I have heard it repeated, ad nauseam: Covid-19 is the ultimate symbol of globalisation as a homogenising process devoid of all trappings of hierarchies and inequalities. Every TV channel, radio station, press release, blog and Facebook post, and WhatsApp forward that have fed my anxious and eager palate, have sought to reassure with sobering words.
Reassurances well captured by Zou Yue, CGTN anchor, in a viral WhatsApp video clip thus:
Covid-19 respects no national borders, no social bounds, no political systems and no cultural values. It hits us just as hard. It levels the world.
A sentiment echoed by Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme:
Viruses know no borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity or the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank.
Really? Yes, and no.
To what extent is Covid-19 no respecter of national borders? It may have been first diagnosed in Wuhan, China, but Covid-19 has rapidly proven, through its invisible nimbleness of feet and wings, that it is not only a Chinese or a Wuhan virus.
Its giant compressor ambition is no respecter of walls, real or imaginary. It has spread at lightning speed, metamorphosing almost at the blink of an eye, into a truly global crisis that requires nothing short of a well-coordinated global response.
In this regard, it is regrettable that whilst it has spread rapidly and sparing no corner of the globe, effective public health responses have remained rather local and national. In terms of compression of time and space, neoliberalism in its various guises and disguises runs the risk of losing out to the virus, bringing about a new global order, if current rates of transmission are not contained with imagination, creativity and innovation.
Bubbly in generosity as it seems, Covid-19, just like neoliberalism, thrives on hierarchies and their interconnections, globally and locally. It follows, celebrates and is encouraged by the same orifices of cosmopolitan fertility, melting pots and triumphs.
Outside of Wuhan, even as it has hit the major cities of Europe and North America more than anywhere else, it has not exactly ignored (nor can it afford to, given its global ambitions of dominance) the underdeveloped and the underprivileged, North and South, East and West, urban and rural.
It is true – thanks largely to its invisibility and insensitivity to various technologies of containment and regimes of detection, detention and deportation – that coronavirus is more aggressive at border crossings than capital, privileged forms of labour, the frequent flyer elite, consumerism or any world religion have ever been.
Like a cockroach in the perforated luggage of an undocumented and underprivileged wayfarer at a heavily policed border crossing, Covid-19 has a debilitating ability to neutralise borders (physical, social, cultural, bodily and ideological) that others hold in awe with norming ease and deadening silence. Notwithstanding its invisibility, mode of travel and privileged crucibles of self-activation remain human.
Curiously, without much ado and almost with the press of a button, the virus has humbled strongmen of politics, and their penchant for hubris and for power without responsibility. It may have much in common with fake news in the digital age of post-truths. But it is far more real and potent than any digitally driven fake news virus. The vectors and vehicles that transmit Covid-19 are humans hungry for sociality, intimacy and Ubuntu.
Those who propagate it unknowingly, do not need manipulation to desire and seek to be desired through relationships of interconnection with fellow humans. Being human in tune with the humanity of others does not require engineering, inducement or manipulation to do what should come naturally to humans as social beings.
Unlike fake news viruses, Covid-19 does not need the hidden hand of tech giants, hackers and spyware manufacturers to activate its potency as an efficacious malicious agent. Like Dracula, all it requires is our schooled taste and hunger for human warmth and connectivity as social beings to lure us, one and all, to its vampirish inferno of appetites.
Yet, paradoxically, to defeat it, would require a different type of connectivity – one that is not necessarily physical, but certainly social and emotional. It requires harnessing a virtual form of solidarity in order to enable coming together while staying apart. For, as is aptly and repeatedly stressed, coronavirus does not spread itself, people spread it. To discipline, punish and curb its excesses in turn, demands of us discipline enough to suspend our immediacy in the senses of touch, taste and smell, by embracing technologies of presence in absence and absence in presence.
It is true that Covid-19 is humbling leaderships, health systems, economies and predictabilities globally. But that is the story at a general level. At a structural and layered level, the story is much more complex and nuanced. The closer one looks, the clearer the pictures of power, privilege and hierarchies resurface, at national, regional and global levels.
Globally, coronavirus has gained a reputation as a pandemic that kills without negotiation, mercy or remorse, making of everyone a potential victim. Stories of death and dying are truly horrendous. As Father Mario Carminati from a small town in northern Italy, an area hard hit by the virus, put it: “Authorities didn’t know where to put the coffins”.
However, while every social category is affected, not everyone is affected to the same degree. Everywhere, elderly people are dying disproportionately to the young. Could this turn out to be Africa’s saving grace as a youthful continent, where three quarters of the population is aged below 35?
There are also gender differences in how the virus affects humans. Writing on the BBC website, Martha Henriques observes that “In the US, for example, twice as many men have been dying from the virus as women. Similarly, 69% of all coronavirus deaths across Western Europe have been male. Similar patterns have been seen in China and elsewhere.”
There is discrimination along racial lines as well. In Europe and North America, ethnic and racial minorities are dying in inverse proportions to their white counterparts. In Chicago for example, African Americans are reportedly dying at almost six times (68%) the rate of white residents, although they make up only 30% of the city’s total population. At face value, this reflects their exclusion from the healthcare system and their inability to afford quality medical care. It also reflects their lowly positions on the hierarchy of social, economic and political visibility that neoliberalism has enshrined and perpetuates even in camouflage.
While the economic effects globally are devastating for all and sundry as the virus drives productivity into hibernation, some are losing their businesses and jobs faster than others. In many an African country where citizens have mostly failed over the years to jolt the reigning dictatorships out of the slumber of inaction and complacency, Covid-19 has succeeded in attracting, at the level of hollow rhetoric at least, the attention of government to the urgency of the moment. Even if only to regret, or appear to regret, the deplorable public health systems they have ignored or underfunded with impunity for decades – preferring, as they often have, to head elsewhere more prestigious for healthcare for themselves and their immediate families.
Hopefully, the current show of concern does not simply result in handing over the African populace to be used as guinea pigs and experimented upon to guarantee salvation for the lives of others higher up the reigning hierarchies of humanity. Reported resurgence in prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, physical and social distancing from Africans in China are worrying, and a first test that African governments truly care beyond declarations of intent.
The IMF and World Bank are predicting downturns and recessions for economies globally and especially on the African continent. Calls for intelligent, rigorous and muscled responses by African governments are greeted with the proverbial beggars’ bowl, outstretched, unscrupulously and unashamedly, and not without dubious intentions in some cases, West and East, notwithstanding that these regions are facing their own worst economic nightmares. In addition, the African Union has hurriedly put in place a committee to seek urgent assistance from the developed economies towards addressing the crisis.
If the rest of the world has in the past and under relatively normal times not been that generous or effusive in their Ubuntu towards Africa, there is little to suggest that, plagued by their own problems under the coronavirus tsunami, they are suddenly going to become evangelists of selfless philanthropy.
Beg, borrow or repatriate misappropriated funds, one thing is certain: To fight COVID-19 requires action, creative and innovative modes of solidarity, not rhetoric and vacillation.
Francis B. Nyamnjoh is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. He has taught at universities in Cameroon and Botswana, and worked with CODESRIA in Senegal.