Re­set but­ton for the world

We need a com­mon front for hu­man­ity to win this war. When we ar­gue, we give the virus op­por­tu­ni­ties. We open the door for it to ad­vance.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - Man­gai Balasegara­m

IF there was ever a time for the hu­man race to work to­gether as one, this is it. We are stand­ing at the edge of a precipice that threat­ens the lives of mil­lions, not just from Covid-19 but also from cli­mate change. Claw­ing our way back to a safe place ne­ces­si­tates that hu­mankind finds so­lu­tions that work for all of us.

We know full well, this virus doesn’t stop at bor­ders. It doesn’t care two hoots if you’re poor or rich or black or white. It doesn’t give a damn if you’re Chi­nese or Amer­i­can or Malaysian. The virus just cares for hu­man cells, where it locks onto a pro­tein called ACE2.

We need a com­mon front for hu­man­ity to win this war. When we ar­gue – about whose fault it is, and who is spread­ing the dis­ease, and who de­serves help and who doesn’t, and what­ever hate­ful di­a­tribe

– we give the virus op­por­tu­ni­ties. We open the door for it to ad­vance.

Un­for­tu­nately, we’ve seen plenty of ugly scenes. Out­side of China, any­thing Chi­nese has been a tar­get. There is a whole Wiki page of in­ci­dents against Chi­nese-look­ing peo­ple. The US Pres­i­dent has been in­tent on ex­co­ri­at­ing China.

The blame game is ac­tu­ally no sur­prise. It’s of­ten “dirty” mi­grants or the poor that get blamed in epi­demics. In me­dieval Europe, hun­dreds of Jewish com­mu­ni­ties blamed for plague were burnt alive. Chi­nese mi­grants were blamed for small­pox and cholera out­breaks in Cal­i­for­nia in the late 19th cen­tury. Syphilis was named af­ter other na­tions – the “French dis­ease” or “Ital­ian dis­ease”, or, “the Por­tuguese dis­ease” in Ja­pan – but never one’s own peo­ple.

Lately, I’ve heard many con­cerns here about Covid-19 spread­ing among mi­grants. Cramped liv­ing quar­ters do put them more at risk. But as yet, there have been no clus­ters among for­eign work­ers. And they’ve been screened con­tin­u­ously – in fact, it is now manda­tory.

On May Day, May 1, in Malaysia, hun­dreds of un­doc­u­mented work­ers and refugees were hauled up in raids in Kuala Lumpur in Covid-19 con­trol ef­forts. Some ar­rested in­cluded fam­i­lies with very young chil­dren – the United Na­tions (UN) has urged their re­lease.

The UN added: “The fear of ar­rest and de­ten­tion may push these vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion groups fur­ther into hid­ing and pre­vent them from seek­ing treat­ment .... ” Driv­ing a dis­ease un­der­ground doesn’t help con­trol it. We know this only too well. For years in Malaysia, drug users were rou­tinely rounded up in raids and ar­rested. HIV in­fec­tions sky­rock­eted. It was not un­til we be­gan of­fer­ing drug users help without the threat of ar­rest that they came for­ward. Nowa­days there are rel­a­tively few HIV in­fec­tions among drug users. We need to track, test and treat ev­ery Covid-19 case, not just to con­trol the spread. Any case, any­where, mat­ters be­cause ev­ery case of­fers the virus tril­lions of op­por­tu­ni­ties to mu­tate. And it could mu­tate to be­come more deadly. In the 1918 in­fluenza pan­demic, which killed up to 50 mil­lion peo­ple, the virus mu­tated to be­come more deadly in the se­cond wave. It killed per­fectly healthy adults in just 24 hours af­ter the first signs of ill­ness. To­day’s pan­demic is push­ing us to­wards the UN goal of univer­sal health cov­er­age. Pro­vid­ing health­care for all is a huge chal­lenge. But it’s not an im­pos­si­ble dream. It’s ac­tu­ally a nec­es­sary dream. How can we talk about pre­vent­ing in­fec­tion through hand­wash­ing when three bil­lion peo­ple do not even have hand­wash­ing fa­cil­i­ties

We need a re­set that pri­ori­tises peo­ple and the planet. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. It can. This planet has enough for ev­ery­one – we just don’t have enough for ev­ery­one’s greed.

with soap and wa­ter at home? Two bil­lion peo­ple also don’t even have a toi­let. This is the 21st cen­tury. Isn’t it time we en­sure all peo­ple have such ba­sic ser­vices, which would also ad­dress other in­fec­tious diseases?

We need a re­set that pri­ori­tises peo­ple and the planet. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. It can. This planet has enough for ev­ery­one – we just don’t have enough for ev­ery­one’s greed.

At present, wealth lies in the hands of bil­lion­aires. The top 26 rich­est peo­ple had the same net worth as the poorer 50% of the global pop­u­la­tion (3.8 bil­lion) in 2019, ac­cord­ing to Ox­fam, a char­ity fight­ing poverty. Bil­lion­aires and big cor­po­ra­tions are us­ing loop­holes to pay piti­fully small amounts of tax.

In Malaysia, the top 1% own 15% of the wealth, ac­cord­ing to the UN’S 2019 Malaysia Hu­man Devel­op­ment re­port.

In­equal­ity has been linked in stud­ies to many of our so­cial ills – drug ad­dic­tion, teenage preg­nancy, obe­sity and chil­dren’s lit­er­acy. It’s time we ad­dress it.

The Covid-19 cri­sis has shown us that rad­i­cal changes to our life­styles are pos­si­ble. We re­ally don’t need to go shop­ping or go on trips or drive our cars as much. We can pri­ori­tise this planet – if we choose to.

The cri­sis has forced us to re­mem­ber that we hu­mans are not in­vin­ci­ble, but are dic­tated to by bi­ol­ogy and bound by the laws of na­ture. We are at a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in his­tory, at a cross­roads where there’s a chance to build a new fu­ture. I hope we take it.

Man­gai Balasegara­m writes mostly on health, but also delves into any­thing on be­ing hu­man. She has worked with in­ter­na­tional pub­lic health bod­ies and has a Masters in pub­lic health. Write to her at lifestyle@thes­tar.com.my. The views ex­pressed here are en­tirely the writer’s own.

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