A few weeks ago, who would have thought that one third of the world would now be facing the completely new and unexpected situation of self-isolating and national lockdown? The coronavirus outbreak, recently described by the World Health Organization as a pandemic, is probably the greatest crisis of our generation.
Health workers are giving their best on the frontline of this global fight. Scientists are making every effort to discover an effective vaccine. Governments struggle not to show impotence, by taking appropriate measures and giving the much needed practical advice to the public, without creating panic, which the mainstream media manifestly manage to grow quite sufficiently. Schools, universities, businesses and factories are being shut down and the general public is quarantined, under great stress, since the biggest part of the population is forced to working from home, or worse, not working at all.
In these uncertain and challenging times, it is crucial that we stand up for each other and that all citizens remain healthy, both physically and mentally, as well as politically empowered. Although COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate on who it is going to infect, it does underline the inequalities in our societies, as we do not have the same recourses to cope with it. Certain groups of people struggle more than others, like in every crisis.
Novel coronavirus is not only a public health threat, but a social and financial crisis. The most vulnerable of our communities are going to suffer the most because of the pandemic. How are all the precarious workers, young people in the gig economy, unsecured immigrants, and asylum seekers going to withstand the consequences? The question posed to governments around the world is how people are going to continue paying their rents, afford living and financially survive. Specific measures have been suggested, like moratorium on rent, subsidizing people’s incomes (already put into effect in Denmark and Sweden) or implementing a Universal Basic Income, so that we make sure that every member of our society is getting by decently.
Furthermore, since the first and most important advice for everyone is to stay at home, there is an impressive rise of domestic violence cases and national helplines around world haven’t stopped ringing. In some parts of China the number of domestic violence cases has been three times higher since the pandemic started and a support service in Oregon, US has received a double number of calls, whereas support services in Australia are concerned, because the 2019/20 fires had already caused a surge in domestic violence cases. Women and children face greater danger and not because of the virus itself.
The fact that COVID-19 started from China was good enough an excuse for racist comments from politicians and, consequently, the public to take over the Internet. An occasion that shows many similarities to the ways that the HIV epidemic impacted the Black/African community as well as the gay community and how 9/11 impacted Muslims and Arabs around the globe.
What is more, as WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” Media in times of crisis can either fan the flames, or be the antidote to hate and fake news.
Our mental health is also at risk. Social distancing and confinement raise our stress levels, which along with depression and anxiety are detrimental to our immune systems. Insecure work and poor diet are the main protagonists in this equation, which undoubtedly has strong links to poverty.
The human rights dimensions of the outbreak though do not stop there. ‘If we are not careful, the epidemic might nevertheless mark an important watershed in the history of surveillance’ stated Yuval Noah Harari, the renowned Israeli journalist, drawing our attention to the ongoing battle for our privacy and the fact that sometimes extreme measures taken during a crisis tend to outlive it. Given the technological advancements, today governments can monitor every single citizen 24 hours a day. Several countries have deployed new surveillance tools, which allow them to manipulate the population or punish the ‘misbehaved’.
Nonetheless, panic has settled down and solidarity is now thriving. Countless people are self-organizing in order to help their neighbours with their groceries via online groups and chats, some of them sing and play music from their balconies, with Italians giving the first ‘quarantine concerts’ and some others give away their knowledge for free through webinars. Artists all over the world play live from their living rooms for the whole world to enjoy and graffiti, like the one below that says “Mom, it will pass”, give us strength and hope for the future.
It is worth mentioning that because the humankind has been confined, the earth is now healing. The emissions and health-damaging air pollution have dropped dramatically. In China, the number of “good quality air days” increased by 21.5% in February, compared to last February. The trademark canals in Venice are another evidence of the decreased pollution.
An economy and society built on insecurity and exploitation has been once again exposed, but crisis moments also present opportunity. We shall see this period as a chance to reflect on how to make things better. After we ensure that the human rights violations and the losses to our communities are the minimum, the emphasis must lie on how we can change the status quo, if we want a fairer and a radically equal society.
We are in this together and, collectively, we will get through it.
Written by Anastasia Vaitsopoulou