We, in the ‘developed’ world like to think of diseases, of epidemics as something of the ‘third world,’ of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries who are still battling natural challenges that we have long since overcome. We employ such arguments as pretext to inhibit the entrance of those who come from such places. They are merely carriers of poverty and famine, of drugs, and disease. We see ourselves at the center of the world. The others are at the periphery. We may recognize the inequality perpetuated by the exchange between the two. We may want to ‘help.’ If they only followed our model. But they have no place in our clean, white society. Maybe that’s why the coronavirus scares us so much. Because it is proof that such barriers are artificial. That we too, are vulnerable.
So we panic. We share things we heard on social media. We claim that the virus started from the bats. The Chinese eat bats and are thus to blame. So we avoid them. Attack them. Don’t go to their restaurants. We buy up all of the masks available on the internet, so that hospitals risk not having enough for their patients. But then we realize that our fear is not abstract, but well-founded. The threat is among us. 364 people at our own school. At Sciences Po! We memorize the symptoms. Fever, cough, shortness of breath. Fever, cough, shortness of breath. Do I have fever, cough, or shortness of breath? Hey that person is coughing! They must have coronavirus we think to ourselves.
Coronavirus is serious. We cannot respond to the gravity of the situation with false dismissals. Coronavirus is more dangerous than the flu. I am writing this article from my room in which I spend 23 and two-thirds hours of my time each day. Friends have generously dropped off groceries and facetimed me after they get out of class. Even if they knock on the door and run away, they are kind. They are kind and I am lucky. However, I never thought I would lose a friend over my adherence to quarantine. Maybe the nine hours I spent in Milan makes me a threat to society. Maybe I should spend all 24 hours in the confines of my room.
I recognize that others have experiences that are way more difficult than my own. I think of solitary confinement. 23 hours per day in a cell. A practice rampant in my country, particularly among men of color. Torture according to the United Nations. Maybe that’s why I can’t give up my 20 minute run. 20 minutes of freedom. 20 minutes where my body is not a threat. But a vessel of strength and determination. Of hope.
But while this experience is particular to me and my body during these two weeks, many others are not so lucky. For example, in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body. In France, as well. So as we prepare our countries to fight COVID-19, let us focus on the humanity that draws us together. The professionals who sounded the alarm despite internal pressures. The doctors sacrificing their lives to fight the disease. The researchers around the world who are working diligently to develop a vaccine. The kindness shown by world leaders and everyday people bringing groceries to those in quarantine.
Human risk from zoonotic diseases increases from habitat fragmentation and climate change. We saw this with Ebola and Zika and are seeing it now. The climate crisis is intensifying. Our commitments are insufficient. France is one of the most exposed countries in the world. We must see each other not as threats, but as allies. Not as adversaries but partners. This is not to say that we should ignore the plight of Muslims in China, India, and Myanmar or fail to criticize Western support for human suffering. But rather to recognize that in all times, particularly those of strife, we should see each other for what we are. Human.