THIS IS NOT ABOUT US
That Safe Feeling Inside
The recent Covid-19 crisis saw a mass movement towards greater restrictions of freedoms and unprecedented advances in public control. For some, these measures were necessary, a rational reaction to a problem that posed a serious threat to the global economy and public health. To others they were opportunistic, upholding the old maxim: never let a good crisis go to waste. And to a very few, the measures signalled something darker, a turn towards a potentially more dystopian future.
The quarantine brought to the forefront the complicated relationship between public safety and public control. What freedoms is it critical that we hand over during shared emergencies? Where do we draw the line between control and safety? And who stands on what side?
Once the sirens blew, we did as we were told. We did so for the safety of those we love, for our children, and for our livelihoods. We did so knowing that we would be taken care of.
But many are not so fortunate.
Consider the craftsman in a loincloth, doing a sack of onions every half hour. In his hand a three-inch blade of miserable steel. Late on his rent, he wonders about his mother’s health. If he’d see her again. Her hospital bills. Ashamed at the impurity of his own greed, he dices like clockwork. I don’t know his name. Do you?
This article is for the magnificent fingers of the patient tailor, too. Through a flimsy back alley door, a master at the helm aligns our kandoras up before they are whole, to make our orders of eight. Like a factory he pumps art. How many artists do you know can do it again? For us to show up pressed. Headphones and attitude, everything in its rightful place.
What about the barbers we so dearly missed? The architect of our beards, my dear friend. What are their names?
Our nail ladies. How are they? The embroiderers we’re invisible without. Their families back home. Quarantined. Who provides for them? No, dear reader, this one is not about us. Not about our sourdough posts. Not about our newfound determination to master the keyboard.
This is for those who make us possible.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the same trust in our systems. All too easily, we consider ourselves indispensable; but around the world, the seemingly dispensable number in their billions.
For the vast majority of the world’s population, trust in systems is a broken landscape of ever-changing norms. Their trust is tested every day as boundaries are pushed, terms redefined, conditions renegotiated, and contracts re-evaluated.
These people are the flywheel to our society and economy: they are essential workers, to use the term of the hour. They open our doors, they make our clothes and our coffee. And, yes, they keep our homes safe.
But in the absence of safety for them, that flywheel can fly off.
Consider the commute: a daily ritual these people make in search of economic security for them and their families. It is a noble thing. And now consider the paradox: in our quest to preserve the security of our collective health, we have required many of these people to suspend their quest for personal economic security.
We may have had trouble finding chickpea pita to dip into our sesame and flax seed hummus bowl. But the man next to you can no longer afford a meal at Ravi’s.
The virus reveals
Of course, there is one element in our world that does not discriminate in the way we often do, unaware though we may be.
It pays little heed to age, wealth, social status, or race. It is greedy for us all.
Coming out of this, should we forget all that we know, there is one thing worth remembering. Something I heard second hand, from Sam Rao, who wrote for the Khaleej Times in the eighties. “The only way to become truly happy is to realize that we are linking a vast chain. We are part of the universe, we like to think we are individuals, we’re separate, but we are not.”
In other words, we are made most safe when we think of ourselves as both separated and connected, all at the same time. If we want our homes to be kept safe, we must keep those who guard them safe, too.
We are interdependently independent.
Our opportunity is to design for that reality, and not ignore it.
And so, before you take your walk, take a moment. For our brothers and sisters. The eight immigrant workers sharing a room during lockdown. For those sharing bed hours and suddenly found themselves needing to sleep at the same time. Those who could not afford to homeschool. For those who live on daily income. The key workers. Our true essentials.
Because this is not about the virus.
This is about what it showed us.
While we may have entered this crisis as individuals, we must emerge from it as a single entity with a collective responsibility to care for all our neighbors. To make everyone safe.
We have been known on this gulf as the open arms extended in the sunlight. The refuge of the lost, the destination of the traveler, and the opportunity of the hopeless. This is who we are.
A collective of collectives
It is crucial in these difficult times that we do not
Next time, as we build anew, may we put you and your needs at the heart of our systems. May we give you a seat at the table.
May we never forget you.
By Mohammed Bin Shabib
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