A month ago I was in Nepal. The month since has been the most tumultuous in my living memory as the world has struggled to come to grips with the coronavirus. But at the same time, for me personally, it has become one of the quietest months as the dear friends who were sharing our home moved to separate accommodation, my external work dried up and local traffic dwindled. That is one of the many anomalies of this pandemic. While the whole world shares the crisis, at no time have the differences in our lives been so stark.
On every level, I am one of the lucky few. My extended family are in good health, with incomes and safe, comfortable homes in countries providing free medical care and financial assistance. None of us have small children to educate and entertain, nor are we in tiny flats several floors up a tower block, or worse: both. In fact, my own family live in the Cairngorms National Park with some of the UK’s most beautiful landscape on our doorstep. Perhaps more significantly, our families are harmonious and enjoying the time together; there is little risk of domestic violence or impending divorce.
But we don’t take the credit for this. All the privileges listed above make it so much easier to have happy families. Where people struggle with financial crisis, inadequate housing, little access to green spaces and chronic poor health, as well as the cumulative effect of these challenges down through generations, it is almost inevitable that relationships crack under the strain. And that very loss of supportive family connection only intensifies all the other problems, trapping people in downward spirals.
I am certainly not suggesting that everyone in straitened circumstances has broken relationships. Far from it. Many are part of strong family and community networks that defy the odds in sustaining loving, happy homes. But to do so they have to work a heck of a lot harder. And in times of extreme additional pressure, like the pandemic, it is these families that are most vulnerable. It is these families I ache for when I am lucky enough to cycle to a lochan in the Caledonian pinewoods and listen to nothing but wind, water and birds.
It is these families I keep wishing could somehow be evacuated from urban sink estates to all the empty holiday houses in this beautiful, wide-open space. I know why that’s not possible: health services here don’t have capacity for the influx, nor the medical records and history; supermarkets and other infrastructure wouldn’t cope; there would be huge risk of bringing infection to a relatively safe area. But it throws into sharp relief the fundamental in-balances in our country: how it is possible for some people to own two houses, both in nice areas, when others are homeless?
But beyond the very real challenges of the poor in this country, I find my thoughts return continually to Nepal. I am hearing from friends there about the effect of the government’s very strict and sudden lockdown in mid-March, with no notice or time to prepare. It was introduced despite only three confirmed cases in the country and no deaths. Naturally, there is enormous anxiety about how Nepal could possibly cope if and when the wave hits. As my friends who work in one of Kathmandu’s major hospitals said, “If the wealthiest nations in the world struggle to contain death rates, we can only imagine what it will look like in a country where a UNICEF survey found that 53% of health facilities across the country lack a handwashing facility with soap and water (questions about numbers of ventilators are likely superfluous).”
But they are not alone in recognising that the greater challenge for Nepal is injustice and that draconian lockdown measures crush the poor. Those such as the brick factory labourers who already live in crowded hovels earning a pittance for doing filthy work which has now stopped; shop-keepers unable to sell anything; cooks, cleaners, guides and porters in the collapsed tourist industry, which is by far Nepal’s biggest source of income. And there is no promise of government financial aid.
A similar disaster, though on a much bigger scale, is being played out in India, another country close to my heart. For an insightful on-the-ground account read Vivek Minezez’ piece in The Guardian. Essentially, the picture is the same: the virus threat and government response exposes and exacerbates the gap between rich and poor. Meanwhile, in Africa, there are mounting concerns about the abuse of human rights and political power in the way lockdowns are enforced. Again, it is the already marginalised and oppressed that suffer most. A friend in South Africa works for U/Turn, a homelessness charity. Quite apart from the people they serve, some of their staff live in crowded townships where people feel more threatened by starvation and violence than coronavirus.
If Covid19 is teaching us anything, it must be that we are both inextricably connected and deeply divided. We can learn from both, by working better together to share resources to protect public health – not just freak pandemics but the long-running diseases like tuberculosis and malaria that take millions of lives every year – but also to change the structures and systems of global injustice.
Those tasks will take time and demand that the privileged amongst us use our power and voice to lobby our governments, large corporations and international bodies. But in the meantime, if you would like to do something TODAY to help the world’s poorest communities at this devastating time, here are some organisations at the frontlines that I commend to you:
U-Turn in South Africa equips people with skills and work opportunities to overcome homelessness.
Dignity and Freedom Network aims to see the poor, marginalised and outcastes of South Asia transition to living in Dignity and Freedom.
Friends of Patan Hospital, Kathmandu
WaterAid has teams in 28 countries across the world, working with partners to transform millions of lives every year by improving access to clean water, toilets and hygiene.