*Dutch translation here.
I am South African but I live in Australia, which is one of the richest countries in the world. Like many people who live in rich countries, I began my year concerned about first world problems. I was preoccupied with getting a new school uniform for my eldest child and irritated by a neighbour whose building work was too noisy. I spent hours contemplating whether to take on an assignment that would take me away from home for too long. I did not imagine that within a few months, my children’s schools would be closed, my neighbour’s building work would be halted and I would lose a quarter of my income while staying at home due to a state-enforced lockdown.
The year started normally enough, with a New Year’s party and too much drinking. But within days I was consumed by news of the bushfires that raged across the east coast of the country. I watched rescue operations for koalas and humans and worried each time I smelled smoke. I wondered whether the ancient eucalyptus forests of Tasmania would be wiped out entirely, whether Kangaroo Island would ever see tourists again. Like other parents, I lay awake asking myself what all this would mean for my children. They are only in primary school and the prospect of climate change has always loomed large in their little lives. The answers seemed obvious, but I was too scared to do anything but pose the question – ‘what have I done?’ The fires were the latest in a long line of severe weather incidents caused by climate change and my small cheques to environmental group and obsession with recycling and composting seemed increasingly inadequate.
The fires ended and – foolishly – I thought we might be able to live again as we had before. As life returned to ‘normal’ I went back to feeling good about recycling. I flew to New York for work in late February and on my way back I had a brief layover in Milan. I got off the plane to disconcerting scenes. There were people wearing masks everywhere – the big, medical grade types. On television screens in the lounge the news headlines screamed at me: ‘Italy is new corona virus hot spot.’ I had only been on the plane for five hours but something important had shifted.
Less than a week later I was in Sydney. I arrived at a studio to do a radio interview one evening and the technician who let me into the recording booth waved at me and smiled. I didn’t extend my hand and neither did he. We waved at one another and he said, “Let’s not take any chances.” I agreed. A new world had arrived.
Within a week, the country was in lockdown. There was suddenly new language to explain our situation. People were being asked to go into ‘self-isolation.’ Passengers from cruise ships were put in quarantine. We were all asked to practice social distancing. At the shops people looked scared and panicky and there was no toilet paper on the shelves. The hoarding had begun.
I remember as a child living in Zambia, my mother would jump into any queue she saw. Even if she didn’t know what everyone was waiting for, she knew she would need it. There were always shortages of basic foodstuffs. She would ask others in front of her, “What are we waiting for?” They would laugh and tell her, “Today they have cooking oil,” and she would be glad she had stopped to join the line. There would be no pushing or fighting because everyone was in need and it would do no good and everyone was used to waiting and suffering. There is something about living just above the line of survival that makes you patient – for a time at least.
I am not romanticising the acceptance of poverty. The conditions that create food shortages in ordinary times should not be glorified or accepted. Still, in the early tense weeks of March, when Australia went into lockdown I remembered my childhood and was struck by the fact that many people in this country have never had to worry about hunger. They have never been in a situation of desperate and basic human need. Most of them have lived in complete comfort, oblivious to collective pain. This is not to say that people here who are white and middle class have not experienced heartbreak or personal tragedy. There is no running away from the human condition. Everyone encounters the pain of injury, the deaths of family and friends and the agony of illhealth.
Beyond this, however most Australians have enjoyed an unparalleled standard of living. While many people in Europe have experienced unemployment, Australia has had an unbroken record of economic growth for thirty years. Amongst Aboriginal people the story has been different. For most other Australians however, the advent of COVID 19 has been deeply confronting.
I have never seen so many photos of white people suffering.
As COVID 19 raced through Europe making white bodies vulnerable, there were cameras in hospitals and aerial photos of freshly dug graves. I have never seen so many photos of white people suffering. It was an odd experience – painful of course, but also completely foreign to me. I am used to seeing public images of black suffering: Malnourished African children; dead bodies in conflict zones; people with Aids on death’s door. Though journalists were respectful of the dead in ways that are seldom extended to black people, the reality that people were in fact dying was unavoidable. White people in Australia who relate to Europe as a continent where they have close cultural and psychic ties, experienced existential dread. The visceral fear this created cannot be under-estimated. Before it became clear that everything would be okay, people gathered as much as they could in the shops, despite the assurances that there were no problems with food production. It was as though they had to have something to fight over. The compulsion to have more than others was strong. Accustomed to comfort in the absence of need, they chose to fetishise toilet paper.
A society in which toilet paper becomes the most important commodity during a crisis, is a society in which there is an excess of privilege. When there is no food you can never fight for toilet paper because you are too busy trying to live. Watching it all unfold I felt a deep sadness. Over-consumption alters the humanity of those who have too much. It makes us wasteful, callous, insular and more interested in what we desire than in what anyone else might need.
After that tense week when it wasn’t clear what was happening, Australians stopped fighting over toilet paper. They realised that while individualism had worked for them in times of stability, it would get them nowhere in times of stress. They needed one another. Those of us who have never had the luxury to do anything but rely on one another because we have had to navigate sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-poor systems and structures, did not need this lesson. Still, something stirred in me as I watched the government – a right-wing group of politicians who have spent the last two decades wreaking the same environmental, cultural and political damage as right wing movements around the world – decided to expand income support to everyone who needed it. For years activists have been fighting the government to increase its unemployment benefits. Australia has the third-lowest unemployment benefit in the OECD for a newly unemployed minimum wage worker. With the advent of the Corona virus the support grant was increased instantly, not just for a small group, but for everyone who needed it. It was a stunning turn-around.
The suffering of some is connected to the suffering of all.
The change may not last of course. The government is already trying to find a way out. But something in the public has shifted. There is a palpable sense of empathy between people. For people who have never been socially and economically vulnerable before, there is a new understanding that the suffering of some is connected to the suffering of all.
When 2020 began, I believed we had reached the end of human history. As I watched the bushfires burn, I prepared myself for the reality that my children may not survive rising temperatures and increasing weather shocks. I was terrified that deteriorating economic and social conditions not of their own making would ruin their lives. At the same time, I felt powerless to act. I was tied into a system in which I felt complicit because my work involved large amounts of international travel. What good was recycling when my carbon footprint was so shocking? I was burning up the planet to support my family and then worrying about the effect this would have on them in the long term. It seemed like I was on one of those hamster wheels and I couldn’t get off.
The corona virus grounded me. I have not been on a plane for months and I have hardly driven my car. I have less money in my bank account but I know what it looks like to live with less and to date I have suffered no great discomfort. This period has marked an important turning point for me. It has forced me to live out the most environmentally sustainable version of the future I can imagine, at the same time that it has forced millions of others to take the same actions. The cumulative effect has been startling.
Another world truly is possible – not in fifty years, but now. In places where smoke has dominated the skies the air is already cleaner and purer. The price of oil has fallen so low that it is worse than worthless and it will stay worthless if we continue to slow down our consumption. Fossil fuels will only be viable again if we plunge into the behaviours that were so entrenched a mere five months ago. If we don’t, then we have a real chance to reset the clock. Earth is breathing a bit easier and for the first time in half a decade I can imagine a world in which planetary destruction is not inevitable. The future is not an one-way street of accumulation and ‘progress.’ Right now it is a gift we can still give to generations that have not yet been born. We are at an important threshold and we can determine the direction the planet goes.
History teaches us that we cannot rely on goodwill alone to change the world. The systems and structures of capitalism that have been established by the wealthy and the powerful are sustained by a simple calculus of supply and demand. COVID 19 has succeeded – momentarily – in disrupting the equation that guides modern human behaviour. If this disruption is going to be sustained in the interests of economic, social and environmental justice, then human beings will have to give up their addiction to instant gratification. If we can agree on this, then everything else will fall into place.
I do not know when I will be able to see my family in South Africa again. In the meantime I have attended two Zoom funerals. My nine-year old son has learned how to calculate time differences so he can stay in touch with his cousins and friends around the world. My father has mastered the art of Voice Notes and is active in chat groups with his friends, in spite of isolation. This is not what life was, but it is what life has become. It is hard, but the benefits are clear. Like millions of families around the world, mine is learning how to consume less and love more.
If we do not learn the lesson this Corona virus has tried to teach us, then the seas will destroy us and the fires will burn us and in time the trees will grow where our cities once stood. This is not the worst outcome of course. In our absence, perhaps the planet will rejoice.
Sisonke Msimang is a South African writer and opinionista. In 2017 she published a memoir, Always Another Country, followed by The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela in 2018. In 2019, Msimang deliverd the 1st ZAM Nelson Mandela Lecture in Amsterdam. She currently lives in Perth, Australia.
This essay is part of Wat Niet Is Maar Kan Zijn, a collection published with the exhibition 'A Fair Share of Utopia'. Ten authors and nine artists contributed to the book, Clarice Gargard, Vamba Sherif, Sander Donkers and Rashid Novaire amongst them.
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