Covid-19 Does Not Discriminate

By Lima Halima-Ahmad

This morning, looking out from my apartment’s window, I longed to see people walking on the street. In this busy and noisy world, why was I missing humans? I used to pray for time alone. Why am I not enjoying it after only a couple of days of isolation?

I thought I would pack my bags and go somewhere, to avoid the cascade of bad news in emails from the university, announcing that classes are canceled or that dorm residents have been forced to evacuate. I wanted to escape the news about students and residents being quarantined for symptoms of the pandemic virus. We have been told to take precautions and not to freak out, but how can one not worry when facing something this unknown? We criticize those who steal hand sanitizer from hospitals, and cannot understand the crazy urge to stock up on toilet paper. Is this what our apocalypse looks like? I wanted to go to Kabul, where my friends and family are scared of the Taliban’s return to power, but where at least I would not be isolated.

Suddenly, the reality hit me that there is nowhere on earth which would be different or safe. Omaid, my partner, had it right when he said that “Corona does not discriminate.” I cannot compare this situation to any of my life experiences. I come from a country torn by 40 years of war. I recall being in the basement for weeks due to bombardments; I recalled food shortages. I remembered my life as a refugee kid on the streets collecting scraps; I thought of my friends and colleagues who died in terrorist suicide attacks, and I recalled all the atrocities that I had experienced or read about since the dawn of humanity. If this is unprecedented in our time, it raises the question: is this an inflection point at which humanity could change permanently, for better or for worse?

Will this collective vulnerability teach us cognitive empathy or make us even more selfish? It is possible this crisis will increase distrust and fear of the unknown, further dividing us, causing an increase in global inequality due to restrictions on labor migration, trade, and economic dependency. Yet at the same time the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for us to rethink our humanity and reimagine our world during this time of collective vulnerability.

Being quarantined for a few days now, we have all had a glimpse of how it was for girls and women during the Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan, when they were quarantined for life. More importantly, when we see empty food shelves in superstores these days, we might have an idea of the uncertainty caused by the food insecurity that more than 20 million people in Yemen are currently enduring. Some of us might have even imagined running out of food, while not realizing that 10 million Yemenis are already at risk of famine. I am very sure that for many of us, Italy is on the list of countries we dream to visit once in our lifetimes. We cannot look away from that beautiful country where 919 died in just one day, and the total death toll has increased to more than 10,000 – not because of terrorist attacks that can be blamed on a religion, country, or ideology, but a virus without motive or logic. In the face of projections of 120,000 likely infections and 12,000 deaths before the corona outbreak is over in Iran, it will be difficult for Europe, the United States, and the Gulf countries to justify the continuation of their economic sanctions.

In at least one way, I have been forced to rethink and redefine humanity. I am not worried about running out of food or supplies – or dying. What scares me the most is being forced to be alone. I am scared of not being able to visit a friend even though I want to see and touch her newborn baby. The mental frustration of not being there for each other is overwhelming, and even more contagious than the virus itself.

This crisis brings our attention to critical realities of our world. What will identity politics look like afterwards; will race, skin color, or socio-economic class matter in the same way? Will women be second-class survivors, allowing men to have a bigger say in how to save our humanity from this deadly pandemic? Will Allah save only the Muslim nations from this pandemic, or will Jesus Christ come to the aid of the Christians? Whose God will save whom first, and who will get access to the tree of life? Superpowers will not be able to save their own. Money and resources cannot help one avoid infection completely – and it does nothing at all to stave off fear. When Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson tested positive, it reminded us that no superstars – and even no superheroes – are safe. COVID-19 does not discriminate. It closes the divide between the Global South and the Global North, between the rich and the poor. Justin Trudeau’s wife is experiencing the same fear of the unknown as a woman in the slums of developing and poor countries.

This collective vulnerability will change our political world. Indeed, this is a time in which we see that no rich country can save its people by exploiting developing nations. More importantly, the superpowers’ arms race, military alliances, and trade wars are useless tools for providing us with a cure from this unknown virus. Instead, this virus shows how interdependent we all are and how much we need other humans for our survival. We have to rethink our collective well-being.

Lima Halima-Ahmad is a PhD research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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