Fearing ‘them’ in a pandemic makes no room for even ‘us’

By TOM EATON

Two weeks ago, a convoy of six buses made its way towards a sanatorium in the small Ukrainian town of Novi Sanzhary.

On board were 45 Ukrainians and 27 foreign nationals from South America, recently evacuated from Wuhan in China, on their way to two weeks of quarantine. None had been confirmed to have the coronavirus.

As the convoy reached the bridge that would take it towards the sanatorium, it was forced to a stop: the road had been blocked some days earlier, and was now guarded by a group of people described by the BBC, Reuters and AFP as “protesters” and “demonstrators”. Burning tyres littered the road.

A moment later, the “protesters” and “demonstrators” began to pelt the buses with bricks and rocks. Windows were broken. Some frightened passengers held up Ukrainian flags, perhaps hoping to appeal to the kinship of national identity. A large contingent of armed police eventually dispersed the group and allowed the convoy to pass; the international news cycle moved on to the next outbreak of the virus and the next vague reassurance by politicians that everything is under control.

I think, however, that it’s important to dwell on the incident in Ukraine for a moment and to reflect on what is not being said about the global response to the coronavirus; to look beyond the medical science, economics and politics and to prepare for one of the most potentially lethal aspects of a major pandemic: fear.

I understand why news agencies referred to the Ukrainians on that bridge as “protesters” and “demonstrators”. It is not appropriate for journalists to make value judgments. But I’m not the BBC or Reuters, so I can call them what they were: a mob in thrall to a primal instinct as old as humanity – the terror of Them carrying a disease from There.

In some ways, the fear of the infected other is the ultimate and most intense form of xenophobia, dwarfing even the ugliest “us and them” instincts that have sometimes swept across our own country. When a highly contagious virus arrives and the fear takes hold, there isn’t even an “us” any more: there is simply me and the disease. I understand the instinct of the people on those buses to hold up Ukrainian flags, but when the mob fears a contagious illness, everyone is an enemy.

This is why, as our government and health sector plan their response to the inevitable arrival of the coronavirus in SA, I hope there is some strategy to combat the accompanying pandemics of fear and distrust. Indeed, the government’s decision at the weekend to repatriate 151 South Africans from Wuhan and quarantine them in QwaQwa has already turned local social media into a cesspool of prejudice and disinformation: in the last few days I have seen people insist that the virus has been manufactured by “the West” to exterminate Africans and that Africans are immune to it.

Admittedly, this sort of thing is inevitable on the internet. But what has startled me is the speed and ease with which some South Africans have started casually indulging in the kind of talk that, in the Middle Ages, saw Jews blamed for the plague and burned en masse.

Consider, for example, the comments under a post claiming North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had executed an official for leaving a quarantine area.

“Can’t Lil Kim be our president for just a year?” asked one commenter. “Bring his army with him and those executioners?”

“It would be nice,” replied another. “That one is decisive.”

“Could be a good idea,” said a third. “Execute all who got the virus.”

Facebook is not, thank God, a referendum. It is also impossible to read tone in text: if I bend my credulity to snapping point and give these commenters the full benefit of every scrap of doubt I can find, I might, maybe, consider that they thought they were being funny. Social media, after all, invites and encourages people to put on the sort of brash, antisocial performance that they would never dream of showing their mothers.

But the fact that anyone could express these thoughts in public suggests that many more might be thinking them in private. I’m not suggesting that anyone will act on their murderous fantasies, but Ukraine reminds us that it takes surprisingly little for fear to blossom into violence. The state must prepare for the sick to become targets of stigma, abuse and possibly bloodshed.

It may not come to this. Covid-17 may come and go. But if it lingers and spreads, and anxiety tips over into alarm, and alarm becomes panic, the state might have to protect us against something just as dangerous as a virus: our own worst instincts.

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