Being human in times of crises and pandemics

By Vasna Ramasar

As we enter 2021, it is inevitable that one looks back at the year that has passed – and what a year it has been. 2020 brought us the full impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus. It was an extraordinary crisis on top of the Black Lives Matter protests; a worsening climate and ecological disaster; and deepening fascism and xenophobia around the world. It was a disease that set the world to a standstill, with everyday life being turned on its head. Inevitably we saw the entrenching of patterns of discrimination in the exposure, rhetoric and treatment of people at risk from the disease and its consequences. Politics and capitalism ruled in many settings in decisions about how to respond and how to protect the economy and lives (sometimes the economy over lives). Blatant corruption and elites operating above the law became a feature of long-established democracies such as the US and UK. To many of us, there was despair as long-standing struggles for social and environmental justice were burdened by these multiple crises and traditional ways of organising and mobilising were discouraged or made illegal.

However, as I reflect on 2021, I cannot help but be awed by the deep solidarity, care and connection that I watched and experienced being built around the world. In many ways, big and small we saw humanity flourish. From the care work that Rebecca Selberg wrote of in September to the way civil society and film stars stepped in to help Indian migrants making their way home as described by Riya Raphael in December and the rapid organisation of the C-19 People’s Coalition in South Africa, we saw widespread responses to reach out and help others. Many of these responses can be viewed with a critical eye for the limits they have and the dependency they may create but at the core, there was still a response that was outside our own personal well-being and focused on the care of others.  

I experienced life through lockdowns in Denmark, online teaching in Sweden and separation from my family in South Africa with no timeframe for when I would see them again. There was a sense of loss that I couldn’t hug someone because of distance or fear of spreading a virus. And yet, it was also a time of rapid and deep connection. Irina Schmitt spoke of the challenges for teaching and yes, there were tears and frustrations amongst students and colleagues but also a willing and open vulnerability and reaching out to others to navigate the uncertain times. In a world that for many of us had gone online, it was surprising and humbling how quickly and without reservations, people were open to engaging. Yes, many of us experienced Zoom fatigue and of course, the online interaction cannot replace meeting in person. However, I got to listen to many amazing thinkers and engage in multiple discussions that stretched my mind and relocated my nexus of thinking in a far more global way – connecting across continents and time zones. Several of these online interactions, especially through the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, were incredibly rewarding and allowed me into other worlds that are possible. Stories that stick out for me were the immense collective solidarity showed by the communities of the Potato Park in providing food for urban residents affected by lockdowns in Peru and women farmers of MAKAAM in India mobilising to ensure that people had access to seeds, markets and jobs during the pandemic.

In South Africa we have a saying “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which roughly translates to the notion that we are people through other people. As a shortened form, “Ubuntu” is a homegrown African alternative way of making sense of what it is to be human. It places emphasis on the collective experience and approach as well as engaging with a way of being and belonging that is deeply relational to people and the non-human world. Ubuntu has the potential to offer African ontology and epistemology to the process of seeking post-development pathways – the other worlds that are possible. At the same time, it comes with a recognition that Ubuntu comes from a pre-(colonial) development path in Africa and must be understood in terms of the situated knowledge and experience of oppression and as a means of reclaiming a sense of personhood. Through this year of crises, our personhood has been tested and revealed in its best and worst colours. 

Arundhati Roy spoke of the pandemic being a portal. I would like to believe that this situation has given people pause for thought and change. What I am hopeful about is that for many, we have re-visited our sense of being people through other people. 2020 has given us a reminder of our collective humanity and our dependence on each other to survive and thrive in this world. If we can start to understand our humanity and ourselves in a relational way, we are more open to practising the praxis of hope and scholarship of hope advocated by many including Professor of Gender Studies, Diana Mullinari. Can we see this as an opening to think about what it is to be human rather than to be a consumer or a citizen for example? What possibilities do these open to our understanding of our commitment and responsibility for human and non-human life on the planet and for establishing social and environmental justice as a basis for decision-making. Audre Lorde said “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”  I would like to interpret that to partially connect to the idea of Ubuntu that “I am because we are”. The little and big acts of solidarity of 2020 have strengthened this and open up for radical alternatives to the hegemonic system. And these alternatives can be realised through resistance and action, as we have seen in the pandemic where struggle and conviviality can co-exist.

The state and capital can no longer be relied on to offer the social safety net for humans to survive. It can be argued in this period of crises, high modernity, neoliberal economic systems and the elevated status of individualism, Ubuntu and other concepts have the potential to offer emancipatory pathways from our past and our present so humans can thrive. The time of civil society and community working for our common humanity at local and global levels is now. We can and must mobilise in different ways and from a place of love, empathy and care to create alternatives and real utopias and the pandemic and crises have offered us a reminder of this.

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