Pandemic an opportunity for humanity to show its best side
There is a famous quote that says, “Optimism is a moral duty.” I have pondered this quote in recent days when speaking to friends navigating various self-isolation regimes: From one distressed lady who, after 48 hours confined to her home, told me she was ready to murder her nagging husband to others who have embraced this as a refreshing opportunity to detox from the pressures of their professional lives. With experts warning that the pandemic may last for 18 months or more, for the sake of our sanity — and the sanity of those around us — we must approach these challenges with positivity and optimism.
Fifty years ago, quarantine meant absolute isolation from the world. Nowadays, we are spoilt for choice for virtual methods of communication. I have spent so much time in touch with loved ones, enjoying the pleasure of leisurely daily chats with my grandchildren. Young neighbors have knocked on my door to check whether I need assistance. We have rediscovered the wartime mentality of “we’re all in this together,” with everybody looking out for one another.
As previously unthinkable measures are enforced around the world, it is just beginning to sink in how profoundly this crisis will impact our societies. Those who are self-employed, or who have ad hoc sources of work, are suddenly staring into the financial abyss. A US survey found that half of small businesses could be wiped out within three months without urgent assistance. Nations are faced with an impossible choice of either letting the virus run its course or indefinitely stifling the economy through draconian measures to slow the contagion.
Soon there will be a huge proportion of families who, through no fault of their own, can’t afford to feed themselves or are left drowning in unaffordable debt. The crisis is already proving disastrous for cultural organizations and charities, whose activities and funding sources have been radically curtailed. This is where we discover what sort of society we really live in. Do we hoard supplies and prioritize selfish interests or come together to ensure everyone is looked after?
My native Lebanon was already on the cusp of financial meltdown. With it expected to default on a succession of loan payments and an International Monetary Fund bailout looking increasingly unlikely, coronavirus is a further body blow. The number of Lebanese living in poverty now exceeds 50 percent, with the unemployment rate for under-25s soaring above 37 percent. Since September, 800 Lebanese food and beverage businesses have closed, ensuring thousands of further job losses. With the virus’s inevitable economic carnage still to be fully felt, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s hospitals are so dilapidated that those with coronavirus have avoided seeking care until it is too late. Thus, there are many recent cases of people dying immediately after being admitted to hospital, complicating efforts to prevent the further spread of the virus.
In neighboring Iran, where most Middle Eastern coronavirus cases have originated, official statistics report that one citizen is dying from the virus every 10 minutes, with research warning that up to 3.5 million Iranians could die. Yet the authorities seem more interested in covering up the outbreak, while continuing their regional warmongering and meddling. Similarly, Syrian hospital staff members were reportedly detained by the regime for leaking information about official attempts to hide the virus’s proliferation.
The experience of many Gulf states has been radically different. Bahrain has been the worst hit relatively, with a rash of cases from citizens returning from pilgrimage to Qom. However, the authorities’ rapid response — chasing down possible cases and thoroughly testing all those potentially exposed — has, for now, stopped the spread of the virus in its tracks. In one video I have seen, Lebanese citizens living in Bahrain praised the stringent measures, noting how safe they feel compared with other locations, where the absence of rigorous testing or official transparency makes it impossible to comprehend the real threat level.
While most of us welcome drastic measures to keep us safe, authoritarian regimes in states like Russia and China are arbitrarily expanding their restrictive powers. In Israel, despite losing the election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is exploiting the crisis to keep himself in office and indefinitely shelve the corruption charges that could kill his political career and put him behind bars.
Do we hoard supplies and prioritize selfish interests or come together to ensure everyone is looked after?
Aid agencies, meanwhile, warn that coronavirus threatens to inflict “carnage” upon densely crowded refugee camps, whether they are hosting Syrians, Palestinians or Afghans. Many refugees don’t have access to clean water, already suffer from poor health, and have minimal access to medical assistance.
But let’s keep matters in proportion: An estimated 25,000 people die of hunger every day — that’s more than 9 million every year. Scandalously high sub-Saharan African infant mortality rates result in one in nine children dying before the age of five. Malaria kills about 3,000 Africans every day. Why are these crises of extreme poverty not also afforded top priority?
Enforced quarantine is, furthermore, a reminder of the environmental impact of our everyday lives. Industrial pollution in Chinese cities and elsewhere has fallen dramatically. Far fewer people are taking flights. A New York study into the impact of coronavirus found reductions in carbon monoxide emissions (mainly from cars) of nearly 50 percent, with comparable drops in carbon dioxide pollution.
Matters could be far worse. History has witnessed deadlier and faster-spreading epidemics. Not only should coronavirus be a wake-up call for greater readiness for the next viral threat, but also for the necessity of working together as a planet to address pending environmental catastrophes — as well as addressing major conflicts and humanitarian disasters plaguing substantial regions of the world.
This virus will impact our species profoundly: Our relationships with each other, the way we are governed, and everyday behaviors. If the world comes together to identify a cure, shield the vulnerable and prepare itself for future existential threats, then coronavirus will truly have shown humanity at its best.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.