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COVID and the View from the Global South

Issue 269

While affluent Westerners have abandoned their offices during the pandemic to live and work from anywhere, residents of the Global South find their movements ever more restricted, says Indian writer Manvi Jalan.

Manvi Jalan Feb 7

“I’ll see you soon.” We cast a spell and call it hope, waiting helplessly for ‘soon’ to arrive. The Rona years have held us all prisoner, separated us from the ones we love, cleaved our lives apart. Does the world feel smaller, borderless, when we wake up to our screens and hold each other through language, across time and space? Do the borders between us dissolve in this virtual utopia-hellscape? 

For some, the borders enforced during COVID-19 hold us hostage, a stark reinforcement of colonial-era inequalities that have never disappeared, a reminder that we are the most expendable, that separation may last far longer than disease.

Kolkata, India: My close friend Siddhartha’s father has touched death and survived for the third time. There won’t be a fourth. The pandemic rages on. His sister Chagan sits in San Francisco, waiting for travel restrictions to ease. She’s luckier than most. As a permanent resident of the United States, she’s less likely to get stuck in India indefinitely. After two years of waiting, Chagan anxiously found a flight to see her father in January. Flights are hard to come by and incredibly expensive; travel restrictions shift every day.

In June 2021: I get a text from my friend Sarika. Her aging grandmother, who struggles with hearing loss and dementia, is now alone in Kolkata after the death of her sister, her only living family. Stuck in Maryland, my friend’s mother tries to come to India and take grandma home to the US. But with embassies closed, emergency visas taking weeks or months to be processed, barely any operating flights and uncertain travel restrictions, they can’t afford to leave and get stuck in a now-unfamiliar India. I help them find a nurse to potentially accompany grandmother in the case they’d figure out the necessary paperwork to let her into the U.S.

Do the borders between us dissolve in this virtual utopia-hellscape? 

In stark contrast, the global elite has spent these last two years holidaying in countries like the Maldives that rely on tourism to survive: Boris Johnson threw a bunch of parties under his own lockdown and vaccinated people with powerful passports have had the luxury of living in a freer, more borderless world. COVID has illuminated inequalities that were hidden in the pre-pandemic world and reinforced the oppression of the historically disenfranchised, us who lost the birth lottery.

Year 3; We Still Can’t Move

It’s year three of the pandemic; we now know that travel bans come too late to curb global transmission. We have consistent and effective travel regulations and safety protocols, including testing at airports and contact tracing. WHO stated, “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.” Yet, when the Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa, the U.K., E.U. and U.S. were quick to issue travel bans on South Africa and several other countries in Southern Africa even though COVID cases were low and Omicron had not yet been identified in some of these countries. And borders remained open between the U.S. and European countries that were invaded by Omicron.

While the fear-induced US ban on South African travelers was lifted, and the ‘inconvenience’ acknowledged, it’s not a coincidence that blanket bans have hit poorer countries first. Under the guise of health and safety, COVID has served as an excuse for rich countries to reinforce the borders that separate them from the global south. The fallout has led to families being separated across countries, professionals and students on work visas stranded indefinitely. It has left refugees unable to flee their countries and set “developing” countries years back on World Bank debt payments, violently throwing millions back into a tightened austerity.

In India, it took until November 2021 for WHO to officially recognise Covaxin — a locally-produced Indian vaccine that faced trouble being globally accepted — leaving vaccinated Indians unable to travel until December 2021. Students trying to get back to college in the fall were either stuck or forced to take a vaccine cocktail before we knew if it was safe.

A vaccine “passport” is a certificate that gives vaccinated citizens the green light to travel internationally — not all countries recognise Indian vaccines or certificates. The Indian government’s faulty processing of vaccine passports has also led to wrong birth dates on certificates they then refuse to fix. A family immigrating to the UK was even suspected of fraud because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s photograph is printed on every “passport.

Some European countries also require travelers to have been boosted for entry, which automatically discounts much of the Global South and is incredibly hypocritical considering the fact that rich countries hoard millions of vaccine doses while poor countries struggle to provide first and second doses or to boost their citizens.

Western arrogance

India, which has vaccinated 48.6% of its population, is now facing a vaccine shortage and boosters are a long way from being accessible in public hospitals. When India, the leading country in vaccine production, was allowed to produce the Astrazeneca vaccine locally under the name Covishield we were legally bound to sell a percentage of those shots to the UK, leaving millions of its own citizens unvaccinated.

Western countries have consistently undermined foreign vaccines and have been unwilling to learn from countries like Cuba, which successfully quarantined and produced its own vaccines, distributing excess to other poor countries. They have have refused to democratize technology so that other countries can make generic versions of patented vaccines and distribute them to their own people rather than relying on the failed COVAX program, under which rich countries were supposed to donate to a fund organized by the World Health Organization and Unicef, who would buy and redistribute vaccines. All of that to reinforce the neo-colonial order, the globalized oppression and Western arrogance I’ve known it my whole life: Wealthy countries continue to plunder resource-rich global south countries and then treat them with a savior mentality, at best, when they are in need, forcing Western norms on non-Westerners and telling them how to receive help. Wealthy countries cure hunger on their terms — by distributing granola bars rather than stopping their corporate-interest-driven land rape, rather than globally canceling debts or redistributing wealth so the rest of the world can afford once again to reap the harvests of our own land.

If our collective health and safety is truly a concern for world leaders, why are countries like Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. refusing to share the patents and technology the Global South needs to produce enough low-cost vaccines to protect its citizens? Why aren’t they sharing the extra vaccines they have rotting in storehouses? Human Rights Watch reports, “There are over 100 companies across Africa, Asia, and Latin America who have the capacity to make an mRNA vaccine … All they need is for the US and German governments to end monopolies and share the valuable technology they funded and essentially created with them.” If we can have McDonalds in every country, why pray tell, can we not have vaccines globally available?

• • •

In pre-pandemic days, visas, especially immigrant visas, were expensive and incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Even tourist visas cost a fortune. Travel and immigration for citizens of the global south has always been notoriously difficult — but with COVID tightening borders, shutting down and delaying immigration procedures when embassies could’ve gone virtual to prevent backlogs, it’s self-evident that our lives will be uprooted for several years to come.

Under the guise of health and safety, COVID has served as an excuse for rich countries to reinforce the borders that separate them from the global south.

On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss these temporary borders as an essential health and safety issue. But if you look at how a million migrants seeking asylum on the southwest border of the U.S. were barred entry under the pretense that a flow of unvaccinated immigrants would endanger U.S. citizens, despite immigration law that mandates the U.S.welcome asylum seekers, vaccinate them, and give them adequate health care dictated by local protocol, the sinister reality of how governments are working to curb immigration from undesirable countries becomes clear. A mindless normalization of boundaries and tactical moves to curb immigration bolster and reify oppressor-drawn borders which in turn keeps on its pedestal.

A Borderless Dystopia/Utopia

COVID has led to increased governmental surveillance, border control and policing of migrants and citizens. But what’s the incentive for governments to reign in surveillance when the pandemic is over? The pandemic years have given birth to trillionaires yet also thrown 99% of the world into poverty. In what feels like a dystopia where we’ve lost all empathy and hear the words ‘post-truth’ so often, our trust in the system has evaporated.

The pessimist in me wonders if this incessant thirst for power will lead the egotistical rulers of our world to rejoice as they pave the path to death for the rest of us, the masses. The other half of me wonders if they’ll keep us alive so they can torture us for fun and need bodies to exploit so their wealth can grow even larger.

The capitalist impulse to profit from a health crisis at the cost of human life is fundamentally unsustainable in the long term. For late-stage capitalism to work, countries and people need each other. Politicians, scientists and health organizations know that sooner or later, profit-induced policies being prioritized over human lives will eventually circle back to hurt everyone — as demonstrated by the coronavirus’ indomitable ability to cross borders.

• • •

The pandemic has shifted our perceptions of time and space. The global lockdown reeled us into a shared moment where everyone everywhere was suddenly trapped in their homes, and if we were lucky, experienced each other and the world virtually. Our physical borders closed in around us, driving us into isolation. In our intimate lives, emotional borders dissolved as we reached out in search of love, community and connection. In the virtual realm, there are no borders, we convene from across time zones and share space. Lovers and friends met on Zoom, desperately willing that soon, soon, we’ll hold each other again.

As we are isolated from collective physical experience, our collective consciousness shrinks. The way we’ve been using the virtual world to connect is our way, perhaps, of trying to keep these connections alive. Paradoxically, virtual space offers more “global mobility,” so does the experience of a borderless virtual world fuel a desire to manifest a more borderless world physically?

In the poetic imagination, the pause has led some to confront their shadows, break down their barriers and shift focus towards radical empathy. Illusions of individualistic survival, of the identities we hold onto as defined by borders are crumbling. Hope lies in the fact that we can imagine a better future. We need this nightmare to end, and to do that, collective action and open borders are necessary.

In my imagination, a utopic decolonisation is one where everyone has the opportunity to move freely across open borders and create diverse communities across the globe. In my fantasies, we dose the most powerful with psychedelic medicine that forces them to peacefully return the billions they have stolen from us. The void created by their crumpled egos will be filled by an influx of universal love and realization of the fundamental truth that any system that denies people their freedom, is unsustainable.

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