Humanitarian Crisis: In The Times of COVID-19

Seldom are the times we find ourselves at crossroads, in a state of perplexity. This pandemic has been a social experiment. Our society and economy will have to be rebuilt in the months to come. There is a shroud of uncertainty pertaining to our future that has to be lifted. We will be faced with a choice about how that shroud will be lifted- whether in fear or in hope- and we will have to make that choice now. It will not be easy to restart our society and our economy once we pass the worst. What confronts us is a grave humanitarian crisis- worse and scarier than the wildest of our dreams. Some of our relatives and friends already have been impacted, maybe because they are ill, are out of work, have lost their business, or are losing faith. It is in these times that we get tested, whether we let our civilization break or hold it together. 

In the current global crisis due to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, unfortunately, it is more than evident that migrant workers in the cities are the worst affected. They have to deal with various perils: the grave threat of the coronavirus pandemic, the indifference of society, and the disciplinary measures of the state that have left them jobless, famished and homeless. It is a distressing irony that the same cities, these people built and served, abandon them, fail to serve them in return. That is why they walked because no one asked the poor migrants who set on foot for the countryside to stay back, no one promised them that the city would take care of them. Not just India, the entire world seems to be in a scary crisis, perhaps as scary as the virus itself. 

“For millions of people in northeast Syria, consequences of fighting, shortages of water, food and medicine, a lack of electricity, the economic downturn with job losses and price hikes are as much of a worry as coronavirus,” said Karim Mahmoud, ICRC office head in the city of Hasakah. In South Sudan, there are just 24 ICU beds and four ventilators. With existing life-saving humanitarian programs globally facing unprecedented disruption and suspension, countries like South Sudan with high levels of malnutrition may face famine. Northeast Syria has only 28 ICU beds and 11 ventilators in the hospitals identified to quarantine and treat suspected COVID-19 cases. In Northwest Syria, there are only 105 ICU beds and 30 adult ventilators. In Yemen, only half of the hospitals are still fully functional and some two-thirds of the population cannot access healthcare. It is one of the most complex operating environments for humanitarians, with bureaucratic delays and impediments already slowing the response. Major donors have also begun to reduce and suspend aid in northern Yemen just as the pandemic began, which could further degrade preparedness and response.  In Venezuela, the existing humanitarian crisis has already forced more than half the doctors to leave the country, 9 out of 10 hospitals to face shortages of medicine and critical supplies, and has left only 84 ICU beds nationwide. The country will likely face further economic crisis and reductions in public services, which not only threaten the lives of millions of Venezuelans but are likely to heighten political tensions. In parts of Moria camp, Greece, over 1,300 people share one tap and over 200 share a latrine. Rohingya refugees in one site in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh could face 590,000 infections and over 2,100 deaths in a year if high transmission occurs, according to new research from Johns Hopkins University. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the lack of resources and poor security conditions everywhere in a country the size of Western Europe, plus the armed conflicts and violence in the east of the DRC (especially in the provinces of North and South Kivu, Ituri and Tanganyika) are preventing the most vulnerable members of society – both displaced persons and those who have been able to remain at home – from obtaining hospital treatment or physical rehabilitation. 

As the virus ravaged, we saw xenophobia on a high rise both within India and outside. According to Merlin Chowkwanyun, American historian and assistant professor of socio-medical sciences at Columbia University, the idea that people of other cultural backgrounds carry contagious disease goes back to the great plague in Europe, which caused many people to look for scapegoats and created a “rhetoric of blame,” which has been remarkably persistent through many decades and across many centuries. The residents of North-eastern states are not only blamed for causing the pandemic, but they are also blatantly labelled as Chinese when they are in fact all Indian citizens. Recently, the xenophobia of Indians against Italian tourists was also witnessed in a small village where the Italians had gone to look at handicrafts. The locals accused them of carrying the virus and began to heckle them. In pandemics, there is always an unending hunt for “THE OTHER” fuelled by fear and anxiety. Here in India, no other group has been demonized more than the country’s 200 million Muslims. A single Muslim religious movement was identified as being responsible for a large share of India’s 8,000-plus coronavirus cases then. Hateful messages and WhatsApp forwards bloomed. Mohammed Haider, who runs a milk stall, one of the few businesses that were allowed to stay open under India’s coronavirus lockdown, said, “Fear is staring at us, from everywhere. People need only a small reason to beat us or to lynch us,’’ he said, “Because of the corona.’’ In many villages now, Muslim traders are forbidden from entering simply because of their faith. There were reports of nationalism and xenophobia flaring as coronavirus faded in China. “The way they are treating black people, you cannot accept,” Mr Mwamba said by telephone. “We are not animals.”  African residents in the southern city of Guangzhou, including Mr Mwamba, have been compelled for forced quarantines, labelled as dangers to the country’s health. Right-wing parties in Europe, for example, have leapt onto the outbreak to reiterate their calls for tougher immigration restrictions—Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini was amongst the first to exploit the virus for spewing hatred and racism, erroneously linking the outbreak to African asylum seekers and urging border closures. Similar calls to suspend Europe’s open-border system, known as the Schengen Area, have been made by far-right politicians in Germany, France, and Spain. In the U.S., President Donald Trump has flagged the outbreak as further reason to construct a wall at the Mexico border. 

It is these events in history, periods of catastrophe that expose cracks in individuals and societies. But these are also the times when many people rise to the occasion and reaffirm our faith in humanity- a humanity that sees no religion, colour or race. Coronavirus outbreak is a test of our humanity…time will tell whether we fail as a society or stick together and emerge stronger than ever before. People dying of hunger suggests the former, while people’s rush to feed the hungry suggests the latter. These gloomy times bring out the best and worst in people. When picking up the pieces, when remembering and saluting moments of bravery and selflessness, we see the point in marching forward. It is the choices we make that define us. The choices we make now, no matter how tiny, will define our future.

BY – Anannya Mathur


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