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Opinion

COVID-19 and Hope for a Compassionate Future

STOCKHOLM / ROME, Apr 9 2020 (IPS) - The Coronavirus, COVID-19, makes its deadly round across the world. People fall sick and die, communities and entire nations end up in its deadly grip and try to cope with it. Everything is changing, and changing fast and we all have to deal with it together, even if many of us are being physically apart. Humans are social beings. Our mental and physical capacities are created around that fact and crave for support and compassion.

Some of us benefit from social security, relative wealth, access to health care and a home of our own, others lack all of this. COVID-19 brings already existing social ills and inequalities to the surface. The general and the personal are getting mixed up. A collective state of mind becomes part of our intimate sphere of existence. While an imposed quarantine isolates us from others, we become subjects to conflicting information, wild rumours, and apocalyptic prophesies, combined with an awareness of the injustice of unequal suffering and worries about what the future might hold in store. What happens to our bodies affect our minds, and vice versa. We might feel as we are awake within a nightmare, a state of mind that has been described by several imaginative authors.

In Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Year of Solitude the plague comes to the small town of Maconde, which in Márquez’s novel serves as an archetype for countless other Latin American rural towns. However, this plague is not a plague of the body, but of the mind. It makes it impossible for people to sleep and accordingly it also makes them unable to dream. As the plague extends and ultimately affects everyone in Maconde, people do not starve because they can work day and night. They do not suffer since they cannot dream and have thus lost their ability to imagine another existence. To save other communities from the ”illness of insomnia”, the town’s most influential leader, José Arcadio Buendía, decides that it has to be restricted ”to the perimeter of the town. So effective was the quarantine that the day came when the emergency situation was accepted as a natural thing and life was organized in such a way that work picked up its rhythm again.”1 However, at its final stage the plague proves to be deadly. The victims soon lose their memory, their sense of reality and worst of all – their compassion.

One of the lessons learned from this fable might be that we humans cannot subsist without our dreams, hopes and imagination. Furthermore, we all depend on one another. The weak on the strong, the old on the young, and the entire humanity depends on a natural environment we have abused in a horrifying manner.

The imposed quarantine many of us are subject to might hopefully remind us about differences between the rich and the poor – that wealth and class are always an issue and might determine our ability to cope with the pandemic. A Brazilian story may illustrate this fact:

The first death from COVID-19 in Rio de Janeiro was a domestic worker who tried to get treatment for her breathing problems. However, she was sent back home unattended. When her health deteriorated further and she on the 16th of March returned for treatment, she told the hospital staff that her employer had become ill after returning from Italy. It was found that he had been suspected of being infected by the Coronavirus, something he had not told his employee. He had early on been hospitalized and tested positive. His 63-year-old employee died the day after she was admitted to a hospital.2

Similar cases have occurred in other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean, where maids, gardeners, drivers, nurses, hotel staff and other people in the service sector have by employers and clients been infected with COVID-19. This have made several Latin Americans inclined to label COVID-19 as a ”rich man’s disease”. Many of the original COVID-19 cases have been people returning from visits to Spain, or Italy, as well as tourists coming from these countries, or businessmen returning from trips to other European countries, or China. Such patients have generally received excellent and expensive care, while poorer victims of COVID-19 who caught their infection from them have often been left unattended and furthermore forced to suffer the disease under conditions of poor housing, insecure income and deficient, or non-existent health care. Similar stories are told from other parts of the world, where we also witness how migrant workers are desperately trying to return to their homes to avoid becoming locked-in within huge cities, far away from their loved ones. How citizens in war-torn areas of Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria now are further threatened by the pandemic, as well as the homeless refugees amassed and stuck in camps in border areas of Turkey and Bangladesh. Medical doctors are warning that once the pandemic is spreading from wealthy regions and privileged social classes into poorer strata of society, issues of quarantine, loss of income and inadequate healthcare are going to be paramount and insurmountable for poor nations.

Like the people trapped in Maconde many of those quarantined within affluent societies may be affected by a loss of their sense of reality, while becoming numbed by figures and statistics. Living in wealthy nations and/or secluded within upscale neighbourhoods may make them forget the plight of the less fortunate.

Let us hope that this pandemic will serve as a reminder that we all share this earth and it is our common interest to take care of it together. That many of us might come out of our quarantine with an improved, more compassionate view of the world and our fellow human beings. That this global affliction makes us realize that the best way to mitigate future disasters is to preserve our natural resources in a sustainable manner and guarantee equal education and healthcare for all. This can be done and for our own survival we have to achieve it.

1 García Márquez, Gabriel (1978) One Hundred Years of Solitude. London: Picador, p. 45.
2 https://apublica.org/2020/03/primeira-morte-do-rio-por-coronavirus-domestica-nao-foi-informada-de-risco-de-contagio-pela-patroa/

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

 
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