Scene in a Chinese hospital

Covid 19 as a war (or not).

I: Where and who is the enemy?

Researching the fate of women in war zones for over a quarter of a century has led me to reflect on the constant references to war by our politicians during this ongoing Covid 19 pandemic.

I asked Azra, my dear friend in Sarajevo to compare the situation with the siege she had experienced 25 years ago. She laughed: “Politicians talking about a war have no idea about what they are saying. Yes, being over 65 my husband and I are not permitted to leave our flat. So our daughter or the neighbours deliver food parcels to the door. But this time, we can communicate with our family all the time, we have enough food and especially we can have projects.That’s the difference”

While it is obvious that there is no actual armed conflict in this particular instance, is what is going on an actual war. In which case, who exactly is the identifiable enemy? Certainly not just this evanescent but vicious virus.

Martial rhetoric has been used by leaders all over the world as justification for extreme and often contradictory measures, erasing the differences between personal and public spaces, policed in a manner that would cause riots at any other time. In this particular instance, this resembles the “war of terror”, which has allowed authorities to intervene without warning against individuals and in their homes.

In his first speech on March 16, French President Macron used the word ‘war’ six times to justify his policies and blame hapless citizens for anything less than victory, a trope which has been recurring ever since, as the media are apt to denounce people who seemingly willfully go out to deliberately contaminate others. Having a street party is one thing, but penalizing women for buying sanitary towels or pregnancy tests is quite another.

Whereas wars are strategized through massive investment in arms and so called “defense” industry, the total unpreparedness of Western governments in the face of this massive-but not unprecedented- pandemic has never been acknowledged publicly. Invading Iran or saving our heroic Kurdish allies in Northern Syria would be probably far easier to organize as the necessary weaponry is at hand and the strategy has been rehearsed in countless war rooms.

Behind the beefy war talk a bleak reality stalks. Neo-liberal, profit-driven economic policies have systematically eroded the carefully crafted post-war Western public health services to such an extent that it has taken barely three weeks for hospitals of the most advanced countries in the world to collapse. With all efforts being diverted to the fight against the pandemic, patients with life threatening conditions needing urgent transplants and treatment are totally abandoned to their fate. Expectant mothers justifiably fear for their pregnancy and birthing. In brief, the much lauded availability of reliable and safe health in the West has been found to be entirely fictional. The Emperor has no clothes but his incredulous subjects are not only blamed but now punished.

Previously defined by societal usage and personal necessity, entire cities have been segmented into minuscule authorized areas, turning public space into what is at once a siege and an occupation, where the enemy is simultaneously an invisible virus and its victims, namely citizens who infringe ever-changing measures intended to make them equally invisible. In France, the present day equivalent of a German-Occupation era Ausweis, a permit, is necessary for anyone leaving their home, on predefined urgent business only. Individuals are denouncing others for being outside, quarantine shaming[2] is rapidly becoming a much-lauded civic gesture, reinforced by social media. Is one really surprised that so many are not taking government warnings seriously? Their lack of trust in failing institutions and incompetent leadership is a direct consequence. Inefficient blaming and shaming by paternalistic rulers (but not applicable to them, viz. Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro) have set the tone, instead of respectful policies that would make governments and citizens partners in this urgent fight- as in New Zealand[3].

Unlike armed conflicts, the soldiers here are worse off than ill-equipped, the equivalent of medieval foot soldiers confronting tanks-minus the bludgeons. Those working “on the front” in the health, distribution, delivery sectors are working 60 hours a week or more in unsafe conditions without any other option. Yes, the world claps and sings at their windows every evening to salute doctors and nurses, but these heroes labour bereft of masks and gowns and their death toll is high. Even though male mortality[4] with Covid 19 is highest, it is the women employed as nurses, cleaners, hospital aides, cashiers at supermarkets[5]– in brief, underpaid jobs who are the most vulnerable. The troops in this army are the lowliest in our society, mostly female which means that beyond a couple of medals here and there, they may never get the respect and recognition they deserve- unlike the pharma industry which first comes out with a vaccine.

Of those supposedly holidaying in confinement, one part may be working from home, the other for the time being assured of getting their salary and another, by far the largest, already suffering from the loss of any foreseeable income, of which women, in the US are the majority[6]. Not to mention, as we have seen, the dangers of close confinement with violent partners which has been on the increase everywhere. Can they be categorized as mere collateral damage?

The profit-orientated economic politics that brought the hospitals down are equally responsible for what is going to be all time record in unemployment and a spectacular global push-back to the poverty line, annihilating some thirty years of progress achieved in global health. According to Oxfam, this crisis could plunge half a billion people into dire poverty. [7]

So what kind of war is this exactly that destroys the very fabric of society? A pandemic alone could not achieve this any more than the Black Plague did in the Middle-Ages. Perhaps the enemy is not just an invisible germ and its disobedient victims, but even more so, a ruthless political system which has shown its limitations. And martial rhetoric has been used to hide the total failure of our present day societies to cope with a crisis that should have brought out the best of well-oiled institutions and scientific progress
As Azra told me from Sarajevo- the third and most important difference between now and then is that we can have projects, that is to say imagine an alternative future to which we, as citizens can and must contribute to from wherever we are. That will be the true resounding victory against Covid 19 and the system which has sustained it.

 

[1] https://www.e-sante.fr/coronavirus-des-femmes-verbalisees-pour-etre-sorties-acheter-des-tampons-ou-tests-de-grossesse/actualite/615377

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52022743

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/new-zealand-isnt-just-flattening-the-curve-its-squashing-it/2020/04/07/6cab3a4a-7822-11ea-a311-adb1344719a9_story.html

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/men-are-much-more-likely-to-die-from-coronavirus-but-why

[5] https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/on-front-lines-of-pandemic-supermarket-cashiers-fear-the-worst-1.4877726

[6] https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/QF-Jobs-Day-April-FINAL.pdf

[7] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-poverty/coronavirus-crisis-could-plunge-half-a-billion-people-into-poverty-oxfam-idUSKCN21R0E7?fbclid=IwAR2-NLAsNAbehI8FS8jdrK0rMHbIo47ZarvRBndwZHq03bWaPbRI9pU2uUw

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