Thoughts about the New Coronavirus Pandemic in the context of migration and solidarity
by Miriam Hapig, 31 March 2020
The new coronavirus is causing a crisis that is going to impact the narrative of our generation. The way the world around us used to function has been interrupted. Countless processes have come to a halt. No matter where in the world you will be in 20, 30, 40 years, you will be able to turn towards the person next to you and ask: “Where were you during the pandemic in 2020?” or “Were you in a lock-down during the time of corona?” and the person next to you, no matter where they will be from, will be able to relate. It’s hard to think of any other crisis in living memory that had this effect, that created a global story that is going to be shared or understood by such a huge percentage of the world’s population. It’s a first. And it might be worth asking whether this global narrative will favor a global sense of solidarity.
As the pandemic is ongoing, it would be presumptuous to state much more than the fact that it brings uncertainty and suffering to a lot of people worldwide. It challenges health systems, economic systems and changes most of the public and many private aspects of daily life. Looking back at the beginning of the year, it is obvious that it took a lot of people a rather long time to take the pandemic seriously. This applies also to young people who grew up as members of the western European middle class: We (and I include myself in this) were not used to the fact that a crisis could affect us as much as anybody else. We have been living in a very privileged position all our lives, shielded from anything “bigger” than individual strokes of fate.
The young members of the middle and upper class never had to deal with the effects of a collective crisis. It was easy for everybody to turn heads and ignore the suffering that has been going on in other places of the world; some of it directly or indirectly caused by our way of consuming and our politics. Now we too are affected in a very immediate way by the pandemic of the new coronavirus – while obviously still being privileged due to better infrastructure, economic support programs and access to medical services than other people in the world. Still like this, we are suddenly confronted with aspects of collective pain and fear, something that formerly only “other people” in “other places” were experiencing: Being separated from family and friends, in some cases by borders. Losing the freedom of movement. Fearing for the life of loved ones. Losing people. Being isolated. Sharing limited space with others. Losing jobs, routines and the feeling of purpose and suffering from the weight of uncertainty. Of course, many people might have experienced some of these things on an individual level but never as a collective. Nonetheless, all of these things have indeed been existing outside of our our reality. Having worked in a project with refugees and asylum seekers for the last 4 years, the things listed above have been visible to me and the team I work with every day.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported 1300 deaths in the Mediterranean Sea in 2019*; it needs to be assumed that the real figure of people losing their lives while fleeing to Europe is much higher. However, this happens still far enough away from most daily lives in Europe to not provoke a change in behavior or policies. Greek coastguards were firing rubber bullets into the water around a rubber boat full of men, women and children just four weeks ago. Right now, there are countless people still stuck between the Turkish and the Greek border after the events in early March 2020, without a roof above their heads, without clothes, without perspectives. There is no word about them in the media anymore.
The situation in Syria has been a topic in the media for years. But the recent developments might add a new perspective to the pictures we see. The first confirmed case of the new coronavirus was reported in the war-torn country some days ago – and I find myself wondering how many of us are suddenly looking towards Syria with different eyes, with a new sense of solidarity. Because in these weeks, the people in front of the screens and on the screens share a small aspect of fear and pain for the first time. There is a common narrative we all can relate to.
People closing their eyes in light of events that are uncomfortable, yet not uncomfortable enough for them or their love ones to change something, doesn’t only apply to the topics of war or migration. According to the WHO, 7 million people die due to air pollution every year**. Yet the public discussion remains comparably small. Will we mourn the pollution related deaths in 2020? Will we even learn about them? The consequences of climate change force people all over the world to leave their homes, countries and way of life behind. Still we have been unwilling to change our way of life, since its negative impact doesn’t affect us directly. It has taken the fear for ourselves and those we care for to force an interruption of production, consumption and travel.
It remains unclear what the short-term and long-term consequences of these interruptions are going to be. Some of them might be devastating. As stated above, it is too early to draw conclusions about the effects of this pandemic, or the reactions that were shown towards it, or the learnings that can be harvested. In our globalized world, there is a huge need for more solidarity, for more willingness to react to a crisis fast and in a sustainable way instead of ignoring it. This applies to all of us as individuals, as much as to political leaders and economic players. And it has to apply, even if the next crisis won’t affect us directly, as this one does. So, the question is: Will a global narrative spark more global solidarity?
* IOM 2020: https://www.iom.int/news/mediterranean-migrant-arrivals-reach-76558-2019-deaths-reach-1071
** The WHO speaks of “the combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution caus[ing] about seven million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections” (WHO 2020, https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_1 )