Hassan Mahamdallie is a playwright, theatre director, journalist, writer and activist. He was born in London into a large working-class Indo-Trinidadian/English family. He is a former Director of the Muslim Institute and helps edit its journal Critical Muslim. Hassan is a founder member of Unite Against Fascism. Published books include a biography of Victorian artist/radical William Morris, In Defence Of Multiculturalism (ed) and a history of Black British Radicals.
The Covid Chronicles
On Covid and Inequality
So death isn’t the great leveller after all.
We have been cruelly reminded that we are as unequal in death as we are in life. Those most reviled, unvalued, marginalised, oppressed, exploited, taken for granted, looked down on and easily forgotten, have been thrust into the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic.
One of the recurring motifs of plague literature, from Boccaccio’s fourteenth century The Decameron to Stephen King’s 1978 novel The Stand, is how fast civilisation unravels and the human species spirals down into barbarism. In Jack London’s 1912 novel The Scarlet Plague, the narrator/survivor recalls how ‘ten thousand years of culture and civilisation passed in a twinkling of an eye’.
However, it seems to me, that the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed a decaying global system in which civilisation and barbarism are co-existing simultaneously. At the same time as scientists were rushing to map the DNA sequence of the virus, in scenes that (aside from the means of conveyance) resembled a mediaeval account, the selfish rich were fleeing the cities for their isolated rural walled-off boltholes.
In Paris, the monied elite clogged the roads out of the city as they departed en masse in the hours before the government lockdown decree came into force, for the security of their comfy second-homes (consequently infecting and killing villagers in the rural areas with the virus they were carrying with them). In New York, the Upper East Side was turned into a ghost town as the bankers fled to the Hamptons, leaving behind a city wracked with the virus, amidst scenes of municipal workers digging the modern equivalent of plague pits to bury the corpses of the poor and unclaimed victims. This exodus mirrored the account by Daniel Defoe in his Journal of a Plague Year set 350 years earlier: ‘The richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry...thronged out of town with their families and servants in an unusual manner… Nothing was to be seen but waggons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, &c.; coaches filled with people of the better sort and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away’.
At the very same time, in the poorest Banlieues of Paris, the destitute were being confined to airless flats without any government support or basic resources. In one report of the dire situation in Seine-Saint-Denis, a community charity worker found 85-year old Abdelaali El Badaoui trapped in his flat. The pensioner, who had emigrated to post-war France to help rebuild the country’s railways, had been too scared to go out. When he was found he was down to his last bit of stale bread and dry biscuit and had not seen a doctor for weeks. A local Seine-Saint-Denis MP told the press, ‘We are locked down in our inequality. The virus has just amplified the problems the banlieue has had for a long time. It has revealed how wide and deep the social fracture really is.’ As he was speaking it was being reported that in Saint Tropez, resort of the global super-rich including ArcelorMittal CEO Lakshmi Mittal and ex-Harrod’s owner Mohamed Fayed, a private laboratory had been set up near their palaces and yachts, so the billionaire class could get easy access to private testing for the virus.
In India ‘the biggest democracy in the world’, another type of exodus was set in motion. Arundhati Roi described how, when Prime Minister Modi on 25 March 2020 gave four hours’ notice of a national lockdown ‘shops, restaurants, factories and the construction industry shut down, as the wealthy and the middle classes enclosed themselves in gated colonies, our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual’. Roi described how millions of ‘impoverished, hungry, thirsty people, young and old, men, women, children, sick people, blind people, disabled people’, were forced on a long march back to their villages, running a gauntlet of violent mobs and police brutality, some dying on the side of the road. Roi wrote how ‘they knew they were going home potentially to slow starvation. Perhaps they even knew they could be carrying the virus with them, and would infect their families, their parents and grandparents back home, but they desperately needed a shred of familiarity, shelter and dignity, as well as food, if not love’.
The willingness of governments and elites everywhere to throw their most vulnerable and powerless citizens to the wall has been the common recurring motif of this pandemic. The USA, paralysed by a toxic cocktail of extreme neo-liberal individualism, Christian fundamentalist superstition and far-right anti-Statism, embodied in their feeble-minded sociopath of a president, has shown the way. Trump, who refused to enact war-time measures to command big business to manufacture ventilators or personal protective equipment, instead decreed meatpacking plants that had been closed down due to them being the source of local epidemics of Covid-19 be re-opened, and for the workforce to return to work, regardless of the danger to themselves, their families and community.
In Black Hawk County, Iowa, about 90% of the 1,326 local people testing positive for COVID-19 were connected to the local pork processing plant, owned by the gigantic multinational Tyson, worth $18 billion. Laid-off employees were told their benefits would be stopped if they didn’t go back to work. Federal guidelines imposing social distancing and other measures to stop transmission of the virus on the production line were relaxed. To top it all, Trump’s executive order also contained legal measures to shield meat companies from later being sued by employees who contracted COVID-19 at work. In effect, Tyson and other meat-processing plants were being turned into forced labour camps so that the industry could continue to make money providing ground-up food parts to poor consumers in America and abroad. As one local counsellor told reporters: ‘We could go without eating meat for a while. And I eat meat.’ And who makes up Tyson’s workforce? Poor local whites and immigrants from Latin America, all living pay check to pay check, forced to work in a factory akin to a petri-dish of Covid-19. The situation was an historic echo of the horrors of East European immigrants drowning in vats of offal in unregulated Chicago meat-packing plants, sensationally exposed by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 fictionalised reportage The Jungle. The other scene of American Carnage has been care homes for the elderly and veterans. The tidal wave of deaths in care facilities for the elderly has been a scandal across ‘the developed world’, exacerbated by the lack of government supplies of tests for staff and residents, but incidents in the USA have been particularly gruesome. At the start of May 2020 officials in New York discovered 98 care home residents had died of coronavirus, but only after managers of the Isabella Geriatric Center in Manhattan had put in an order for a refrigerator lorry to store the mounting toll of victims.
So many tragedies. Day by day. It’s brutal to be confronted with mortality as an ever-present. During the lockdown terrible stories were appearing every day on our social media; of friends taken seriously ill, of relatives falling sick and dying, and of people we had known or worked with being taken by the virus. Sometimes the accounts that have hit hardest have been people we haven’t known, but whose existence we have only found out about after they have become victims of the virus. Take two brothers, Ghulam and Raza Abbas, one 59, the other 54 years old, who died within hours of each other in intensive case on 21 April 2020. Both had worked in the family newsagents in Pill, Newport, in south Wales. Asian newsagents and corner-shops – the butt of lazy racist stereotypes in popular culture, targets of casually thrown insults and random violence for as long as I can remember. ‘The Paki-shop’. Yet in these strange times, in perhaps a hopeful way, Ghulam and Raza were mourned by those they had served every day. The brothers were transformed in death into key workers who had sacrificed themselves for us all. Ghulam’s daughter told the press ‘I didn’t realise how much of a well-known family we had, and how much impact my father and his brother had on the community until now. We’ve had so many messages of support from members of the community and further afield, and even MPs have contacted us to send their condolences.’
The way in which the coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp relief all the structural inequalities in our societies was apparent almost from the start. In the USA, African American communities in cities such as Detroit (whose economic collapse I reported on in Critical Muslim 18), have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic. As the newspaper columnist Afua Hirsch wrote: ‘To see the scary reality of racial inequality taken to extreme proportions during this pandemic, look to the United States. The tragic consequences have reached all parts of the nation. In Michigan, 15% of the population but 40% of the deaths are black. Chicago has a 30% African American population, and a 70% African American death rate. The picture from Louisiana is very similar: a 32% black population, with a 70% death rate’.
As the meat-packing industry demonstrates, poorly paid members of minority communities have found themselves pushed to the layer of frontline staff keeping essential services going. Health workers, fire and ambulance workers, shop staff, public transport staff, care services, distribution and delivery workers in the ‘gig economy’ have all been made in one way or another to risk their health and lives to keep things going for the rest of us. There is a big difference between drained by interminable Zoom meetings and being mortally afraid to go to work. Those we normally value the least have been asked (or compelled) to sacrifice the most.
One story that represents so many: in Detroit in late March, a bus driver, Jason Hargrove, posted a live Facebook video about a woman passenger coughing without covering her mouth. ‘That lets me know that some folks don’t care,’ he said, in an emotional live stream. ‘You all need to take this shit seriously. There’s folks dying out here.’ Two weeks later he was dead of Covid-19. In London, by the start of May, thirty-seven public transport workers, including 28 bus drivers had died after contracting coronavirus. The drivers had been asked to continue clocking-on without being issued with any protective gear. It took until the end of April for the bus companies in the capital to enact what had been obvious to anyone using buses since the lockdown – that passengers (many of them essential workers anyway) would not have to pay a fare, and should sit away from the front of the bus, thereby limiting the exposure of the bus drivers to infection. Too little, too late. What does ‘human rights’ really mean in an advanced democracy as Britain when low paid workers are sent out to jobs involving close contact with the public without any protection in the midst of a deadly viral pandemic?
For, above all, it is the chasm between the rich and poor in our societies and on a global level that Covid-19 has unlocked. The fatal flaw of the Enlightenment – the unfulfilled promise of economic, social and political equality – has opened up beneath our feet. We are not so much as being thrown back into a bygone primitive age, as being thrown forward into a primitivism that is the true essence of twenty-first century capitalism. Figures vary, but data in the UK shows that in ‘normal times’ people in poor areas are many times more at risk of dying prematurely than their well-off counterparts. We know that Black and ethnic minorities are disproportionately concentrated in the poorest areas of Britain. Little surprise then, that an early study of more than 2,000 patients critically ill with the virus in England, Wales and Northern Ireland found that 35% were black, Asian or of another ethnic minority. This is more than double the representation in the wider population. The reasons are likely to be a combination of race and class, and how structural inequalities connected to these categories play out in the real world. Sometimes one factor predominates over another. It can’t only have been me who was shocked by the photographs and brief biographies of the doctors and consultants who first fell victim to Covid-19 working in the frontline of the National Health Service.
A report at the end of April when the UK was in the grip of the first wave of the pandemic found that all but one of the 17 doctors known to have died after contracting COVID-19 were from BAME backgrounds. The first four of these were Alfa Sa'adu; Amged el-Hawrani; Adil El Tayar and Habib Zaidi – all were Muslim and had ancestry in regions including Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Habib Zaidi’s brief biography speaks volumes – he was a general practitioner with Pakistani origins, who had moved to the UK almost 50 years ago and worked in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, southeast England. He was 76 years old when he died of COVID-19. As British Medical Association council chair Chaand Nagpaul, calling for an inquiry, observed, ‘BAME doctors are dying from coronavirus in the line of duty. Most of them have underlying medical conditions. They are not being risk assessed nor tested…These doctors have [often] come from other parts of the world to provide vital care in our health service and they have sadly paid the ultimate price’.
The deaths of these four doctors were followed by that of the black healthcare assistant Thomas Harvey and Areema Nasreen, a hospital nurse. Workers from ethnic minorities make up more than 40% of NHS medical staff and have complained about being over-represented in the lower rungs of the service, including the frontline, of being pressured to work without proper personal protection and of being bullied.
So, when the great British public bangs its saucepans in appreciation of frontline workers, they should also be making a noise about the inequalities rampant in the NHS. For example, how many know that migrant health workers working in the NHS have to pay a healthcare surcharge of over £600 a year on top of the cost of their UK visas? Or that if they refuse to work in environments that they consider unsafe, they are banned from any benefits such as Universal Credit? How many of the Windrush Generation harassed and deported by the Home Office were and are health or other frontline public sector workers?
Many commentators have rightly focused on the acts of heroism, the sacrifice and cost borne by individuals, the sense of community and the common good exhibited by ordinary people who have observed the lockdowns and social distancing rules, despite the hardship they have endured. It has given us a glimpse of the alternative to the rampant individualism intrinsic to the nature of our societies. One would also hope that the spell of modern identity politics that has been splitting us into ever fragmenting, individualistic and competing hierarchies – working class, Black, Asian, Muslim, Hindu, religious, atheist, man, woman, transgender - might be loosened, allowing us to return to some kind of notion of seeking unity across oppressions and categories to force fundamental change.
If I were feeling charitable or buoyantly optimistic, I might even believe that some political leaders might have been chastened by the experience of the virus and changed course. Perhaps British PM Boris Johnston having initially advocated a ‘herd immunity’ response to the pandemic – a kind of free market live or die version of a public medical emergency – maybe somewhat chastened, having discovered that he wasn’t immortal or a prize bull after all, but part of the same proletarian flesh he had been happy to grind up for the virus.
Other commentators have said that the pandemic offers humanity a moment of pause and a chance to reshape the new normal to be more equitable and humane. Arundhati Roi polemicised that the pandemic may be a portal, ‘a gateway between one world and the next’. She argued that ‘we can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it’.
I couldn’t agree more with Roi’s sentiment, and call to action. I am with her in adhering to Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci’s maxim of Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will. But I am also haunted by the thought that in Biblical terms, this particular plague may not be the end, but just the beginning. In which case, brace yourselves, for postnormal times.
On COVID-19 and inequalities in France see: In a Paris banlieue, coronavirus amplifies years of inequality. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/25/paris-banlieue-virus-amplifies-inequality-seine-saint-denis?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail
Billionaires' exclusive test center for coronaviruses anger the people of Saint-Tropez. https://news-24.fr/le-centre-de-test-exclusif-des-milliardaires-sur-les-coronavirus-suscite-la-colere-des-habitants-de-saint-tropez/
The exodus of the wealthy from cities reveals the problems with individualism. https://qz.com/1824638/debating-the-ethics-of-the-wealthy-fleeing-cities-due-to-coronavirus/
Arundhati Roy’s essay was published in the Financial Times on 3 April 2020 free to read: Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
The USA meat packing scandal was well covered. The Ohio Tyson story can be found at: Trump’s order to open meat plants brings anxiety to one Iowa town where 90% of COVID-19 cases are tied to Tyson. https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/29/trumps-orders-meat-plants-open-bringing-anxiety-hope-iowa-town/3052601001/
The story of the two Abbas brothers from south Wales is at: Family heartbroken after brothers with coronavirus died within hours of each other. https://www.itv.com/news/wales/2020-04-28/family-heartbroken-after-brothers-with-coronavirus-died-within-hours-of-each-other/
Afua Hirsch’s column on BAME disparities and the pandemic is at: If coronavirus doesn't discriminate, how come black people are bearing the brunt? https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/08/coronavirus-black-people-ethnic-minority-deaths-pandemic-inequality-afua-hirsch
The New York nursing home story is at: Coronavirus: New York nursing home reports 98 COVID-19 deaths in 'horrifying' outbreak. https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-new-york-nursing-home-reports-98-covid-19-deaths-in-horrifying-outbreak-11982153 and the Detroit Bus Driver tragedy is at Detroit bus driver dies of coronavirus after posting video about passenger coughing. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/03/detroit-bus-driver-dies-coronavirus-video-passenger-coughing My article on Detroit ‘Detroit Do Mind Dying’ can be found in Critical Muslim Issue 18 Cities and can be accessed at https://www.criticalmuslim.io/detroit-mind-dying/
The best article on London Bus Drivers can be found at the New York Times: With Over Two Dozen Deaths, London Bus Drivers Fear Coronavirus Risk. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/02/world/europe/coronavirus-london-buses.html
And the article on the first doctors to die in the UK can be found at: Muslim minority doctors first to die on front line of UK pandemic. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/muslim-minority-doctors-die-front-line-uk-pandemic-200401082454308.html