On 11th March, I went for my second class for that day. Half way through the class, we had a break and as I have always done hundreds of times before, I went to the coffee machine and made myself a cup of hot chocolate. Per tradition, I went outside with a handful of friends to complain about the Dutch weather whilst getting some fresh air. Well, we talk about some serious stuff also. Before long, our break was done and we rushed up the stairs back to class. 45 minutes later, the class was done. I packed my laptop, said bye to some of my classmates and wished them a nice holiday since the following week was going to be our spring break. By then, I was planning on what I would do for my break because my initial plans of going to Italy fell through after my flights were cancelled as a result of the Italian government’s travel restrictions to curb the spread of the covid-19 virus in the country.
Two days later, on the 13th, I received an e-mail saying all physical classes/large events were cancelled and that we would transition to online learning for the remainder of the semester. From that day, one thing has led to another which led to another, giving us the current situation.
To say that the novel covid-19 virus has caused disruptions and uncertainties to people’s lives is an understatement. I first read about covid-19 on new year’s day during my layover in Istanbul. Not for a fraction of a second did it ever cross my mind that what I was reading about at that moment would affect me as greatly as it has. Not even 2 months later did I imagine the state of affairs to be the way they are now because of the covid-19 virus.
Like many other people, I have complained because my classes have been cancelled. I never thought that I would end my time at University College Utrecht in this manner. When I was taking that cup of hot chocolate on the 11th, I did not know it was the last time I was doing my ‘ritual’ of 2 years. Or that as I gave that last hug to my classmate, it was the last because I was saying bye for good. I was looking forward to my graduation ceremony with great anticipation but all that is up in the air. Added to this is that I had to stay indoors as much as possible – I felt imprisoned. What’s worse? When life throws lemons at you, sometimes you just need a tight hug from a friend who can whisper in your ear, “it’s going to be okay. You got this,” instead of making lemonade. However, this too was taken away because of social distancing.
Although I continue to reflect on this and pick up the ashes as it were, there is something that has been at the back of my mind and was brought to the fore recently in one of the classes I had. I would like to share my scattered thoughts on this.
If you reading this, you probably know what social distancing is and why it is important. We may complain however we want about how it drives us crazy and limits our freedom, but for now, it is the best we can do to control the pandemic at hand. Despite the thousands of reasons, we can find for despising social distancing; we often forget how much of a privilege it is to even be able to practice it. To some, it is a practical impossibility.
Am thinking of low to middle income countries whose economy and social welfare hinges on the informal sector. Am thinking of people who live by the day – barely affording to make ends meet each day. Those whose survival is found on the streets, hustling. That taxi driver and his conductor who must carry as many people as they can in their dented buses to provide for their families a day’s meal. That fishmonger in Kenya who has to sell her fish to as many people as possible for her child to have food that evening. The marketeer in Zambia sells her vegetables from sunrise to sunset. That socioeconomic class of people who do not have bank account let alone some savings to see them through another week. Maybe those in slums, houses close to each other such that even by staying home they will not be social distancing. What happens to them?
As measures become increasingly stringent, such people bare the heaviest load. There are people who literally cannot survive a week if their lives were confined to their houses because they need to get out there and earn a living. Not only do they need to get out but the more people they meet and transact with, the better. What are we to say to them? If it were in countries with more developed economies, we could have called upon the government to give a hand. But in countries with such populations, most governments do not have enough capacity nor resources to provide this needed help.
For those of us able to practice social distancing, let’s not be haste to judge when we see images of people not doing the same. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Am sure that given a choice, everyone would be able to work from home and self-isolate. However, as stated before, this is a practical impossibility for some.
The inequality that this pandemic has highlighted cannot be ignored. There are a few articles out there arguing that Africans, especially people in slums seem not to be treating covid-19 seriously. If this is true, it is not very hard to see why. These are the people who have constantly had to deal with disease outbreaks, natural disasters, pollution and so on. Somehow, they manage to rise from the ashes and continue with life. They do not get the help they so desperately need and deserve because, in part, their problems do not directly affect the elites of society. When a child dies from Cholera in Kalingalinga township of Zambia, the politicians know they live in safe communities with clean houses and water so their children are safe. There is little urgency to deal with these problems. But now, covid-19 is different. It can infect a prime minister of a respectable country as well as an ordinary man in the slums of Tanzania. What’s worse? Unlike other times when that rich, elite individual would fly out to South Africa or India for medical attention, this time it’s not a possibility. Seeing the threat that covid-19 pose to these elites of society, who in most cases pull the strings of the government, governments rush into implementing measures that safeguard the interests and health of people in high socioeconomic classes with little thought on the adverse effects that these measures bring to those in the informal sector.
Am not arguing against social distancing policies even in underdeveloped economies. I believe it’s needed, a lot. So the question now is, what then can be done instead of social distancing so that those who can’t self-isolate are protected both in health and general welfare. Well, I do not know. I do believe however that answers can be found from those people. Maybe a valuable lesson from all this mess will be how important people in the lower socioeconomic classes of society are. These people should be welcome to the table when decisions are being made. It is high time that we tolerated the elites of society to make puppets of government officials leading governments to make decisions that mainly benefit the already well-off people in society. May the covid-19 pandemic end with such voices being heard louder than ever before.
On an individual level, if you know someone whose livelihood is threatened by current measures, offer help in any way you can. If you need to stock up your fridge with vegetables, consider buying from these vendors in bulk. If you have hired someone to help you at home and they have to stop working as a result of the current circumstances, consider giving them continued support, even financial. These people need any assistance possible. And before we get on the moral high horse and think they are the only ones who need help, think carefully about how your life would be without them. If you living in a low to middle income country, chances are that more than half of your country’s economy is in informal sector, run by people from the lower brackets of society. So if anything, everyone else needs these people much more than they need those in higher socioeconomic classes. We are stronger together and may the covid-19 pandemic be that stern reminder of this reality.