It is increasingly clear how fear can bring out our inhumanity. With instructions to practice social distancing, stop border crossings, self-quarantine, or obey lockdowns comes a very familiar fear about the danger of others. The virus is real; the danger is real. Covid-19 is new threat that has manifested as a global pandemic. However, some of our strategies for dealing with the virus reinforce our tendencies to blame and fear others. Take, for instance, attempts to rename Covid-19 as the “Chinese” virus, or the “Wuhan” virus. Or the numerous cases of discrimination and acts of hatred against people of Asian descent since January. What does any of this accomplish? It only serves to alienate friends, neighbors, doctors, healthcare workers, scientists, and fellow sufferers.
Or consider the deportation of undocumented people or asylum-seekers already living with families within our countries. Or the lack of protections and services for incarcerated, undocumented, homeless, and poor. Or the lack of information provided to refugees in camps. Or take, for instance, the lockdown in India, where millions of day laborers in cities were suddenly forced to return to their villages to meet the likely fate of starvation and the spreading of Covid-19 into remote areas. Or the accusations about who is to blame for early mismanagement and misinformation. Societies across the globe are divided by suspicion of others, mistrust of news sources and governments, and inequalities and inequities in resources, facilities, and access to information. In some parts of the globe, we cannot even agree that there are objective facts; instead we believe that all information – data included – is politically motivated.
Blaming others and stigmatizing groups of people for a disease is not new. We did this in the 1980s with AIDS, which became identified – shortsightedly – with gay men and risky sexual behavior. Because of this, prevention and treatment efforts were severely hampered, and people diagnosed with HIV are still stigmatized today. We did this with Ebola in Africa, which was nightmare-scary but didn’t concern Europeans and Americans – until a few cases were brought into the US. These examples show our tendency to divide humans into Us/Them and our lack of care when a disease inflicts only Them. We’ve tried to do this with Covid-19, but the virus spread so quickly that it has become Everyone’s virus, so now everyone is invested in finding a cure or vaccine. Nonetheless, we’re still blaming groups (China, the US, Democrats, Republicans, tourists, and foreigners) for the spread. How does this help anything?
The danger of Covid-19 is real. But the virus’s path of destruction won’t leave only death and economic suffering in its wake. The danger is to our humanity. And in this sense, this danger isn’t new – it’s been here a long time. The question is how we – in all parts of the globe – will face this challenge. In the context of fear, we are very proficient at bringing out our inhumanity. But can we bring out our common humanity?
Social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines will limit the spread of the virus. But practicing social solidarity can bring out our humanity. We must recognize the humanity of others – of all people, including the Chinese and anyone who looks Asian, as well as the undocumented, refugees, homeless, incarcerated, and jobless.
Social solidarity is a mindset and a practice. It’s based in the idea that we are all interconnected, that the fate of each of us is tied to the fate of others. Solidarity means looking out for the welfare of each other, in whatever ways that is possible. It may mean sacrificing our normal comforts so that others can survive. It definitely means taking only what you need – including not emptying the store shelves of toilet paper, eggs, or hand sanitizers. It means that if you’re able to cancel a salon appointment or house help, then pay for those services anyway. The social distancing we’re told to practice does not – and should not – mean isolation, and we need to make sure we don’t neglect those among us who are alone. Some have claimed that the virus is a great equalizer because every person could get sick, but actually, it’s not true: some are considerably more vulnerable than others. Furthermore, testing and treatment, including the ability to quarantine if necessary, is not equitably distributed in society. How many celebrities have had quick tests and results while others sick with symptoms, including some doctors and nurses, have waited days – up to and longer than 10 days – for tests and results? What about countries that do not have adequate test kits, protective gear, and health care supplies? Solidarity motivates us to protect the health of every one of us. A pandemic is not an individual threat; it is a collective threat. The only way to address it is as a collective. We must stay connected.
Covid-19 is a wake-up call for humanity. Let’s commit to bringing out our best by recognizing each of us as humans worthy of dignity and equitable care. Let’s practice social solidarity with every chance we have.
Lisa Irene Knight teaches about religions of South Asia, gender, and cultural anthropology at Furman University, South Carolina, USA.