Apart from a public health crisis, the novel coronavirus outbreak brings into the spotlight the inequalities and social crisis we have been undergoing for years.
Afew 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 in this global fight. Scientists are making every effort to discover an effective vaccine. Governments struggle to disguise their impotence, by taking ostensibly appropriate measures, and giving pieces of essential practical advice to the public, while simultaneously trying not to create panic; which the mainstream media manifestly manage to inflate quite substantially. Schools, universities, businesses and public spaces are being shut down and the general public is quarantined, in very stressful circumstances, since the biggest part of the population is compelled to continue working from home, or worse, not working at all.
In these uncertain and challenging times, it is crucial that people 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 between its victims, it does underline the inequalities in our societies, as we do not have the same resources to cope with it. Certain groups of people struggle more than others, as in every crisis. Novel coronavirus is not only a public health threat, but a social and financial crisis. The most vulnerable groups 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 a 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; national helplines around the 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, but due to the fact that they have to remain at home all day with their potential abusers.
The fact that COVID-19 started in China was a good enough excuse for racist comments from politicians and, subsequently, the public to take over the Internet, leading to #CoronaRacism. Circumstances that show 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 irrefutably has strong links to poverty. The human rights dimensions of the outbreak 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 advances, present-day 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 share 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. Hopeful message on Athenian street.It is worth mentioning that because 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.
Aneconomy and society built on insecurity and exploitation has been once again exposed, but crisis moments also present opportunity. We may come to 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 kept to a 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.