COVID-19: The unasked for mirror of humanity and the individual.
On Monday March 16th, Egypt announced it would close all the airports for two weeks. As a 24-year-old British-Chinese UK citizen, I decided to stay in Egypt during the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic is a testament to humanity and the unasked-for mirror of ourselves.
When remnants of the coronavirus began circulating world-wide, I began feeling a bit self-conscious, or perhaps paranoid doing my grocery shopping or walking on the streets- were people looking at me differently? I prepared myself for going into work the next day.
Being born to a British father and Chinese mother, and being an outsider seen as different with an assortment of ranging perceptions in different countries, is what I have been dealing with my entire life. My identity is what other people perceive me as.
Uber drivers would ask me “Corona?” and I would feel insulted, but, afraid of any repudiation, hurriedly replied back in Egyptian Arabic, “la, ma3ndish Corona” (“I do not have Corona”). It wasn’t necessarily meant to inflict harm, but it was harmful- to perpetuate this idea that not even just Chinese people, but those remotely resembling what their perception was of the Chinese race, are a direct cause of the Coronavirus and therefore able to be blamed and have anger projected upon.
Thoughts such as, “Was that a hint of fear and suspicion in her eyes?” began running through my head. I did get the odd joke, “Hey, stop eating rats”, general coughing in my direction, or complete exaggerated horror and repulsion if I happened to cough.
Worried about my mother, who is widowed and lives alone in Shanghai, and who had been self-quarantined at home as the entire country shut down for over two months, I held all these fears to myself.
Having grown up with Chinese as my second language, going to international schools with all expats for the 8 years I lived in Shanghai, I never felt very close to my motherland. At age 11 I moved to China for the first time in my life with my parents, to complete middle and highschool before I was to leave for University in California. I have been through shameful years of my life where I was arrogant as being half-British and as being perceived as a foreigner in China, feeling a disconnect to the Chinese people and China as a country.
I was entirely disconnected from my motherland’s history, culture, people, economy, politics, government- until I hit the age of 20 when my father passed away within the span of 4 months from a very rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I underwent transformations since then and am still undergoing them, including having more awareness for societal issues, and having an increased awareness for my lack of connection with my motherland. However, despite this change, I never felt such a connection to the Chinese people, my Chinese side, and the country itself until now.
While the rest of the world carried on, without much sympathy or sorrow for what the Chinese people were going through, I worried and held it in my heart. Not only was I hurting for what the Chinese people were going through, but all Chinese immigrants all over the world. I began hearing stories from ethnically Chinese friends in different countries, seeing occurrences on social media, and I dealt with the odd racist comment myself.
One South-East Asian woman here in Cairo said to me one day,
“I’m sorry, but I hate the word Chinese now.”
I was shocked but covered it quickly,
Why? I asked calmly, while attempting to smile.
“Because, me and my friends, everyone thinks we are Chinese, and the places we live is not so good, you know, and people laugh at us, and tell us to get off the bus if one of us is coughing- they make us feel threatened all the time now.”
A few weeks into the lockdown, I was taking an uber and the driver asked me, “anta feen?” (where are you from). I usually said, “I’m British and Chinese.” This time, instinctively, almost without thinking, I said, “I’m British.” He gave me a glance in the mirror but I knew if I said I was also Chinese it would jumpstart an entire conversation I most likely wouldn’t want to have.
Yet, we must appreciate that there is a retaliation against the discrimination and the seemingly innate selfishness inside all of us. After the video of a Chinese man being kicked out of an Uber in Cairo, and filmed and leered at by other passerby’s and unable to get another car, a post began circulating around the Egyptian online communities condemning the way this man was treated and showing solitude with this man:
“عندما تنظر للآسيويين على أنهم “فيروس كورونا”، فلا تستعجب عندما ينظر لك أحدهم على أنك “إرهابي”!
When you consider Asians as “Corona virus”, don’t be surprised when someone considers you as a “Terrorist”!
And so, during the month of March, the country began to both prepare for and respond to the quickly escalating pandemic. I felt a wave of comradeship, one of that I’ve never felt before- of an entire country going through a struggle, collectively, at one time. Although I am not Egyptian, I feel as though I am part of the struggle here. I have been and will continue to go through all of the steps with my fellow Egyptians.
We often imprison ourselves in certain enclosed areas for weeks on end- from home, a grocery store, a bar, our workplace- but we never feel as though it is prison, until you are told you cannot leave it. The moment the government announced the airport will be closed for two weeks and there will be no incoming or outgoing flights, I felt trapped. The British Embassy line was jammed that entire night. The next day was surreal, as I was running around frantically asking the foreigners I know here if they were leaving, it seemed about 60-40; most had managed to book flights, some through connections they had, and a few were staying.
I knew the flights would be booked up fairly soon, but I didn’t jump on my computer to go on and try to book one. Why did I choose to stay? I suppose, because of the people and the feeling of camaraderie in Egypt. April 12th was the last repatriation flight for British citizens from Egypt. I spoke to the British Embassy on the phone at long last, but decided, once more, to stay, and not to leave.
In the past few weeks, stories of the revolution have resurfaced. Gossip and pondering of whether or not there will be a curfew implemented, similarly to the one that was imposed during the Arab Spring 9 years ago. Stories of what the curfew was like, events cancelled, what it was like to spend all the time indoors.
A son, who, injured in the revolution, was in the hospital, and his mother feigned illness to pass through the military blocks implemented during the curfew. A woman giving birth during the revolution. A child born in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, in the smoke of revolution.
An Egyptian friend frankly told me upon a conversation regarding the rapid escalation of the pandemic in an effort to calm me down,
“Egypt will survive. We are still struggling from the revolution, our economy is still struggling, we are still clawing ourselves up out of the hole of poverty. We will not let ourselves fall to this virus, simply because we cannot afford to.”
As another Egyptian friend told me,
“Egyptians are like cockroaches. Did you know, Egypt is the only country that was never entirely rebuilt?”
Those around me, almost all have blind faith in the authority to implement the necessary actions and to make the right decisions in an effective and timely manner.
These conversations brought me back a few months ago, when someone said to me,
“You are not Egyptian, but you know why you love Egypt. Me, I’m Egyptian, and I have no idea why I love my country. I just know I do.”
The Egyptian government has, thus far, taken many pre-emptive measures, even being praised by the World Health Organization. On Thursday March 19th, the Egyptian Cabinet announced a partial curfew being implemented, with most shops being closed by 7pm everyday, with the exception of necessary services like pharmacies, hospitals, supermarkets, and home-delivery services. On Tuesday March 24th, the Egyptian Government announced in addition, all shops and malls will be closed during the weekends (Friday and Saturday) with additional curfew implementations.
To be a part of something with so many people is surely overwhelming. This is what I see all people doing throughout or lives and all the people that came before us- to build something greater than themselves, whether it is a legacy in a career, through art, through family, etc. To be part of something greater than ourselves.
COVID-19 acts as the unasked for mirror, reflecting our inner fears, thoughts, and inhumanity as individuals and as a species. The reflections are infinitely complex, both beautiful and daunting. There is a pool of disappointment and empathy felt for the hardships people are undergoing now, but this pool is contrasted by a glow of admiration and gratitude towards the retaliation of discrimination, the global solidarity through social media as well as on a smaller scale- through communities and families, the efforts of inter-national help, and the efforts of the medical and science community.
COVID-19 asks each of us, as many of us are social distancing and practicing self-quarantining:
What is your identity?
Do you hide from yourself with the distractions of your everyday life? Is the fastness and speed of everyday life a mere distraction from your true self?
COVID-19 is bringing to light what it means to be human. As we struggle to stay home without the daily distractions of life, similarly to when Kafka’s Gregor in Metamorphosis wakes up, horrifyingly, as a large insect, having to forcefully and suddenly forego the motions and distractions of daily life- we are suddenly confronted with ourselves, and the absurdity of life itself.