As the world suffered in the grips of one virus – Covid-19 – activists across the world took up the fight against another equally virulent one – that of racism. Onyekachi Wambu shares his reflections on life under Covid-19.
Viruses aim to propagate by spreading themselves as widely as possible. They also survive and sustain themselves by mutating. In turn, they cause us to trigger antibodies and mutations, as we both play out some kind of eternal, nature-induced call-and-response drama in the search for antidotes and self-preservation.
Reactions to this time of unprecedented and enormous change over the last two years have been both physical and in the imagination; as well as individual, communal and global.
Physically and socially, the lockdown bred a heightened sense of interiority as we stayed neurotically enclosed within four walls and our safe family bubbles, endlessly reliving our lives’ highs and lows and our relationship to a natural world that now seemed threatening to us as a species. However, at the same time our ingenuity enabled us to travel to the ends of the earth through the now-essential and newly dependent virtual worlds of Zoom, Facebook, and Instagram, with these virtual relationships constituting the new normal reality of social relations.
For me, the inflection of this enclosed world and the virtual endless universe created a major new type of social movement that enabled us to tackle afresh one of the most persistent and malignant human-created viruses of the last 400 years – the structural racism that has been a legacy of slavery, empire and colonisation.
The murder of George Floyd, a horrible ‘snuff movie’ witnessed and socially shared by a global audience, lit the fuse and the renewed attempt by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to inoculate against the virus. Large-scale protests, statues toppling, and global conversations followed.
But perhaps the most interesting mutation was the amount of research, information sharing and extra-curricular learning that took place during this feverish period. After all, everybody in their home prisons had time on their hands – as many sought to understand the roots and persistence of this racism virus.
They examined it, whether in unfair trade practices or capital flows between North and South, the micro aggressions or discrimination that produce unequal outcomes in health, education, justice in individual countries, or at the apex of the UN institutions, with the Security Council, the IMF and the World Bank.
It was like a rebirth of history, watching a frozen four hundred years come alive again in the minds of an awakened generation. The fact that during this pre-vaccine period the former imperial powers didn’t seem to have any answers to the virus and were performing poorly in dealing effectively with it in comparison to China and many African countries, also brought the sense of this being a global moment of historic proportions.
Another mutation worth mentioning concerned the thinking of the African comprador elites, who have for too long colluded with neo-colonial forces. For the first time they were trapped in situ. Unable to escape and benefit from medical tourism abroad, perhaps investing and creating world class institutions at home, it finally dawned on them out of necessity, was not such a bad idea.
Push for a reset
The big takeaway from the ongoing pandemic then has been that it is a moment to understand where one stands in a historic period and the imperative to push for a reset, or to build back better, as others have dubbed it.
Apart from the reset addressed above on the legacies of structural racism – a series of other resets remain critical to tackle. These include resets on climate, technology, and global governance.
As these mutations continue to play out externally, it is important to mention perhaps one of the most enduring internal changes as a result of the pandemic – a feeling of fragility and loss, as we witnessed the premature passing of many great artists.
With the virus hitting the aged and those with underlying conditions hard, one watched it decimate a generation of artists who have done so much to enrich our cultural lives, especially musicians including Manu Dibango and Ellis Marsalis. Many others, like MyCoy Tyner, the last survivor of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, and Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s great drummer, may simply have passed away from non-Covid complications, but dying during this period brought home the importance of those who create the soundtracks of our lives, and the joy of having lived through the times their improvisations helped inspire and shape.