This morning as I was getting myself up out of bed, feeling again the shock of remembering that daily life is now about living through the Covid-19 pandemic, I got a text from a friend in Lebanon asking how we were over here. She apologised for being in touch again after a short time, but, she said, she was worried about us here in the UK. Not that Lebanon doesn’t have Corona, it does, there have been 4 confirmed deaths and 256 reported cases (as of the 23rd March) and they are staying indoors as we are at the moment. I was happy to hear from my friend but it did make me feel a bit emotional (not hard right now for many of us are pretty on edge I know). Partly I was touched by the care and concern making its way to me from a fair distance, from a friend who has been very loyal and committed to remaining in touch despite the gathering of years since we lived in the same city. But also, there was something of a shaking-up that her text brought about in me. She was someone from a country that I had been used to thinking was a place and people that was more in need of my care and concern than I was of theirs. In the time since I had been back in the UK I was used to reaching out to friends in Lebanon on occasion to ask how things were there: I had heard for example about outbreaks of violence in the refugee camps in her city or of the recent mass protests. I wasn’t used to being the one in the country that others are concerned about- my white and classed privilege of normally making me feel immune to disasters happening ‘elsewhere’. As has been already been said, the Corona virus is no respecter of borders or the false hierarchies of value people often ascribe to the ‘West and the rest’.
When I worked in Lebanon for a while I learnt a bit about the situation of the many Palestinian refugees who live in a kind of ‘suspended waithood’ – allowed neither to become citizens of Lebanon nor to return to their neighbouring homeland 72 years after they were expelled from it. Something about meeting people in this situation motivated me, a few years later, to sign up to become a Human Rights monitor in the Occupied Palestinian territories with an organisation called EAPPI (currently taking applications for people to do the same thing in 2021). Having done that, my PhD research is now concerned with exploring the nature of the relationship between solidarity activists in the UK and the situation in Palestine. What is it that motivates us to go? How do we conceive of our role in a place subject to military occupation by a foreign power? What is it that connects us in the UK to the suffering of a people in a geographically distant land?
And so this pandemic is making me, along with everyone else, think more and more about how we understand the ways we are all connected; it seems to have highlighted things many have been speaking and writing about for a long while, but which now seem all the more stark. For an obvious starter, in the speed at which that the virus has travelled, we are struck by just how globally mobile some (not all) sections of our societies are. We have reaped the benefits of this, as well as the environmental disaster, but here and now the vulnerabilities of this mobility are suddenly obvious.
Dalia Gebrial (@daliagebrial) highlighted something of this, speaking of how London is constituted by racialised differences in labour and mobility. She tweeted a few days ago:
“The fabric of London are large migrant communities, who don’t have networks outside the city. They don’t have cars so they can travel to and from shops and work safely. They are also the workers that still have to go to work even though it is unsafe, because their work is the essential, invisible work that runs the city. They are on the front line.”
There are many of us who are able to work from home right now, and many who can’t. There are many who are run off their feet doing 12 hour shifts in intensive care, and many who suddenly have a whole lot of time on their hands and very little income, for a whole variety of reasons. The way our income, labour and privilege is connected is suddenly visible for all to see should we look. As I sit at a desk and study, I know that my work does not directly contribute to anyone’s survival. I am very much aware that there are people who spend their days and nights working in jobs without which I do not have food to eat, medicine to buy should I need it, and an Internet service which connects me to my family and friends. And, of course our collective dependency on doctors and nurses who are willing to put themselves on the frontline is suddenly all the more apparent and humbling.
The ways I have come to think about our interconnectedness, our interdependency, our reciprocal need for each other has been partly through some of Judith Butler’s writings. I quoted from this article in the New Yorker in my last blog post, and I go back to it again: She says
…..who actually stands on their own? We are all, if we stand, supported by any number of things. Even coming to see you today—the pavement allowed me to move, and so did my shoes, my orthotics, and the long hours spent by my physical therapist. His labor is in my walk, as it were. I wouldn’t have been able to get here without any of those wonderful technologies and supporting relations.
We literally live with other people’s labour within our bodies, supporting our movements giving us grounding. Once you start being aware of all the people who have enabled you to just live a day, we know in our bones that the ideology of individualism is entirely missing the point. In fact, I would agree with Butler’s understanding of who we are as individuals. She says there is no such thing as ‘self’ apart from that which ties us to others. “I am my relation to the “you” whose life I seek to preserve” (Butler, 2012: 142). We are inherently social but also dependent on each other. Always. And not only in a time of crisis. But this is not necessarily easy news to take in. Although in happier times it is fairly easy to bring out the ‘no man is an island’ quote, now we are realising just how true the fact that we are all intertwined with each other is. And this can be a fearful thing. Ultimately, we realise we depend on others for our own survival and this vulnerability can make us feel weak. And there are a lot of people feeling the reality of vulnerability right now all over the world.
In the light of this global interconnectedness, this would surely be the worst time to close down the borders in our minds and hearts and focus only on ourselves.
I would agree with Sara Ahmed who wrote in her blog yesterday:
There is only so much you can take on as there is only so much you can take in.
We can’t take everything on. We can’t take everything in.
This is true. And in this very challenging time we will all think about our interconnectedness in different ways, some of us more locally, some more globally. Right now I feel worried for my friend who lives nearby, sick, most likely with Corona virus up in her attic room, but I also feel worried for the situation in Gaza, a bit further away.
The Palestinian territory of Gaza reported its first two cases of Corona 2 days ago. It is only 10 km wide and 41 km long, but is described as an open-air prison. Israel has blockaded it for the past 13 years and a while back the UN estimated that it would be unfit for habitation in the year 2020. Here we are in 2020. There is very little space to self-isolate in such crowded conditions, there is a severe lack of infrastructure – basic things like a reliable electricity and water supply, medical equipment and hygiene facilities. The implications for this tiny strip of land with 2 million inhabitants could be devastating.
Reported in the Guardian yesterday, One Gazan woman posed us this question:
“we have become used to isolation” said Ahlam al-Madhoun, “…..will the world understand that the isolation they live in for 14 days is the same as what we have been living under for 14 years?”
Most of the Palestinians living in Gaza today are descendants of the 200,000 refugees who fled other parts of Palestine during the 1948 war which resulted in the birth of the State of Israel as Jehad Abusalim reminds us. They had no idea at the time of fleeing to Gaza that they would never be allowed to return home, that they would be prevented from doing so by barriers and walls, and that, 72 years later they would be living barricaded in like this. The war of 1948 was the same violence which lead to 750, 000 Palestinian refugees being expelled to other parts of the world, including those who fled to Lebanon and some of whom now live in camps like the one in the city where my Lebanese friends are; one of whom texted me yesterday to ask how I was in this time of Corona.
It seems that at the same time that we are being asked to physically withdraw ourselves from one another to contain the spread of this virus, we are being reminded of the fact that we are, like it or not, all interconnected. There is a vulnerability to this mutual dependency and yet, just perhaps, with hope, this strange time will teach us to better to respect our entangled togetherness.
If you would like to donate to Medical Aid for Palestinians, they are providing hygiene kits for Gaza, along with continuing with the rest of their work in the region. I am sure they would certainly appreciate financial help at the moment. See here.
Butler, J, 2012, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy “Precarious life, vulnerability and the ethics of cohabitation” Vol 26: 2