Op-Ed | Are we on the same boat? | Wasi Ahmed

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Are we, really ‘on the same boat’, or are we “all in this together”? With unemployment rates skyrocketing across the globe, hundreds of millions scraping by to feed their children, multitudes of nameless and hapless families chugging along without access to proper healthcare, subsisting on hope and prayer so that they may survive the scourges of poverty — let alone the pandemic — one cannot, with a clear conscience, make such outrageous claims.

Covid-19 has brought home at least one thing. While it has bared the inadequacy and utter unpreparedness of healthcare systems across the globe — even in advanced countries — to stop people dying at an unprecedented scale, the arrogance of some governments at the start has also added to fuel the pandemic to its present proportions. That the pandemic has spared none — rich or poor, apparently reflects a sense of indiscrimination (equality you may say), but what is more to it is not it’s own making. It is humanmade. And it is discrimination, a divide across the societies that many of us did not care to notice earlier. More precisely, it is racism embedded so innately, perhaps inherently, in our hearts that released from its dormant state has become almost invasive. The pandemic stoked it up, but it is our selfish instinct that is solely responsible for it.

When the pandemic began its onslaught early on, it seemed to many as it were a God-sent equalizer. US rock star Madonna said the pandemic has proved to be the “great equalizer” adding further that the global population is ‘on the same boat’. Government leaders, too, took fancy to say ‘we’re in this together’.

The boat rhetoric gained popularity drawing media attention just because Madonna is famous with a massive social media following. But the hypocrisy underlying the empty rhetoric was easy to see.

Are we, really ‘on the same boat’, or are we “all in this together”? With unemployment rates skyrocketing across the globe, hundreds of millions scraping by to feed their children, multitudes of nameless and hapless families chugging along without access to proper healthcare, subsisting on hope and prayer so that they may survive the scourges of poverty — let alone the pandemic — one cannot, with a clear conscience, make such outrageous claims.

Not only we are not ‘on the same boat’, but, indeed, we have never been. According to World Bank data, nearly half of the world lives on less than $5.5 a day. This dismal statistic is part of a remarkable trajectory of inequality that has afflicted humanity for a long time.

The plight of many of the world’s poor is compounded in the case of war refugees, the double victims of state terrorism and violence and the unwillingness of those with the resources to step forward and pay back some of their largely undeserved wealth.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated and, in fact, accelerated the sharp inequalities that exist in every society individually, and the world at large. According to a June 2020 study conducted in the United States by the Brookings Institute, the number of deaths resulting from the disease reflects a clear racial logic. Many indicators included in the study leave no doubt that racism is a central factor in the life cycle of Covid. For example, among those aged between 45 and 54, “Black and Hispanic/Latino death rates are at least six times higher than for whites”. Although whites make up 62 percent of that specific age group’s US population, only 22 percent of the total deaths were white. Black and Latino communities were the most devastated.

According to this and other studies, the primary assumption behind the discrepancy of infection and death rates resulting from Covid among various racial groups in the US is poverty which is, itself, an expression of racial inequality. The poor have no or limited access to proper healthcare. For the rich, this factor is of little relevance.

Moreover, poor communities tend to work in low-paying jobs in the service sector, where social distancing is nearly impossible. With little government support to help them survive the lockdowns, they do everything within their power to provide for their children, only to be infected by the virus or, worse, die.

This iniquity is expected to continue even in the way that the vaccines are made available. While several Western nations have either launched or scheduled their vaccination campaigns, the poorest countries on earth are expected to wait for a long time before life-saving vaccines are made available.

In 67 poor or developing countries located mostly in Africa and the Southern hemisphere, only one out of ten individuals will likely receive the vaccine by mid-2021.

If there is such a thing as a strategy at this point, it is the deplorable “hoarding” of the vaccine by rich nations. Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni of the PVA put this realization into perspective when she said that “rich countries have enough doses to vaccinate everyone nearly three times over, whilst poor countries don’t even have enough to reach health workers and people at risk”. So much for the numerous conferences is touting the need for a ‘global response’ to the disease.

While it is likely that class, race and gender inequalities will continue to ravage human societies after the pandemic, as they did before, it is also possible for governments to use this collective tragedy as an opportunity to bridge the inequality gap, even if just a little, as a starting point to imagine a more equitable future for all of us.

 

 

Cover image source: Internet, Icon;The Institute of Conservation

 

Wasi Ahmed, a novelist, short story writer, and journalist, lives in Dhaka.

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