At the start of this year, I stood in my mother’s house watching the BBC report on the new virus ravaging Wuhan City in Hubei Province, China. At the time – and for days after that – I was very detached from the story, as I watched each report like a daily installment of a weird film. In my mind, it was a foreign problem; strange, extreme, out of this world and would be “short-lived” (no pun intended). Just like  SARS and H1N1 swine flu outbreaks in the past, this too was far away, it was going to be contained and would pass.

A few days later, I noticed a Wuhan location tag on one of my childhood friend’s Instagram posts, who had recently taken up a job teaching English in China. It was a recent photo posted at a party, when life was normal, before they were suddenly in quarantine. Then it hit me, how real and deadly this virus was; someone I know was at risk. I suddenly became a stakeholder, watching the development of the story closely and worried about his and his fiancé’s safety. Of course, after checking on them, I quickly returned to my life. I would spare a thought and prayer for all my friends and family in Asia once in a while, for the weeks that followed.  In February, scenes from China were chilling as explicit reports showed people who had died on the streets in ghost towns. However, what was more interesting was China’s display of its prowess, through innovation. We marvelled at how a whole hospital was built in 8 days while major town buildings were turned into hospitals. It was very much a Chinese movie we were watching, and the sight of face masks was all too familiar to us, as long as it was a Chinese national wearing one.

Strange to look back now, it feels like it was a year ago. We did not say it out loud but we thought it; the virus was a developed world problem. Of course, countries like the US, Germany and Britain had become involved pretty early, repatriating their citizens and all, which we took as a wonderful display of patriotism and wealth. Life carried on until mid-March, on a Sunday, when the University of Cape Town (UCT) sent us all emails in the middle of the night saying the school was closed and we should stay home. In the days that followed, our lives changed in a manner that we still cannot engage with, it was too drastic. We have only had time to move forward in weird attempts to adapt to this new age and way of being. Everyone had a story of how “The Rona” was messing with their lives, their best-laid plans and overnight we started hearing people and organisations using phrases like “stress of the situation” and even the President of South Africa declaring it a national disaster. Strangely, most of us were still removed from the reality and gravity of the situation. It was still a distant problem, not a catastrophe that could bring the world to its knees.

As humans, we have lived for millennia with a false sense of security. Maybe as we developed, together with the world around us, we also developed this false sense; a certainty at the back of our minds that things could get worse but the probability is just too low for us to care. I mean, isn’t it strange how we send packages across the world without insuring them? After all, isn’t the risk and insurance industry built on the “paranoia” of people? When I saw a security guard at OR Tambo airport in February wearing a mask, a tinge of fear that Corona could be lurking even in that place hit me. But, I laughed it off with other airport staff who were jesting about his company being dramatic (he too probably wore it for fun). Everywhere else in the world it was business as usual but soon enough we all have come to the point of admitting that as a people we are not invincible, how the world as we know it can change so fast that we fail to keep up, that we are not the most powerful life-form with everything subservient to us.

I hope as humans we learn that the “Anthropocene” is our false sense of grandeur. That the systems we have set up over the ages, through countless revolutions and advancements have not been foolproof or inclusive. Our governing systems all across the globe are failing to contain this outbreak, or even just respond in reassuring ways incite pride. We have put our trust and faith in the wrong things, the wrong people and leaders. We are learning how, even certain divisions in business, governance and organisations were neglected and not funded well enough like IT/ICTS departments, health and wellness departments as well as ministries in governments. Instead, we invested in the lifestyles of leaders and departments that are now locked down and cannot carry this new world the way the technology and the health industry are doing right now. I shudder to think of my home country, Zimbabwe, whose national budgets have prioritised the army and government spending for decades over health and education ministries – forget technology and innovation. The state of our public hospitals is deplorable and our best universities have IT capabilities less than those of some high schools in neighbouring countries, Not to mention that data and internet is still a luxury for over 80% of the population. What will be of us?

We Are the World is a song that was composed in the 80s, an anthem, to evoke empathy in the American people and developed world for African famine and suffering. Sadly, even today, humanity has not grasped the depth of the words: We Are the World! This pandemic should teach us that we are the world, we are patient zero in Wuhan at that wet market. We are the Chinese people, we are the rich and famous, we are the developed economies and the great powers of this world like America and China with their trade wars. We are Kings and Princes and heads of states. We are also the poor and neglected, the homeless, the forgotten and vulnerable of societies. We are the old and the young even as the strength of youth is pulsing through our veins. We are the uneducated, the ignorant, we are “those” people; black or white. These are hard lessons and our punishment for going on like these disparities in society do not matter. The world is getting its lashes and stripes for going on like the lack of development, education and human rights was permissible for “minority groups” or the developing world. We are realising, as a matter of fact, exactly why we should care about healthcare systems across the world in countries we have not been to. Learning why it should matter to us that children are growing up in slums and shacks in Brazil, the Philippines, Nairobi and South Africa. Why it should matter to us that proper healthcare is still a dream for most people in the world. If this virus could enter the palaces of Kings and Queens, who among us is safe? We should care for the causes and inclusion of many and the breaking down of privilege in our societies. We are as strong as the weakest in our world today, as safe as the most vulnerable and less privileged.

There is a lot to be learnt from nature at this time, firstly how much we need it and have taken it for granted. Someone wise once said people need nature, nature does not need people, and if people do not realise this, mother nature will spew them out.

“Hell hath no fury than an environment disturbed. Man and his insatiable greed will be eliminated from the face of the earth to restore environmental peace and equilibrium.”

Pathisa Nyathi

So we are the world and we are not removed from it and the functioning of ecosystems. We should care when the environment is being degraded and exploited. Even from our glasshouses we should care about trade in endangered species like pangolins, rhinos, elephants, vultures, the pet trade and fetish markets. We should care about the greed of others and the loss of biodiversity to the appetites of many across the globe. All this because we are the world, we are these animals, the Amazon. We depend on them and are not immune to the dangers that come with others disregarding this. We are the animals taken from their forests in Africa and caged in markets all over Asia. China should be taken to task to commit to strict enforcement of the new ban on poaching and the animal trade. The world should stop accepting that it is not within our reach to stop this behaviour hidden under the guise of culture and criminal syndicates. That the extinction of animals is an inevitable event and humans are a superspecies with dominion over all others. We Are the World and we could be evicted from it if we do not learn these lessons.

As I write this, I am home, safe and comfortable. My worries are weight gain and how to keep in touch with people online, do my studies online, and spread viral-virtual-kindness – nice life problems. But for many people I know, social distancing and self-isolation are impossible. “Online” is the only line they have not been on in a while, as they queue for basic commodities and crowded public transportation. As I write, my father was arrested for selling his goods at the market on 4th day of Zimbabwe’s lockdown, with hundreds of other people like himself who are self-employed and live on yesterday’s earnings, as most Zimbabweans do in a country with over 90% unemployment and no financial security structures like savings, insurance and pensions. It is terrifying how far apart we all are as a family, yet how closely linked we all are globally and even to the environment around us.

Let those who survive be reborn, in mind, body and soul, may they carry these lessons and engrave them as contracts in their societies and between nations, that we are one people, weak apart and stronger together. Let the history books teach that we failed at governing ourselves and taking care of the planet because of structures we built that favour the rich, the powerful nations that landed us in this mini apocalypse. May it be taught to our children – if it is safe to bring humans to this world – that embracing, handshaking, kissing, hugging and being around other people is a blessing to be enjoyed and part of the human experience. Until then, we should stay in our time-out corner and think about the wrongs we have done, think about how much we took for granted while watching the beauty of our species adapting and emerging from this horrible crisis that has taken thousands of our brothers and sisters. Let us mourn as the world and live to honour these people by never forgetting this; that it can be any of us.

Categories: Columns Opinion