Who is Dancing in the Shadow of Corona?
Perhaps I have never been so thoroughly reminded of my privileges as I have been this spring 2020. I could never imagine it would take a pandemic for me to be so thoroughly reminded of the enormous gap between me and a less privileged person. Between the haves and the have nots. It is obvious that I have drawn a winning ticket when my newspaper claims that the pandemic can give me “lots of time for reflection.” I am invited to a book club to read Camus’ classic novel The Plague and on the radio, I hear that in Sweden there is no yeast left in the shops since Sweden has “baked itself through the crisis.” I have spoken to a stressed craftsman who admits that he has never had so many job offers—everyone wants to renovate, refurbish, or have their homes repainted. During the pandemic many are working from home and due to the contamination risk, people are biking instead of using public transport. What about those then who cannot work from home or who have far to travel to work? And people who live more cramped than I do who may find it hard to follow the rules? And for those who work with people there might not be enough protection devices to go around.
The pandemic affects us variously—within a country, between countries, but also depending on who we are. Depending not only on the varied spread of the disease, but also on each country’s domestic resources. Differences may be due to an ongoing political crisis, a despotic leader, poverty, or corruption. A country’s history and its relative affluence also play a decisive part; countries with outdrawn experiences of national trauma handle the pandemic differently from those who have had a long period of peace.
We can clearly see how the pandemic is being exploited by antidemocratic forces. We notice that several countries have introduced new laws that will ultimately survive the virus itself. Freedom of expression is threatened in new ways, not least via hate speech and surveillance on the Internet. One thing that all countries have in common is that the pandemic more direly affects those already vulnerable and marginalised.
Covid-19 evokes fear that can breed hate and threat. One example is given by the historian Wiola Wejman in her essay about how people working in the hospital in her hometown Lublin in Poland have been harassed in their own neighbourhoods: “At the beginning of the pandemic she tried to help her neighbours by handing out face masks. Some of these people found out where she worked. When the epidemic later escalated to higher levels, she was told that it would be better for her if she moved. People threw paint at her and her colleagues’ front doors or vandalised their cars.”
What do we say to people who have no constructive ways of relieving their anxiety, have no access to protective gear at work, or completely lack the means to follow the administration’s restrictions?
The journalist Juliana Dal Piva describes Rocinha, a favela in Brazil known for its miserable living conditions and enormous overcrowding. She delineates a country where the death toll is rising while President Bolsonaro takes a Jet Ski tour on a nearby calm lake outside of Brasilia. He complains about this raging “neurosis,” this virus, which, according to him, is just a common influenza.
In Kabul in Afghanistan, as a result of the pandemic, food prices are now four to five times higher than before. A spokesperson for the Red Cross, Roya Musawi, depicts an everyday life where violence and conflicts have exacerbated the death toll in Covid-19 these past months.
The journalist Merga Yonas Bula writes about a much longed for national election for a more democratic Ethiopia, an election that has now been postponed indefinitely. From China the pen name Ye Lin reports on fines or prison sentences that threaten those who warn about contamination risks on Facebook. Any information that does not come straight from the administration is regarded as a dangerous “spreading of rumours.”
Journalists tell of restraints in their reporting, both in real life and online. “I am not the only one who thinks twice before sharing critique of the government or information about people in the business and cultural elite—everyone does. It is easy to think: ‘What good will it bring? It would only cause harm,’ writes the Slovenian writer Tanja Tuma in an article about the censorship that has intensified during Corona.
Dictatorships world over have been fuelled by Covid-19 where it functions as an excellent excuse to hide behind.
“I can’t breathe” became the black security guard George Floyd’s final words before he was murdered by police in Minneapolis in May. One sentence that immediately turned into the Black Lives Matter movement’s rallying cry in a wave of protest that has spread to many countries. It contains an anger evoked by the racism and the misuse of power that goes back to the days of slavery. Perhaps it also emanates from the frustration that has its roots in class differences and the racism that the pandemic has unveiled.
“I can’t breathe” became George Floyd’s final words, a symbol for the brutal violence he was subjected to. The words have no obvious connection to the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, it is hard to bypass the dual message that can be seen on signs of protest in countries afflicted by the pandemic. It is hard to disregard the fact that the current pandemic is characterised by one thing in particular: breathing difficulties.
Who can breathe in a world of racism, segregation, surveillance, control, and censorship?
In one of her poems, especially written for this issue of Pen/Opp, the Ugandan poet Arinda Daphine writes: “Each city is a quiet fort.” No, I won’t accept this. We must stop playing at national megalomania and closed borders. The affluent world has much to learn from the part of the world where people have more limited possibilities. The haves must stand up, resist, and allow the have nots to be heard; we need to listen and learn from one another regardless our background.
As Brian Carmichael, activist and educator in HIV/AIDS related issues in NYC, writes in his essay: “I will tell others that the road I took to healing and recovery was SOLIDARITY and ACTION. I will help, comfort, and advise those who are ill; I will serve them like a Covid-19 doula.”