The academic life can be a nomadic pursuit of knowledge, data, funding, and teaching, learning and research opportunities. When, after years in New York, Cambridge, Lahore and Islamabad, I moved to York at the beginning of the year to start a PhD interrogating human rights discourse in world literature, I was looking forward to being in one place for a while. Little did I know that, just three months later, I’d be racing through Dubai International Airport in a plastic poncho, latex gloves and surgical mask, after a delayed connection from the United Kingdom left me trying to catch the last flight to Islamabad before borders closed.
“What happens if we don’t make it in time?” I asked a flight attendant. The attendant reassured me we would both make it and joked that if we didn’t, it would be like that film The Terminal, in which Tom Hanks plays a man rendered stateless and living indefinitely in an airport. I registered with wary irony that Hanks had himself just tested positive for Covid-19.
One day in March, I had been catching up with extended family in London, as my 15-year-old cousin tried out a ‘coronavirus test’ Instagram filter on them and sighed at the television screen as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced schools would remain open that week. The next day, I was in Dr Claire Chambers’s office for a supervision and Claire was asking what I wanted to do in case the situation worsened. Claire warned that the university’s campus was about to become very quiet, as teaching would go online and a full lockdown seemed imminent. She advised me, her supervisee, to prepare for a lonely few months.
I told Claire I’d stick around and write my thesis. Isolation isn’t that much of a stretch for grad students, as demonstrated by any postgraduate meme page worth its salt. But some WhatsApp calls with family an hour later, and it was clear this plan of action would just worry my parents. Besides, what would I do if the dorms closed, as they had for friends back in America?
The Covid-19 pandemic was initially hailed as ‘the great equaliser.’ But is it really?
By day’s end, I had booked a flight to Islamabad for the following week, having sensibly decided to hightail it back home. The next day, it became apparent that borders would close before the day of my flight. If I were lucky, I would find a seat on an earlier plane and just make it in time. I found one, bleary-eyed at 1am, threw a few essentials into a suitcase and reached the airport a few cities away, all in the short span of a few hours. This was lucky. Back in Islamabad, for the next 14 days, I quarantined in a room at home until I could be sure I wasn’t carrying any virus. All of this was lucky — in this personal way, and some larger and more significant ones.
In those early days, many hailed the pandemic as the “great equaliser.” The “we’re all in this together” rhetoric was deafening. That was before it was discovered that death rates were highest amongst minorities and low-income groups. Before lay-offs ruined many. Before it came out that American billionaires and other disaster capitalists became half a trillion dollars richer during the pandemic. As Janet Wilson, Om Prakash Dwivedi and Cristina Gámez-Fernández put it in their editorial for a special issue of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing on the coronavirus: “Among the perplexed — some even denying — and slow-moving governmental machineries, Covid-19 heightens new and unprecedented forms of precarity — in terms of the medical and human resources urgently needed to fight it and the anticipated economic recession which will follow, amplifying the already existing ‘great divide’ ... between rich and poor, global south and global north, haves and have-nots.”
That the equalising rhetoric existed makes it evident that our human abilities to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and practise empathy are severely compromised.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum might see this as a failure of the moral imagination — something she connects to literature, empathy and social justice. Reading is supposed to give people a perspective into the lives of others. Nussbaum was one of the Indian Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s collaborators on the capability approach. This approach favours a holistic perspective on human development and allows for core human needs to be addressed. Inequalities are easily legible in socio-economic conditions and must be rectified.
Much of what is written under the sign of world literature today, including Anglophone Pakistani literature — the focus of my PhD and much of Claire’s research — tends to position itself as a vehicle for that empathy which makes human rights possible. Here are questions about who is characterised as human, the violence that borders enact on people’s lives, how inequalities come about and their consequences.
My thesis grapples with the problem of uncritical empathy in the global literary marketplace commodifying world literature. After all, there is a thin line between world literature that creates productive empathy for Others, and world literature that is complicit in an imperialist narrative. This is part of a larger problem with the idea of writing as testimony. Indeed, there is a history of literature about oppression in foreign places to justify imperialist agendas, most recently to justify the United States’s intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Books such as Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala, Khaled Hosseini’s Afghanistan novels, or Irani writer Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, can be co-opted to promote neo-imperialist, capitalist agendas, promoting intervention, regardless of their authors’ intention.
In Pakistan, the larger culture of giving, and festivities such as Ramazan and Eidul Azha, emphasise thinking about others. Empathy was discernible in citizens organising fundraising initiatives almost overnight during the pandemic. Still, news of people refusing plasma on sectarian grounds also came to the forefront. While the government found itself under fire for some confused messaging in the early days and a refusal to follow World Health Organisation (WHO) advice to lock down, it continued to cite the economy as its main concern.
Yet, as news of the scant number of ventilators in the country spread, concerns grew. The editorial quoted above notes a widening chasm between the global north and south. And, as a developing country, Pakistan faces more severe challenges than the developed world: a low GDP per capita, over a third of the country living below the poverty line and an overloaded — in some parts, non-existent — healthcare system is no enviable combination in a regular year, let alone during a pandemic. If the country is to make a dent in suffering, charity — but more importantly — increased social services are indispensable. Put simply, it is imperative that people think of others.
A group which has particularly distinguished itself with charitable giving, as Claire observed in the UK, during these hard times are British Muslims, the majority of them with familial links to South Asia. Yet, with cases now surging again in Leicester, Greater Manchester and parts of West Yorkshire, Britain’s health secretary put the blame on individuals in northern England for failing to distance properly.
Rather than looking at the government’s inconsistent communication and systemic failures, a Conservative member of parliament named Craig Whittaker, from one of the affected areas, West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, declared that the “vast majority” of those breaking the lockdown come from ethnic minorities. Few of his fellow right-wingers have been quite so explicit in public. However, dog whistles about multigenerational families causing the virus to circulate are evidently directed at British Asian and, to a lesser extent, Black British communities, and are read as such.
And yet, these same Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people are the ones who have disproportionately worked and died as key workers in the pandemic. Until recently, each Thursday evening at 8pm, Britons celebrated those on the metaphorical battlefield of the National Health Service (NHS) by joining in with a round of applause. This sweet, but ultimately empty, gesture again worked to individualise, neatly sidestepping years of NHS underfunding and unequal access to healthcare in the UK.
The curve in Pakistan shows broadly positive signs right now, while of late there has been a concerning exponential rise in Britain. Discussions around the virus reveal deep inequalities. These inequalities lie behind the public policy insistence on maintaining the economic focus for the sake of low-income workers, despite a crippled healthcare system. They are also apparent in how the culture of consumerism in affluent parts remained unharmed.
It is resolved by now that the pandemic is the opposite of an equaliser. Unless we address inequalities, any test will make them worse. Zadie Smith recently published Intimations, a collection of six essays about 2020, whose royalties she donates to the Equal Justice Initiative and the Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York. In a postscript, Smith writes that the racism, social injustice and lack of civil rights protested against in Black Lives Matters, too, are a kind of virus: unseen, contagious and hard to recover from. These times demand active empathy at the highest level, empathy that is apparent in our actions. Only that, rather than empty gestures, will come close to being any kind of equaliser.
*Special thanks to Dr Claire Chambers, who collaborated with me on this piece.
The writer is a doctoral researcher at the University of York. She was previously a Chevening scholar at the University of Cambridge
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 27th, 2020