The horrific images of white plastic body bags in which the final journeys are set during this great pandemic add to the myth of coronavirus as the great leveller. Death, of course, is inevitable. Indeed, there is no escape from fate and the icy hand of Death that lays claim to the rich and the poor alike. However, is death at the hands of coronavirus inevitable? All the victims of Covid-19 parcelled to the afterworld in white bags may give you a very plain impression of death that has nothing to do with class, gender, race, age or profession of individuals. The reality is much more nuanced than that.
The moon shines on Prince Charles, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, actor Tom Hanks, journalist Chris Cuomo, Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta and other high-profile patients who have bounced back to normal life because of the support service they could afford or have recourse to. On the other side of the moon, we hear of the Black Americans in the US with a mortality rate of 23 per 100,000. This is 2.9 times higher than the rate for Asians, 2.7 times higher than the rate for Whites, and 2.5 times higher than the rate for Latinos. Death then can be colour-coded which we often do not realise living in a relatively homogenous country like Bangladesh. We can feel its hints when bodies of suspected virus victims are left out in the open or thrown off the truck, but its full spectrum remains beyond our comprehension.
To understand its range and scope, we need to look beyond our national boundary perhaps to fathom the inequalities that have been laid bare by the current crisis. Last Wednesday, Singapore hit the news for its second round of Covid-19 ordeal. Of the 10,000 new reported cases, most of the new victims are migrant workers, and a majority of whom are from Bangladesh. In the first phase, Singapore drew global praise for its gold standard implementation of testing and tracing through which it protected its citizens; the return of the disease throws spotlight on its marginalised community. The sheer number of infections has exposed the appalling living conditions of the migrant workers mainly from South and South East Asia.
The Guardian reports that "despite the pandemic, [they] continued to live in close quarters, and spent hours a day travelling on the back of crowded lorries to get to and from construction sites." The report quotes a worker as saying, "The way the workers were stacked in [on the back of lorries], it was like the way goats are stacked in when they are taken to a slaughter house."
Earlier in March, CNN reported on the living condition of Bangladeshi workers. It quoted Tommy Koh, a Singapore lawyer and former diplomat who posted on Facebook: "The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode. The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World. The government has allowed their employers to transport them in flat-bed trucks with no seats. They stay in overcrowded dormitories and are packed like sardines with 12 persons to a room."
The inhuman (read non-human) condition of our migrant workers is compared with goat herds and canned sardines. These are the men who work to keep the city of Singapore squeaky clean, and now the dirt is out. The picture is not as rosy in which the workers secretly celebrate the national pride of finding Crown (ironically, the literal meaning of Corona) Cement as the adhesive behind the building blocks of Singapore. Sure enough, there are repercussions.
The bad press has triggered off anti-foreigner sentiment. One running theme on social media in Singapore is that the living and food habits of these foreign workers are responsible for the disease and they are "driving our numbers up and it makes us look bad on the world stage, and they should go home." Such xenophobia is becoming very common all over the world. Many Chinese nationals or descendants are facing racial slurs and being subjected to hate crimes in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe.
The discourse of identifying a particular race responsible for the worldwide disease is dangerously promoted by one noteworthy leader who does not want to miss out on the opportunity of gaining political mileage from the crisis. On the other hand, China, the factory of the world, is being accused of gaining financially from the crisis and withholding information about it. The disease, far from being a leveller, has therefore created new categories of opposition.
Response to the disease has also necessitated novel categories of essential and non-essential professionals. The consequences of the disease are mostly felt by those who are working in the frontline.
Dhaka Tribune reports that around 251 doctors were infected by the coronavirus till Thursday 11am. The second largely affected group is the Police. A total of 218 police personnel were infected by the virus while performing their duties in the field. My guess is, the civil servants who are in charge of dispensing food relief would come third on the list.
These are professionals on duty who are being exposed to the severity of the disease, and the government has declared special incentives to keep their morale high. Any government official dying in the line of duty while fighting Covid-19 would receive Tk 50 lakh in compensation. A laudable initiative. But what about the private sector—people who are working in agriculture, banks, media, power sector, internet service, transport, education and the like? What about the people who are keeping the system running when everything else has come to a halt? What compensations are there for them? Add to that the shopkeepers, transport workers, delivery men who are the lowest paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed. And what about those hungry masses who are forced to come out soliciting alms and charity? The myth that the disease is a leveller then does not hold much water.
By now, it is also evident that people with chronic health conditions are being hit harder by the disease. These conditions include malnutrition, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart or kidney diseases. Again, age becomes a factor as people over 60 are highly susceptible to these health conditions. Gender becomes a factor as the fatality rate is higher among the male population. The neighbourhoods in which people live also become a factor. The chances of having a weak immune system are higher in low-income neighbourhoods. They may not have the right and balanced food they need; they may not have the pure water to drink or fresh air to breathe. The sound pollution may add to their worries and hypertension. The adulterated food may add to their kidney disease or carcinogenic conditions. And when we categorise them as the most vulnerable groups, when we put a barrier in front of their slums or localities, and ask them not to come to our houses to do our household chores—we actually create one more area to confirm that Covid-19 is not a leveller. Deep down, we know that these groups live in worse condition than the dormitories of migrant workers in Singapore.
The non-discriminatory nature of coronavirus has made us stay home for over a month now. But the more isolated we become in our thoughts, the more divided we become in our conditions. If one has to live in a small apartment with 5/6 people inside, the walls of social distancing are fragile. The slightest of intrusion can burst them open. With physical, financial and psychological insecurities and uncertainties looming large, people will eventually come out of these bubbles and become a danger for both themselves and others. The urgency to come out will depend on the conditions in which they are cushioned. With millions of people now fearing layoffs, job cuts, salary reduction, food shortage, financial nosedives—we do realise that some people are worse off than others. The spectrum of race, class, health, profession, and economy does matter when you are dealing with a crisis. Covid-19 surely is not a leveller.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email: email@example.com