Fadwa El Guindi, Ph.D., retiree anthropologist, UCLA, Trustee, World Academy of Art & Science
Is the Novel Virus New?
The pandemic took the world by a storm. Fear gripped people. The elderly felt vulnerable. The young felt invincible. What is this virus that shook up the world and threatened the global economy? And what kind of world will we have after the pandemic?
Neither viruses nor pandemics are new. Evidence shows humans were plagued with viruses and epidemics since the dawn of humanity. The relatively recent pandemic of 1918, known as the Spanish Flu, similarly spread rapidly worldwide infecting about 500 million people, almost one-third of the world’s population, and about 50 million people died worldwide, with about 675,000 occurring in the United States. In comparison COVID-19 infected about 23 million around the world with about a total of 800,000 deaths(Goldstein and Lee 2020). So this is not a new phenomenon.
What is new is that the world is experiencing a new level of awareness, high access and speed of communication, a centralization and wide dispersal of information, advancement in medical knowledge and technology and unsurpassed global interconnectedness. Also new is an interlocked global economy that is affected by such shocks. That is why shockwaves feel so intense.
Sociality of Humans
Early on it was evident that the key to controlling the virus was to block its transmission by people through enforcing measures and spreading awareness globally and by institutional means that dramatically reduced social contact. People were to stay home. Encounters were from a distance. Imprinted vividly in our minds was the image virally spread on social media of Italians in their balconies during lockdown singing opera to the world. People were clinging to a sociality that was being taken from them. It is a sociality that is uniquely human. They were being denied exercising public worship, collective prayer, visiting friends, celebrating with family, cuddling grandchildren, shaking hands - all for the sake of physical health. It is an irony of contradictions - denying community in order to save it. By denying community our very essence of humanness, which makes us unique in the animal universe, is denied. Only humans have the capacity for building social life. It was painful for them to be deprived of burying their dead or spending time with their elderly folk.
Family Over Profit
It was quite a realization when the Valley Zapotec villagers during my field research in Oaxaca, Mexico, which I had carried out in the late 1960s until the 1980s , decided to put one of the villagers in jail. I was told it was because he did not want to ‘waste his time’. He was the only villager who converted to Evangelist Protestant Christianity and changed his lifestyle from socializing and drinking with co-villagers who spent the hours after hard workdays farming
their land, drinking mescal, talking and socializing together. He preferred to work and make money instead. The villagers noticed. And in this context “wasting time” was about engaging with family and community, socializing and building relations, instead of commuting to other villages to earn a bit more money. There is wisdom here. Investing in family and social relations versus investing purely in making money.
Biting the Rich
The pandemic shocked us into rediscovering our humanness. The prevalent economic world order had thrust people into a consumerist mode. People were driven to buy things they don’t need and business was driven to make more profit out of greed. People forgot how to enjoy nature rather than simply exploit it. When it became obvious that at first the pandemic hit the prosperous European countries while it was assumed that Africa should be getting the brunt of it, I was struck by an anthropologist’s casual remark that “Africans spend all their time outdoors.”
It was bewildering and contrary to expectations that most countries affected at first were from the Global North. Predictions were originally based on the factors of levels of prosperity and public health preparedness of nations. So the developing world should have been the first and the most seriously affected. But the patterns upset those predictions, since infections were at their highest in places like northern Italy, Spain, France, Germany, etc. Travel was canceled and borders closed. The world was shocked by what happened to the United States which turned into an epicenter of Covid infections.
Comparison for Perspective
For perspective I make a simple statistical comparison of the covid scenario in Egypt followed by suggested generalizations. It is to be noted that Egypt has densely populated urban centers and a total population of 104 million.
August 22, 2020
From the figures in the table the following generalizations can be made:
Deaths per infected person:
Egypt: 5,231/97,148 = 0.054
Worldwide: 795,460/22,792,364 = 0.035
The numbers overall are small but Egypt is doing worse with regard to risk of dying, once infected ; about 50% more likely to die in Egypt if infected in comparison to Worldwide,
Recovery per infected person:
Egypt: 64,318/97,148 = 0.66
Worldwide: 15,473,378/22,792,364 = 0.68
So Egypt has the same recovery rate once infected as Worldwide figures indicate.
Infection rate per person (my estimates):
Egypt: 97,148/100,000,000 = 0.00097
Worldwide: 22,792,364/6,000,000,000 = 0.0038, in other words, the worldwide infection rate is about 4 times the infection rate in Egypt.
The United States is a good example of how a myopic focus on consumerist capitalist social life exploded into a movement against inequality. The large numbers of infection which focused on Black Communities and the elderly in Homes for seniors tell us a lot. The United States has the largest number of homeless people in the world. This is a phenomenon that plagued America for decades, with no solution in sight. These are people while sighted all over the cities are treated as out of sight. African Americans suffered inequality of treatment, services, access to health, opportunity and serious racism. The attitude of the American people toward their elderly folk was undesirable. Many were put in homes and many homes were more interested in collecting their social security than providing them with humane services. Many young rarely visited their relatives in homes. This was part of a general atmosphere of becoming the first and the best. It was always felt that America is good to the beautiful, young, rich, healthy and powerful. The rest can suffer. There is no general access to healthcare and racism against blacks persisted. The picture was that of a bomb ready to explode, and it did with Covid.
The highest rates of infection were traced to exactly these social groups suffering from inequality (Wrigley-Field 2020) deprivation. Any attempts by politicians or observers to suggest access to healthcare were dismissed as ‘socialists’ and hence irrelevant. The attitude toward the elderly was abominable. Instead of considering them like many cultures do, repositories of wisdom and carriers of tradition to be guarded for the sake of the family, children and grandchildren and for the transmission of valuable traditional wisdom, they were seen as a burden that is in the way of the young who want to compete and prosper. Many older persons exchange promise of estate in return of promise by care by children. It should not be that way. The medical profession used aging to explain ailments, such that by virtue of growing older, no matter how healthy, you are a carrier of disease. Seniors are considered a burden on insurance companies and a gift to pharmaceutical companies. Profit is primary. Business is first. Accordingly, the elderly in nursing homes were hit the hardest along with African Americans and the homeless.
Covid unmasked this ugly reality but also led to a rethinking - would it not have been less costly to prevent those inequalities than face a world economic decline. Would it not have prevented the very strong Black Lives Matter movement that has rapidly become global and which is not easily stoppable now?
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference in Geneva “the world has become significantly more global which gives the coronavirus “a better chance of spreading,”. At the same time, he noted, we also have the technology and the knowledge to stop it. We have the disadvantage of globalization, closeness, and connectedness but the advantage of better technology. But the comment I found most striking is when he reminded us as this article is doing that the virus is an organism seeking a host to multiply and expand, but it does not have a brain. We have a brain and we can prevail.
Ghebreyesus of WHO also condemned the “corruption” around the production and distribution of crucial personal protective equipment, primarily face masks. Any irregularities involving such equipment that deprive health workers of safe gear are effectively equal to “murder,” he stressed.
Talk about access and affordability of healthcare and minimum income is now on the table. Perhaps it took that shock to unlock closed minds to a reality of the ticking bomb of inequalities in the United States and elsewhere. The world after the pandemic may be a world in which the humanness of people is regained and social inequalities among them confronted.
So in wondering about why Covid hit the prosperous countries in the Global North (El Guindi 2020a; El Guindi 2020b) and in the United States most at first one might look at inequalities rather than weather.
El Guindi, F
2020a Reflections on Future Education: Ideas for a Model. CADMUS [Journal of the World Academy of Art & Science] 4(2).
El Guindi, Fadwa
2020b “What the Coronavirus Crisis Needs From Anthropology.” Anthropology News website, April 27, 2020.
Goldstein, Joshua R., and Ronald D. Lee
2020 Demographic perspectives on the mortality of COVID-19 and other epidemics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:202006392.
2020 US racial inequality may be as deadly as COVID-19. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:202014750.