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COVID-19: What happens when borders close?

By: Sabrina Clarke-Okwubanego

· Lateral Theory

Like so many people around the world, I have been processing COVID-19. It's been a surreal experience because, on the one hand, it has been chaotic. Businesses are closing, fear and anxiety are consuming people, some governments inability to deal with a pandemic are being exposed, and in the West, we are really at the beginning of a new normal. Yet, on the other hand, I have been inspired. I have been looking at the resilence of human beings, seeing community building at its best and the ability to reinvent and innovate. My theory is the best and worse of who we are is amplified when borders close. Let's examine.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), China office, was informed about a “pneumonia of unknown cause” December 31, 2019. By February 2020 a public health emergency was declared, and the WHO announced the named of the new strain of the Coronavirus, COVID-19. Since February the general consciousness moved from denial to acceptance of the pandemic we are all facing. It took three months for the world to turn upside down and for us to get a glimpse of what we can expect to see amplified over a prolonged period:

Panic Buying ensues

Consumers are panicking, and of course, this can be expected but the new kid on the block, toilet tissue. The week before last, I went to my local Sainsbury store around 4:00 pm. I anticipated the regular things to be out of stock, pasta, beans, eggs and bread. I was in complete shock when I realised that all of the toilet tissue was gone except for one 9 pack of Andrex. I turned into Usain Bolt because it was accidentally stored next to the Flash mop boxes. As I walked away happy with my achievement, I saw a woman looking at me like she was ready to try it. Given the circumstances, I think she would have, but I did not want to end up on Youtube or World Star. I gracefully eyes behind my back went to the cashier and continued to the other stores looking for essentials. Three stores later, I got the necessities.

Andrew Yang, 2020 Presidential candidate for the United States, summarised it best, in theory, we should all be using the same amount of toilet paper. I appreciate we are in ambiguous times, and no one knows when this period will end. Therefore it is wise to ensure essential items last longer than usual. However, fear, anxiety and greed cause people to behave in irrational ways. Stockpiling thousands of things when there are vulnerable people and families in need is problematic and forces exponentially higher prices sooner then they would ordinarily occur in a time of crisis.

Small and Medium Businesses close

It is my firm belief that SMEs are the heartbeat of an economy. Show me a thriving economy, and you will find a strong SME sector contributing taxes and meeting the needs of the communities they serve. As a business owner, I know too well, the sweat equity and investment required to run a business. According to the World Bank, SMEs represent 90% of companies worldwide and 50% of employment. In emerging economies, SMEs account for 40% of the income (GDP). COVID-19 has rocked the hospitality and leisure sectors with closures and lockdown mandates from the government.

In parallel to this, SMEs have had to make the difficult decision to close their doors. For some people, it is temporary closure, but for others it is permanent. On various platforms, I have seen people commenting on the difficult decision to close, making appeals for support and reinventing their business model. NPR estimates that on average small businesses have a cash buffer of 27 days. Given this crisis could go on for months, Corporations will survive but a significant number of SMEs will not. If you are in a position to support SMEs today, do so, we need your help especially at this time.

Model minorities remember silence breeds silence

Sociologist William Petersen first coined the phrase Model Minority in his 1966, New York Times article, Success Story: Japanese-American Style. In his article Petersen, complimented the work ethic and family values of the Japanese culture and submitted they could not be “problem minorities”. Since then, model minorities have been broadly attributed to Asian Americans, but the attributes of the model minority have been adopted internationally. Some of these attributes include how to “act” as an immigrant or a member of an underrepresented group. Such as being “quiet”, “good”, “highly-educated”, achieving a specific socio-economic or class status. Within corporate environments, this extends to how people speak, being clean cut\shaven and for black women particularly, hairstyles. It is important to note the model minority myth has been divisive throughout history, created a preferred minority hierarchy with dominant groups and has caused conflict amongst underrepresented groups.

Over the past few years, there has been a collective education about the injustices underrepresented groups face whether it be equal pay, police brutality or lack of education, each cause will have a “face” or a group association. Very rarely are Asians at the forefront of activism unless it is directly related to spirituality and faith. There could be several reasons for this, including culture. However, what has happened through the years is a divide in underrepresented communities as a result.

What does all of this have to do with COVID-19? There has been an alarming and disturbing increase in attacks against Asians in the West. In her recent article, Coronavirus sparks a rising tide of Xenophobia worldwide, Joyce Lau chronicles some of the attacks and how institutions have struggled with their own bias in reporting the epidemic. Some attacks noted were Jonathan Mok, a student, and native of Singapore attacked in London and required facial surgery. Mok’s assailants yelled “Coronavirus” before attacking him. In the Netherlands, a Chinese student suffered knife wounds. I will not post the videos on my platform, but in America, I have seen an old Asian gentleman brutally attacked in California and a woman assaulted in New York. There is an argument to be made as to whether or not the attacks are directly COVID-19 related or general anti-Asian sentiments, which Lau addresses in her article. However, the silence amongst non-Asian underrepresented groups on these attacks is loud and consistent with a pattern of behaviour that I have seen before.

During the aftermath of 911, I witnessed an increase in hate crimes against Sikhs and Asian Muslims. I also saw the activism and protests of Sikhs and Muslims against the hatred that lasts to this day, but the solidarity across under-represented groups wasn’t there. Similar to post 911, there could be many reasons as to why support is not being shown to the Asian community right now amidst the increase in attacks. For example, some people may not know, are focusing on their own issues or don’t care. However, silence is breeding silence. It is essential, especially during this time that we are all standing with each other, mainly since people are being attacked. Showing solidarity is a lesson learnt by everyone even if it doesn’t affect you now because one day it just might. Martin Luther King said it best, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

There is still light

Despite some of the worse parts of humanity coming out of the darkness, there is still light. Sainsbury's has introduced the National Health Service (NHS) and vulnerable people hours. This allows members of the NHS community and vulnerable people the opportunity to get the supplies they need. There have been several funds and government aid set up to support people out of work and businesses. Businessmen like Jack Ma and celebrities like Rhianna are doing their part. Rhianna’s foundation donated £5m to fight COVID-19. Ma is sending supplies around the world.

DJ D Nice hosted #clubquarantine, on instagram, where over 100k people showed up. DJ D-Nice will be hosting #clubquarantine regularly, while others are merely taking a moment. People are using this time to rejuvenate, reorganise, plan and reinvent.

This is the first time in my lifetime that we are all in it together apart. As we enter more lockdowns and more border closures, my hope is that we see more of the best of humanity. My prayer for you and your families is safety, essential supplies and good health.

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