How wily is this enemy? It attacks the very things that makes us human; our very breath, our ability to gather, our need to hold and touch each other, to laugh, sing, dance and celebrate together. It drives us from normal human activities and forces us to be imprisoned in our homes… Scientists are groping in the dark, trying hard to understand how it behaves.
Hollywood depictions of our enemies are usually extra-terrestrial. They are repulsive and grotesque versions of human beings or insects, but technologically sophisticated, seeking some resource on our planet to power their own planet, or to breed. Their superior technology rapidly shuts down our own networks and systems, and the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. In response, humanity, often represented as Americans, confronts these enemies with its military might and organisation, engages them in life-and-death battles, while the rest of us cower in homes. At the end of two hours, our extra-terrestrial foes are vanquished, humanity triumphs, life is restored on our planet, and we are back in business.
In reality, we are under assault by an unseen enemy that my dear daughter called a wily beast, whose origin is the humble abode of a terrestrial cave somewhere in China, where it had lived happily in bats for aeons, until it crossed over to humans sometimes last year. How wily is this enemy? It attacks the very things that makes us human; our very breath, our ability to gather, our need to hold and touch each other, to laugh, sing, dance and celebrate together. It drives us from normal human activities and forces us to be imprisoned in our homes. And since entering the human populations late last year, it has killed over half a million people, and sickened so many who are yet to recover. Scientists are groping in the dark, trying hard to understand how it behaves. Its attack on our bodies manifests in new and different ways daily, that we are yet to fully predict its behaviour. At the beginning, older people and sick people were its victims; now it’s everybody. Perfectly healthy young people, including babies, are getting sick. It is a shape shifter. Over ten million people have been infected worldwide, two and a half million of them in the United States, which has so far suffered more than one hundred and thirty thousand deaths, leading the world in infection and death rates.
America’s military budget is $721.5 billion, dwarfing the defence budget of the next ten countries; China, Germany, United Kingdom, India, Brazil, France, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Yet, while testifying in Congress last week about this virus, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the virus has “brought this nation to its knees.” Americans take a lot of pride in their military. It gives them a sense of security and safety, the assurance that no nation on earth could confront the United States and live to tell the story. But now we are facing an enemy unfamiliar to military might and tactics. Drones, aircraft carriers, smart bombs and the latest military technology have not been able to prevent hundreds of thousands of Americans from dying or the rising rates of infection. The real heroes of this frightening life-and-death moment are not Generals, Admirals, or Commanders.
The only reason this enemy is wily and successful is because of human behaviour. Health experts keep telling us the best ways to control it is for us to retreat into our homes, wear masks in public places, so that we don’t infect other people, in case we have it.
Instead, we discovered that our heroes are the doctors, nurses, and other health care givers in our midst. With their skills, patience, compassion and tireless energy, they confront this beast daily, helping us to fight it off, saving lives at a great risk to their own health, and mourning those they cannot save. Their faces are sometimes the last that dying people see, because family members are not allowed into hospitals due to the severity of the infection. Many health providers have succumbed to this disease themselves, infected while caring for others. Our heroes are grocery store workers who stock our shelves to make sure we have food and other basic necessities of life, they are the pharmaceutical staff who fill our prescriptions, and the truck drivers who haul goods across this vast land so that supply chains are not broken. In appreciation, local television stations celebrate health care heroes, ordinary people appear on their stoops in the evenings to clap, sing songs, and play instruments to serenade our health workers who work so hard to keep us alive.
It is, indeed, a transformative moment. In January, when the disease was raging in China, an American leader, Wilbur Ross, the U.S. secretary of commerce, calmly assessed the distress in that country and gave an interview. China had closed down its cities and businesses to curtail the spread of the virus. Human life was at a standstill. Ross, in an extraordinary case of schadenfreude, said he did not want to gloat but he thinks the situation in China “will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America.” There was no iota of human sympathy or even any pretence to recognise human suffering. As it has turned out, jobs have not returned to North America. Instead, forty-five million Americans are out of work now and many people are in severe financial distress. This cruel and selfish attitude of “it’s their problem”, is at the roots of how this disease is spreading in the United States.
The virus entered the U.S. through the coasts. Washington State and the New York area have suffered its devastation. Many people in the middle and southern parts of the country shrugged it off as the problem of the people who live on the coasts, inexplicably not able to see that whatever afflicts one part of the country will eventually afflict the rest, the same way Wilbur Ross could not see the virus as ever coming to American shores. The only reason this enemy is wily and successful is because of human behaviour. Health experts keep telling us the best ways to control it is for us to retreat into our homes, wear masks in public places, so that we don’t infect other people, in case we have it. We are asked to wash our hands and keep a safe distance from others, since the simplest of contacts can lead to infection.
Political leadership and common sense are critical to our survival and triumph over this virus. Those who engage in greed and selfishness, angling for more power, wealth and self-aggrandisement have seen their populations suffer unnecessary deaths and sickness, with no end in sight.
Political leadership and common sense are critical to our survival and triumph over this virus. Those who engage in greed and selfishness, angling for more power, wealth and self-aggrandisement have seen their populations suffer unnecessary deaths and sickness, with no end in sight. It is no accident that the populations of the country led by women have fared better than those led by men in this pandemic. The European Union just re-opened their countries to international visitors. Because United States is not able to control this virus, their citizens are banned from visiting. This, no doubt, will deprive the EU millions of American tourism dollars but they are putting the health of their people over profits. Cooperation will assure our survival in this existential threat we all face, instead of the much-vaunted and mythical American “rugged individualism” and a misguided idea of “freedom.”
There is a YouTube video of three Dorobo men taking meat from lions in the Maasai Mara that has been seen by millions of viewers. A BBC crew filmed this incredible practice, which the narrator says has been going on for thousands of years. Indeed, we see these three men hide and watch a pride of lions, including cubs, enjoying its kill. While waiting for the right moment to approach the lions, with the BBC crew worrying that it was a very dangerous mission, the men quietly engaged in some conversation that went like this, “The animals might kill us. When you do this, you fear not for yourself but for the others.” In other words, while facing the real danger of being torn apart by lions, what the men worried about most was not their own lives, but the lives of their fellows.
With that, you could see them walk boldly towards the most fearsome predators on the savannah. The lions looked up, saw the men approaching, paused for a minute, then ran and hid. They watched as the men got to their kill and carved out a huge leg. One of the men tossed the meat on his shoulder, and they all walked away calmly while the lions gazed after them, not giving chase. The lions eventually returned to their meal, and the first thing a lioness did was to drag what was left to safety. It is an unbelievable scene. The Dorobos’ daring act teaches us the lesson of cooperation and trust in the face of danger. The wiliness and devastation of coronavirus is only possible because it is taking advantage of the nasty side of human behaviour: greed, selfishness, pride, willful ignorance, lack of compassion, malice, and dangerous power trips. Brazil, Russia, and the United States lead the world in infections and deaths. The fish, they say, rots from the head.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org