When COVID-19 reached some of the most protected and powerful people of the world like the resident of Number 10, Downing Street and the best known royal Prince Charles or forced Prime Minister Trudeau to self-isolate, many people described this virus as a great leveller. Top grade protection details deployed by security agencies failed to detect its mysterious invasion. The global contagion has affected most of the seven billion people of the planet in various ways. Yet, can it truly be called a leveller? Can it be termed as a non-discriminatory enemy which is what it initially appeared to be?
Some facts are so unbelievably contrasting that one has to wonder whether such variations are at all possible. One such fact is while COVID-19 makes millions of people across the world jobless, and trillions of dollars have been wiped off the value of stock markets, yet it also made the richest billionaires even richer. The Guardian on April 15 reported that the world's wealthiest person, Jeff Bezos became USD 24 billion richer during the coronavirus pandemic than he was at the start of the year. His paper fortune, held mostly in Amazon shares, rose by 20 percent in value over this period taking the total to USD 138 billion. Earlier in February, few weeks before the global pandemic was declared he sold of USD 3.4 billion worth of his Amazon shares. There is no suggestion that Bezos acted improperly.
Likewise, several hedge fund managers have made windfalls. Trade union leaders were angry after revelations that one London hedge fund had made 2.4 bn pounds betting on market moves over a global economic shutdown. Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the TUC, the largest trade union body of the United Kingdom, launched a stinging attack on hedge fund managers and demanded imposition of large taxes on such earnings. While healthcare systems in most of the western countries have been struggling to cope with unprecedented surge in demands for lengthy critical care, many of these super rich have moved into luxurious holiday villas in secluded islands with plenty of supplies.
Investment bankers, few fortunate Bangladeshis included, who reside in million dollar apartments in Manhattan moved away to safer holiday homes for the lockdown period. It is difficult to figure out whether to admire their "prudence" or pity on the expressed selfishness. In New York, which became the epicentre of the COVID 19 pandemic, more than 50 percent of deaths of Bangladeshis abroad occurred. And the reason is largely due to the impoverished conditions they were living in.
In both the United States and the United Kingdom, available statistics show that the immigrant communities have been hurt disproportionately. These immigrants help these metropolitan cities run their essential services like healthcare, policing and transport services. In the UK, holding a public inquiry into this tragic development has been decided, once the pandemic is over. Unfortunately, immigrant workers in Arab and Gulf countries have been enduring the worst and governments in South Asian nations have now initiated the process of humanitarian evacuation of their stranded nationals.
Workers in their homelands are not spared either from the immeasurable sufferings caused by the pandemic—significantly less from the disease itself, but more from the economic consequences. Workers from rural areas employed in both formal and informal sectors, be it export-oriented industries or domestic help, were forced to leave cities overnight, many in crammed public transport paying unusually higher fares. Some of them had to walk back all the way to village homes. In India, millions of workers walked hundreds of kilometres and the world has seen dehumanising images of disinfectants being sprayed on them in herds. Our garment workers made similar journeys with false hopes based on misinformation and rumours, only to find out that they were deceived.
In India, it also had a communal dimension and minority Muslims are facing the hardest brunt. It hit them in so many ways as too many Hindu groups resorted to several ridiculous Islamophobic theories suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic is an Islamic importation to destroy India. The alleged Tablighi Jamaat infections were being exploited by the Islamophobic establishment to generate hostility against Muslims at such an extent that some hospitals are refusing to accept any patient of Islamic faith unless s/he provides coronavirus negative certificates. Videos emerging show that vendors are denying selling essential food items to Muslim residents in some areas under lockdown. Amidst the global outcry over such divisive and discriminatory practices, on the April 19 Prime Minister Modi tweeted, "COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood". Yet discriminating against Muslims amidst the pandemic continues.
Following press reports that the government in Bangladesh is designating a top-grade hospital for the VIPs, social media platforms are abuzz with anger and criticisms. Whether such reports are true or not, differences could not be starker in health service in Bangladesh on the basis of financial abilities and political influence. Despite our constitution guaranteeing medical care as a fundamental right, it has always been a subject to affordability. As most of those state-run hospitals are not preferred by our VIPs, designated cabins in those establishments did not raise much controversy. But, things are quite different during a pandemic when everyone has equal right to seek the state's protection equally which explains netizens' anger.
The United Nations food agency, WFP chief David Beasley told the Security Council on April 21 that the world is not only facing a global health pandemic, but also famines of "Biblical proportion". It warns of doubling of hunger in the world in coming months. In Bangladesh, too, thousands of poor people have come out on the streets demanding food and work. All these predictions and warnings show who faces greater risks and are more vulnerable. So, can a pandemic that leaves millions of people jobless and pushes them towards hunger and death be called a non-discriminatory leveller?
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.