The first time I heard the word coronavirus, I was camping in a small town called Maji Moto that is located on the outskirts of the Maasai Mara in Southern Kenya. My spotty cell reception led me to be blissfully ignorant of world events. As I camped across Kenya on my first month of a three month field semester, one of the sporadic, small pleasures of an occasional wifi connection was the opportunity to skim the headlines. The date was January 21st when this particular New York Times headline read: “China Identifies New Virus Causing Pneumonia Like Illness.”
On January 30th, the W.H.O. declared a Global Health Emergency while I was crossing the border into Uganda. The reaction of most countries’ leaders–the United States included–was a hasty attempt to either strengthen their borders or to close them altogether. The Trump Administration in particular did everything short of promising the public that the virus would not penetrate the fiercely protected American border. It was an unusual reaction: to protect the public from a microscopic, unseen enemy by magnifying the physical borders of the country.
International borders felt pretty feeble during my field semester in East Africa. We passed through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania with ease, travelling by truck, plane, bus, and boat. As a student of international development, I had learned of the arbitrary nature of these borders. Erected by colonial powers, such borders split social and trade networks: they destroyed age-old patterns of trade, customs, cultures involving uninhibited routes of interaction between communities.
I felt the arbitrary nature of these borders when, on March 13th, a confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in Nairobi, Kenya. Coronavirus could and would spread the width of the continent within days, demonstrating just how porous international borders were on the African continent. The virus traveled just as quickly as we had: spreading within days from Kenya into Uganda, and then Tanzania. The first confirmed case was reported in Tanzania, just three days later, on March 16th. By March 17th, I had flown home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Certain truths became apparent to me very quickly. In a global pandemic, the sense of safety imbued by national borders is ultimately hollow. International borders, labels of nationality, and the terminology of “them” and “us” seem increasingly irrelevant as we endure a global pandemic. The borders of your nation nor your own nationality can protect you from COVID-19.
That is not to say that we are all equal. Far from it, in fact. This pandemic has taught me that inequality is far from an illusion: it is a harsh reality. This pandemic has made me more aware of the inequalities perpetuated in the global economy and the inadequacy of the rationales which accompany them.
I have kept in touch with a handful of people I met during my field semester; the news that I hear from them is not good. In Tanzania, the authorities have not been transparent about the spread of the virus, and there has not been official data released since April 19th. Tanzanian President Magufuli declared victory over the virus many months ago but my friend Hope reports to me that many people in her hometown in Southern Tanzania are sick.
Many Tanzanians do not have the money or medical insurance to afford a visit to the doctor or the hospital. I learned from some of the people I met that medical treatment is inaccessible and hospital visits are completely unaffordable for many Tanzanians. I try to imagine how much more difficult this pandemic would be if I did not have access to testing, healthcare facilities, or a transparent government that openly reported the numbers of COVID-19 cases.
To experience the onslaught of a global pandemic during my field semester in East Africa gave me a new perspective and a heightened awareness of the complexities of my privilege. The infrastructure established by the free market capitalism which runs rampant in the United States includes some of the most advanced medical centres and treatments in the world. This includes the hospital just miles from my home, which provides my family and I affordable and accessible treatment for COVID-19 were we to contract it.
However, that same system of free market capitalism continues to incentivize the movement in the United States to force employees to return to work prematurely, many of them without sufficient–or in many cases, any–healthcare coverage.
Additionally, the democratic institutions in my country require that the authorities report, and remain transparent about, COVID-19 numbers. This reduces the fear and confusion which my friends in Tanzania describe as they sit in the dark without data on the spread of COVID-19 in their own country.
However, these same democratic institutions in my country are under internal threat, as the current presidential administration wages a war on truth; a war against truth not unlike that being waged by the President of Tanzania.
Finally, the combination of extremely advanced technology and effectively administered educational systems have allowed for me to continue my studies remotely. This fall, I will continue my undergraduate degree at McGill University through robustly-delivered remote-learning platforms, all from the comfort and safety of my own home.
Nevertheless, these resources remain unaffordable and thus inaccessible to a large portion of the population. As a result, many of my classmates will lose out on almost a year of learning, falling behind in future classes. The inequalities which already exist at so many levels of American education and society will only grow more severe during this pandemic.
Early in March, on my final morning in Tanzania, I watched the sunrise over the Indian Ocean. What began as a small yellow circle ultimately came to dominate the entire horizon, simultaneously blinding parts of my vision and putting everything around me in a new perspective. The timing of this transition from darkness to light would have been wholly different for the person watching just a few kilometers away from me. Over the past six months, COVID-19 has become the dominating force on most of our horizons. Many of us oscillate between darkness and light at different paces and different times. This pandemic has shifted many of our priorities and shattered many of our illusions. Harsh realities which we may have been blind to in the past have come directly into our line of vision.
Edited by Naya Sophia Moser.
Maeve is in her fourth year at McGill, studying Honors International Development and Classics. She spent last Winter traveling across East Africa as part of the Africa Field Study Semester, and she spent most of this past summer learning to dive in the Great Lakes off of Northeastern Wisconsin (unsuccessfully, one might add).