecological conservation is further delayed, pandemics and extreme weather events will become a way of life displacing and debilitating large populations, depleting resources and deluging economies. If anything, our present predicament must impel us to make lasting changes to our production and consumption patterns. These include a transition off fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy, smart buildings, clean public transport and digital infrastructure, abstaining from animal-based diet and food wastage, recycling waste and restoring forests. Prudent management of nature is indispensable for the survival of humans in the post Covid-19 world.
We cannot shirk from our collective responsibility: –
The Civil War President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said and aptly so that we cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today. Teetering on the brink of extinction, there is no tomorrow for our generation because we have been procrastinating perilously on discharging our duties of today. The repercussions are palpable. One loses count of the liters of innocent blood that have drenched the soils of religion, nationalism and civilization. In the cornucopia that our world is, the exchange rate of sweat is awfully low. Between the affluent and impoverished, white and black, men, women and the intersex, humans and their animal cousins, the divides are egregious and cleavages sealed with oppression. The powerful traffic in the inalienable rights of the great unwashed with impunity. As rising sea levels, pandemics and a warming terra firma reveal, the license for sucking the planet dry has become void and oppression works out its own destruction. History is replete with premonitions and so are our airwaves nowadays. Indeed, there is no silver bullet to undo centuries of vandalism of the earth and maltreatment of its inhabitants. But the silver lining in the ominous clouds of catastrophe is that we are all capable of making a difference. Our thought, word and action are not devoid of substance or meaning. Every choice matters and it falls on us to ensure it is the right one. This is very much like information; the blizzards of fake news that can fog logic, entrench biases, foment chaos and induce complacence or credible data that can back up policies, foster understanding, generate awareness and lead the way to amicable solutions. Same is true for money that can be used to manufacture weapons to kill or spent on meeting the necessities of the multitudes. Empathy and enterprise are the basic tools in the survival kit for the new world. We cannot afford to continue to overlook the structural barriers that extinguish the bare promise of a dignified living for millions. While governments and international institutions cannot be absolved of their shortcomings, we cannot depend entirely on them to repair this debilitating system. The harmony we seek to manifest begins with billions of us taking small steps such as sharing meal with a neighbor, contributing to a child’s education or an elderly person’s medical bills, recompensing our helpers fairly, being conscientious about our shopping and dietary practices, educating oneself to vote wisely and use nature’s resources sparingly; speaking a kind word or raising voice against injustice, spreading knowledge or a smile. Most importantly, it entails divesting oneself of prejudice and respecting every life irrespective of its origin or ostensible status. We have been sitting on the fence for far too long. It did not help then, it won’t help now. The contagion of indifference and powerlessness must be eliminated for good.