“After COVID-19 what next: Imagining the marginalized
from the perspective of the ‘other.”
by Andy Kusi-Appiah, QE scholar, 2019/2020
“We face real and hard choices between investing in humans and investing in technology. Because the brutal truth is that, as it stands, we are unlikely to do both.”
(Naomi Klein, May 2020)
I Return to normalcy discourse
Last night I had a long telephone conversation with my friend the ‘Laughing Stone’ (aka me yonko Serebour). As usual, Serebour was in good spirits but he was also very agitated and pissed because, according to him;
“…people are not observing social distancing when in fact they are supposed to adhere to the dictates of superior thinking from the powers that be (i.e., government powered by the elite in society).” (Kofi Serebour, May 31, 2020)
According to my friend the ‘Laughing Stone’ (man on the ground in Chorkor, Accra, Ghana), my people are creating conditions for disaster as their behaviours do not help in our bid to “flatten” the COVID-19 curve and return society to normalcy in the global village. Indeed, Kofi Serebour was emphatic that my people’s uncooperative attitude is going to prolong this global lockdown. According to Kofi Serebour, our plans to return this Earth to ‘normalcy’ is threatened by the stubbornness of my people (yes, we always turn around to blame the oppressed and the marginalized after we have created the crisis – we created this crisis when we decided to follow the Enlightenment project and destroy nature to satisfy our wants in the name of progress). It appears that we humans are eager to return to ‘normal’ situation in which neoliberalism continue to reign; we are eager to return to a ‘normal’ in which the western world still dictates why and how Homo Sapiens live or die; we are eager to return to a ‘normal’ in which the hyper-consumerism of the West (and their surrogates everywhere) must be fed by the sweat and blood of the rest of the world. And there is no shortage of champions for this cause, including all the top Silicon Valley corporate entities getting ready to impose their surveillance ideas on humankind and cash in on this pandemic. As Naomi Klein puts it, we are now engaged in a:
“…warmed up dystopia of rebranding…..which is being sold to us on the dubious premise that technologies are the only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives, the indispensable keys to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.” (Klein, May, 2020).
In this brave and refined ‘new’ future, our homes will cease to be exclusively ours, because we shall be effectively powered by high-speed digital connectivity and our schools, decor’s offices and gyms will all be surveilled digitally. For the privileged and entitled, everything will be home delivered via streaming and cloud technology and driverless vehicles or drones and screen shared on a mediated platform. Naomi Klein says it much more eloquently when she says:
“It’s a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors, and drivers. It accepts no cash or credit cards and has skeletal mass transit and far less live art. It’s a future that claims to be run on ‘artificial intelligence’ but is tis actually held together by…anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses….industrial farms and prisons….where they are left unprotected from disease and hyperexploitation.” (Klein, May, 2020).
In almost all scientific models forth by our learned scientists and commentators, the suggestion is that the peak of positive COVID-19 cases is going to be in 4-8 weeks or so. But that’s all assuming that we are social distancing, washing our hands with soap, wearing our face masks and keeping things under control.
II Pandemic realities
In this coronavirus infected world, it is easy to tell people everywhere to stay at home when elites in the West (and their surrogates who are the custodians of the neoliberalist agenda in marginalized environments of the world) have guaranteed jobs and incomes, well built homes and well-spaced surroundings, and can afford to ‘order’ ice cream and wine and food online and watch Netflix movies online in the very comforts of their heated homes. But people ‘everywhere’ and ‘everyday’ people must physically work for water and for food every blessed day!
As we prepare to move into this so-called ‘new’ normal, we must not forget that a big chunk of the world’s population still live ‘from-hand-to-mouth‘ in ghetto-like conditions with very little or no resources; essential resources which are ironically produced by their sweat and blood. I am reliably informed by Mr. Preacher Mgabadere (a businessman in Mzuzu, Malawi) that people who live in marginalized and informal settings cannot afford to participate in a Western informed social distancing policy regime that is blind to their marginalized existence. This is because social distancing as prescribed by the west is unrealistic, and trying to practice same can mean starving to death as certain vital resources will be completely out of reach for people who literally have to be physically present in the market place to make a living. Just a couple of days ago, in the very warm heart of Africa (aka Malawi), about 400 people escaped from a coronavirus quarantine centre in Blantyre (Malawi’s second largest city), after complaining about its poor state. Local media reported that those who escaped were quarantined on arrival from South Africa and were yet to be tested. These marginalized people escaped because the makeshift quarantine centre lacked food and water — two very vital resources we all need; resources that are beyond the reach of many people who work so hard to make our lives livable and enjoyable.
But this is not new! Take a trip down memory lane and you will find that when the Black Death hit, it was marginalized people who suffered the most. Marginalized people also sacrificed their lives and paid the ultimate price (i.e., death) during the very recent pandemic that killed about 50 million people worldwide (about a third of the world’s population at that time) – I am talking about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. My grandmother (grandma Akrasi was about nine years old in 1918) told me many stories about all the family members (and other community members) we lost during that pandemic. She told me about how fearful she was whenever she was asked to accompany her mother to the farm or to the market to get essential resources for the family. In the 21st century, it is unconscionable to ask people who have been condemned to the margins of society and suffered so much to stay home and observe social and physical distancing when we know perfectly well that this is a call for people to starve themselves to death. Are we trying to create another apartheid system in which the average person is denied basic necessities like water and food in the name of ‘flattening’ the proverbial curve?
III What gives?
Returning to the ‘new’ normal is easier for the western world (and the surrogate colonialists all over the world). The vast majority of inhabitants of the western world can stay home and still get the essential resources we need, but it doesn’t work that way for marginalized and poor people all over the globe. Yes, I care about the JC Penneys of the world, Sears, the Neiman Marcuses etc., who are sitting on a pile of debt and are struggling to survive this deadly pandemic, but I care more about people like Madam Favour Moshoashoa, a resident of the city of Mzuzu in Malawi, who is unemployable by western standards and is left with taking care of a household of ten people with no land, no income, and no potable water supply. For local people like Mama Favour Moshoashoa, whether they will recover from this recession, even if it is temporary, is a big question – I pray for favour and I pray for all my human cousins all over the world! Much will depend on how well-meaning people around the world can mobilize to ease the pain of marginalized people living and working in informal settlements around the globe.
And so moving forward, we must not pretend that all is well in our urban centres around the globe — all is not well in our informal settlements in the heart of Africa or in Latin America. Humankind can only survive this pandemic and thrive if we take care of the least privileged in the global society. In Malawi for example, there is a campaign to inform people about the dangers of not doing the right things during this COVI-19 pandemic (i.e., social distancing, wearing facemasks and washing hands with soap and warm water). But Malawians also know that if they stayed home doing nothing, they and their families will starve to death – – they will die before COVID-19 kills them. It is true that banks and hospitals in Malawi are still open and practicing social distancing, but all informal institutions like my favourite katchasu spots (artisanal alcohol spots) are still open and doing business as usual; the informal markets are also doing brisk business as usual. In Mzuzu, one can freely travel on a bus to Karonga or Lilongwe to conduct personal business. We also know that small local grocery kiosks (not formally sanctioned or licensed) like the one on the corner of Katoto and Kaboko owned by Mama Grace Kotiede in Zolozolo (Mzuzu, Malawi) will survive, and so too will Papa Broni’s grocery outlet in Oda Oldtown (Eastern Ghana). But the real question is whether these grocery kiosks will be furnished with the needed ‘essential commodities’ that will help local people to thrive and succeed in the global economy. The grocery market that deals with perishable food items like tomatoes, onions, beans, peanuts and fruits like banana and oranges will survive, but ‘luxuries’ like being ‘fashionable’ will have to wait. I do not have to tell you that people wear clothes because they want to go outside or stay warm (it is winter in Malawi now), but other ‘luxuries’ like skincare products, and hair styling in salons will have to wait because access to food and potable water comes first. Local people will postpone any ‘self-aggrandizement’ when it is necessary — and they have been doing that for millennia. So while we sit in the comforts of our heated homes with flowing water from the taps and technologically powered gadgets, let us also pay attention to Indigenous/local peoples all over the world – they are the ones who provide us with the essential resources we need to survive here on Earth.
Andy Kusi-Appiah is an adjunct professor at Carleton University. His interests are on the impact of social and environmental changes on the health and well-being of vulnerable groups (e.g., 2nd generation Canadians of African descent).