Coronavirus and our shared vulnerability

Saturday March 21 2020

Moses Khisa

Moses Khisa 

By Moses Khisa

In an instant, the world appears to be on its knees. Everything is uncertain and unsettling. A virus outbreak that started in the Far East is now literally in every corner of the world. It is a global pandemic.

It is not so much that coronavirus is deadlier, it is that it has struck fear of unimaginable proportions. We have had quite a few other health conditions and man-made actions that claim far more lives.

But the fact that the virus can travel so rapidly, from one end of the world to another, spread so quickly from Europe to America, engulf literally the whole world in just a few months and infect so many in hours, has occasioned fear and trepidation. The anxiety and panic unleashed by the coronavirus is simply unprecedented.

In the United States, nearly all public schools have swiftly closed. They are unlikely to open anytime soon. Most universities have had to shut down normal operations and shifted classes online, which comes with its own enormous constraints.

The stock market, a key indicator of the health of the American economy, has been plummeting as money speculators are unsure of what lies ahead. All these happening in a matter of days.

For the last few years, the US President has touted the American economy as being at its best strength ever in history. There are doubts as to whether this is, in fact, an accurate representation. Monthly job announcements were presented as testimony to a robust economy, powering forward and propelling prosperity.


The rallying stock market indices were another piece of evidence for a supposedly unstoppable and surging economy, overseen by a president who understands business and finance. Some sceptics remained unpersuaded, and for good reasons.

For one, majority Americans have continued to struggle to keep afloat, working two or three jobs at low wage rates, thus not able to comfortably meet their consumption needs let alone make cash savings. This means the slightest shock that leads to loss of a job instantly presents a crisis to one’s household and personal financial standing and wellbeing.

Now the coronavirus has put on the table a strenuous test for the robustness of the US economy. It is too early to tell. However, there are early signs of fragility and vulnerability.

This is not unique to the US. But it underscores a fundamental dynamic since America is considered the world’s most powerful State and nation, with the largest economy, most powerful military machinery, countless big-name research universities and arguably unrivalled concentration of scientific and technological expertise in a wide array of fields.

This pandemic has provided a rude reminder of a most important and levelling fact, but one we are quick to forget: We are all human beings. We are all shocked by unusual crises and are shaken by uncertain times. Even scientists and experts may not know what is ahead and what to do.

Often, epidemics that visit untold suffering and anguish tend to be associated with the poor countries of the world, primarily Africa.

The Western media reports with unmeasured prejudice and unfiltered stereotypes about the impoverished who are hopeless and helpless as Ebola or cholera hacks them to death.

No sensitivity to the humanity of those people, no respect for their sociocultural values and no attempt to accord them the agency they deserve other than highlighting the saviour role of some Western aid workers.

The resilience of the poor gets cavalierly washed along with the ravages of the diseases afflicting them and the material inadequacies they grapple with.
None of this sort of sloppy, insensitive and unbridled way of presenting Africa, in fact caricaturing, is ever the default lens and frame used when talking about the problems germane to western societies.

It certainly has not been applied to any European country facing up to a pandemic for which it was least prepared. I have not seen the African media systematically and deliberately pick on the manner of panic and indiscretion as seen, for example, in stocking and hoarding essential supplies, to pillory people in the West as exuding a particular deficiency borne of their American or European sociocultural milieu or indeed their race for that matter.

This current global health crisis, hopefully, offers the opportunity to the whole world for sober reflection and the appreciation of the limits we all face as human beings, to appreciate our shared humanity that transcends race, creed and colour. No nation, however powerful, has easily stopped or simply ignore the coronavirus.

Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).