More Than an Epidemic
Editor: Jamil Hilal
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The Coronavirus, or Covid-19, continues to spread worldwide after over eight months since the start of the breakout. Several centres continue to race for a vaccine against this epidemic. The same questions have been repeated since it first appeared and during the subsequent lockdowns and preventive measures, including the declared state of emergency that affected a large part of humankind and during the first wave as well as the second wave, which began in some countries in fall 2020.
The quick global spread of the epidemic and the accompanying restrictions on movement, access and assembly have raised substantive questions about the nature of the existing global economic system and its role in creating the conditions for the virus’s quick emergence and outbreak. They have also raised questions about this system’s role in the subsequent surge in rates of impoverishment and unemployment, and aggravating the exposure of large groups to the perils of poverty. The pandemic has posed urgent questions about the responsibility of the capitalist neoliberal system for deepening inequalities within communities, including its responsibility for the increased tension in human relations with animal and plant ecosystems and the climate, consequently creating enabling conditions for the emergence and spread of new, dangerous viruses that threaten human life.
The epidemic triggered a broad disposition towards the need for structural change in globalisation as it developed during the past four decades, and in the role and drivers of the international institutions, many of which have become paralyzed, muddled and marginalised. They fail to confront the growing extremist and egotistical nationalistic trends together with the strengthening of values of profit, individualism and the market economy—free from societal control—that dictate the modes of relations among people. This book touches on concerns relevant to the significance and ramifications of the pandemic. It also includes several accounts and thoughts addressing its ramifications on the Palestinian situation amidst the settler-colonial domination over historic Palestine.
The new pandemic waves contributed to renewing anxiety for the future, survival and the types of relations that might prevail within humankind and in the sphere of international relations once the pandemic recedes, in addition to other relevant topics, as this introduction attempts to outline.
Corona: An analysis of the repercussions of the pandemic on the global economy and on culture
Ghassan Khatib’s article entitled “The Repercussions of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Global Economy” discusses the economic and social repercussions of Covid-19, indicating that the global economy had been declining immediately before the epidemic. This fact drove governments, whose revenues decreased because of the measures they took against the pandemic, to increase spending on unemployment and assistance schemes—with discrepancies—for those who lost their income, and provide support to businesses facing collapse. Many governments were compelled to increase their spending on healthcare and needs.
Khatib’s article attributes the deteriorating global economic indicators prior to Covid-19 to three factors: Tension in Chinese-American economic relations, American fiscal policies and instability in oil prices because of speculations among oil-producing countries. The economic repercussions of the pandemic led to a severe decline in various economic indicators, most notably the economic growth rate, which declined globally, which led international economic and financial institutions to consider that the global economy has entered a state of economic recession. The article includes a table issued by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in June 2020 that reveals the impact of Covid-19 on different countries and indicates that the international economic and financial institutions unanimously agree that the current economic crisis is deeper than the 2008 global financial crisis and the most serious since the 1929 Great Depression. The article cites the IMF report on the decline in international trade because of the pandemic, which led to a decrease in demand, a collapse of transit tourism and instability of supplies because of lockdowns. The article indicates that the coronavirus crisis has increased financial inflation, budget deficits and public debt. It also addresses the social ramifications of the deteriorating economic indicators, most notably the increase in unemployment. According to the International Labour Organisation, unemployment affected women more severely, aggravating gender inequalities in employment. The increase in unemployment indicates a proportionate increase in poverty (more precisely impoverishment) rates. Furthermore, poor countries are suffering heavier losses than rich countries at the human and economic levels while increasing inequalities at the global level. It also addresses the adverse impact of the crisis on education and the long-term impact on human capital, the most important element in socio-economic development. It concludes that although the crisis shall slow down capitalist globalisation, the process will resume its role once the crisis recedes.
Many have been sceptical towards the measures taken against Covid-19, the subsequent disruption of work and the resulting unemployment. Some expressed concern that the risk of compliance with the adopted measures exceeds that of the virus itself. It has become hard to persuade people of the political, economic and health policies that govern the world. Two things about the Coronavirus pandemic baffled Khaled Hourani in his article entitled “A Life Haunted by Anxiety.” The first concerns the state (including corrupt institutions), its reference of conduct and its claim that it cares for the health and wellbeing of its citizens. The second concerns the intellectual becoming obedient in the times of fear, compliant with the safety measures adopted by the state institution or the ruling authority. More importantly, Hourani, as a plastic artist, has noticed the bewilderment of the art world and art institutions in Palestine and worldwide that require a live audience to attend museums, festivals and theatres—just like sport institutions and events.
Hourani noted that the pandemic has been more severe in Palestine because of the absence of a sovereign state that controls the borders, natural resources and internal and external movement, and the lack of institutions that care for creative artists and their needs, which also applies to other groups such as the unemployed. Hourani adds:
At the personal level, when I looked for the artist inside me, I found the maintenance worker. I was not an artist; I did not feel that art could help me at that moment. . . . In Palestine, the situation that preceded the Coronavirus was not normal, to hope to restore it. Possibly, this pandemic has overshadowed the way we perceive the political and cultural conditions, and the cultural meaning of this conflict in the wake of the global condition. Listening to the news, the notion of common humanity at a moment of danger, contemplating many things, and reconsidering the status of the individual, personally threatened with anxiety and tension.
The epidemic in the times of Corona: aspirations for recovery
In his article entitled “Corona Got Us,” Matt Aufderhorst contemplates the potential for the epidemic to change the image of our bodies and consciousness of ourselves and others. He wonders whether our culture, economy, capitalism and the prevalent health systems have the necessary vitality to confront the Coronavirus crisis. The article comprises a series of advice and recommendations—precisely 50—about the best means to address the epidemic. Hence, it is not possible to summarise it. For example, the advice includes, “Precaution is a good idea in times of pestilence; figure out the space ahead of you. Forbearance is an even better one; know the space in which you linger. But, the best advice is circumspection; respect the space, yours and that of others.” The next advice follows: “To bury oneself silently in times of pestilence harms not only us, but also our friends. Not to mention family. Reason always breathes through friendly conversation. If you wall yourself in, air and water will inevitably become scarce in the long run. Even if there are still enough resources to go around, at least at the beginning.”
We may agree with most of the author’s advice, but many may not agree with the concluding advice: “In times of pestilence, only love helps. And if, for whatever reason, it is not in stock, goodness, compassion and indulgence are advisable.” It is hard for the Palestinians, besieged inside racist settler-colonial enclaves to perceive with goodness, compassion and indulgence those who oppress, dispossess, displace and prevent them from returning to their homeland!
In their account entitled “DAAR, a Home Between the Public and the Private,” Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti explain DAAR (Decolonising Architecture Art Research), a house whose main objective is to search the relationship between the private space (represented by the house) and public space as a site of governance. DAAR has created different collective spaces at the threshold between the public and private. The account notes that the role of the house and its relationship with the public has radically changed during the Coronavirus pandemic, which required rethinking the house’s role in society. The account relies on the experience of working at DAAR “at the thresholds between art, architecture and pedagogy.” It also extensively uses citations from the book Permanent Temporariness, written by the founders of DAAR, and includes dialogue about the relationship between the private and public space and their shift in function during crises, such as during the first Intifada and what is currently happening in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis. The account points out two successful experiences in transforming the home space to a collective space for social and political action. The first experience was recounted by Hilal at al-Fawwar refugee camp in Palestine, whose efforts were successful in constructing a walled plaza. Soon the plaza became a perfect place for weddings, condolences and gatherings for women. The second case was the experience of a Syrian refugee family in north Sweden, who transformed their small living room to a place to host Swedish state representatives, rejecting the role of the permanent guest by transforming themselves into the host. The two authors of the article concluded that they realised, “During our many years of practice in Palestine, we developed a practice to transform a private space of the house into a collective and shared space. Many people exercise the right to host without realising the power it carries.”
On transiting from dystopia to utopia and confronting settler-colonial structures in Palestine
Yara Hawari’s account, “From Dystopia to Utopia: Imagining a Radical Future,” stems from the fact that the Coronavirus pandemic sheds light on power structures and inequalities within communities. She points out that “The dystopic new reality the world found itself in had many characteristics of daily life that many Palestinians have been suffering from because of nearly a century of ongoing settler-colonial invasion.” She suggests staying away from the current dystopia and imagining a radical future for Palestine, explaining that science fiction is not popular in the Palestinian literary world. She cites a collection of short stories, Palestine +100: Stories From a Century After the Nakba, in which Palestinian writers combine science fiction and dystopic worlds to imagine Palestine 100 years after the 1948 ethnic cleansing. The editor of the book concludes that the genre of science fiction is not a drastic costume change for Palestinian writers, especially those based in Palestine. Everyday life, for them, is a kind of dystopia. Hawari asserts that the Nakba is a continuous process manifested daily in the racist settler colonialism that Palestinians suffer from and the erasure of their history and heritage. Under this Israeli settler-colonial regime, every aspect of Palestinian life is controlled and under surveillance, though it varies from one geographic location to another. She believes that creating a utopia out of past recollections is an effective way to navigate the dystopic present.
Hawari also notes, “Nostalgia often omits the less attractive aspects of the past, it simultaneously highlights those aspects that are missing from the present.” Nostalgia may be either temporal or spatial. These are not mutually exclusive, but rather overlapping in the narrative of Palestinians. She concludes that pandemics, including the Coronavirus, have compelled humankind to disconnect with the past and imagine a new world. She believes that Palestine combines many of the world’s most oppressive and dystopic structures of power, and Coronavirus provides an opportunity to rethink and imagine the portal from the dystopia to the utopia, wondering whether we, as Palestinians, can step through it.
In her article entitled “Pandemic in Palestine, not an Analogy,” Shourideh Molavi discusses with some elaboration the role of NSO, an Israeli cyber-weapons manufacturer whose software is programmed for worldwide governments to illegally hack the communication devices of human rights figures, lawyers, journalists and opposition activists. She points out that the shift towards virtual forms of communication made us more vulnerable to surveillance and monitoring. The Netanyahu government used the Coronavirus crisis to adopt measures that broaden the scope of powers of the Internal Security Agency (Shin Bet) to track the movement of persons with Covid-19, but these measures can also be used to violate privacy and silence human rights defenders. The writer believes that normalising the use of Israeli digital programmes for surveillance and control cannot be separated from Israeli colonialism in Palestine. She points out how the outbreak intensified existing racialised structures and notes that the security approach, which Israel adopted during the epidemic, uses the existing military structure and is based on the dispossession of and discrimination against the Palestinian people. She concludes with the lessons learnt from examining the racialised settler-colonial structures used in Palestine to understand the mobilisation of similar repressive practices and structures elsewhere. She cites the recommendations of a young Gazan to his fellow Palestinians on how to cope with isolation and maintain their morale during siege and lockdown.
Alienation and exploitation of Palestinian workers inside Israel and besieging them in a racist hierarchical structure
In her account entitled “The Epidemic and Colonial and Capitalist Oppression,” Amira Silmi sheds light on the gaps and problems in the current global system exposed by the Coronavirus pandemic, particularly excluding unskilled workers, who work in ‘vital’ and ‘essential’ industries, from health precautions adopted in several countries, including Palestine. She gives examples of how the state of exception and oppression become more exposed during the pandemic and the extent to which this leads to normalised forms of coercion and exploitation of the workers and the poor rather than reveal the contradictions produced by capitalism. Silmi agrees with Giorgio Agamben, who said that the pandemic has provided the state with the justification to take exceptional measures that lead to ripping people’s lives from their political and social dimensions, reducing them to their biological lives. Consequently, the pandemic (or in particular the policies and measures to ‘combat’ it), may enhance the separation of the human from themselves. She points out that Agamben hopes that something positive may emerge from the pandemic, as it may compel people to wonder if their previous lifestyle was sustainable.
The writer considers the fact that Palestinian society is colonised explains the way that Palestinian workers are treated—with an uncertainty that the epidemic necessitates. She believes that this has been quite evident in their refusal of ‘emergency’ measures. The Palestinian worker only perceives himself as a worker and the risk that characterises his life, as a worker in Israel, has never constituted a factor that prevented him from going to work. This reveals the conflict between the fake political sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its economic dependence and lack of any form of sovereignty over ‘security’ on the ground. Israel treats Palestinian workers as expatriate workers and imposes on them the attributes of expatriate labour in terms of its low cost and in deprivation of any labour rights that Israeli workers enjoy. At the same time, this labour is cheaper than expatriate or foreign labour, both politically and economically. The Palestinian worker toils inside Israel either daily or weekly and returns to one of the enclaves, which Israel surrounds walls walls and closed with military checkpoints, something it cannot do with expatriate labour.
Silmi’s account elaborates on the conditions of Palestinian workers inside Israel, in terms of wages, tenure, work conditions and risks of commuting to and from the workplace. She links those conditions with colonial and neoliberal conditions, the repercussions of the Oslo Agreement and the conditions of the Coronavirus outbreak. She points out that Israelis treated these workers as spreaders of the virus, who are the “vulnerable or exposed flank” of the Palestinians, and wonders why Israel was not held accountable for adopting such a policy.
In his account entitled, “Not Our State: on the Palestinian Imaginations of Liberation,” Hashem Abu Shama’a forms two hypotheses. The first is that there is a fundamental antagonism between Palestinians and the colonial state, and this defines its hierarchical system. Israel perceives Palestinians as dispensable, ill and death-deserving bodies. Abu Shama’a discusses the relation between settler colonialism and Palestinian labour, noting that literature on settler colonialism often considers labour secondary, as it considers settler-colonialist aims to acquire land and eliminate its Indigenous population and therefore seeks to get rid of Palestinian labour. The author wonders why Israel allows Palestinian workers to labour in its enterprises amidst a global pandemic.
The second hypothesis is that the reason for the scarcity of alternative Palestinian imaginations of liberation is the unilateral concentration on the mechanisms of Israeli control and the reduction of Palestinian liberation to a project of building a capitalist national state. He believes that the structural inequalities that the pandemic revealed in Palestine and the world constitute an entry point to construct a new political language. This language stems from the experience of the Black and Indigenous communities in United States and the notions of Patrick Wolfe on the attributes of settler colonialism as a continuous structure based on elimination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Accordingly, he believes that Israel has sought to reduce its dependence on Palestinian labour at the time that it guaranteed the opposite—Palestinian dependence on its settler colonialism—to ensure its economic and spatial hegemony. He believes that labour has played a “launching role” in building the settler-colonial state and an ongoing central role in conquering and neutralising Palestinian subjects. He considers Palestinian labour inside Israel part of a racist hierarchical structure, noting how the Israeli employers started to drop Palestinian workers with Covid-19 symptoms at the checkpoints while the Israeli health companies and institutions were promoting their high-tech surveillance and control products. From a Zionist settler-colonial perspective, the Palestinian body is a terrorist, ill, a threat and underserving of protection or life. Abu Shama’a argues that we cannot demand that the state established to annihilate and dispossess us recognise our rights: “as such, recognition becomes a technique for blockade, neutralisation and genocide.” He believes that “the settler state must be held accountable, with the ultimate goal of its elimination,” and that the objective of the Palestinian struggle is “abolishing the settler institutions, hierarchies and modes of existence, in addition to the means in which our political selves are limited and controlled, to establish a new society.”
Abu Shama’a considers that the Oslo Agreement “has reduced the Palestinian liberation struggle into a struggle for building a nation-state over part of historic Palestine.” The result was further expropriation of land by the colonial state, the establishment of PA institutions, which intensified class and gender divisions within Palestinian society and adopted neoliberal policies. Such policies gave priority to capital over the people, reduced the ‘international community’ to UN agencies and substituted natural allies of the Palestinian people—movements against colonialism, oppression and racism—with official governments.
On settler colonialism, racialisation, the Indigenous and Black movements, neoliberalism and the suffering of Palestine
The paper entitled “Our Wrecks of the Medusa: A dialogue on Economy, Masculinity and Race Within and Beyond the Pandemic” comprises a dialogue staged in early October in Vancouver between two academics, Phanuel Antwi and Max Haiven. It begins with an introduction to the painting The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, which today hangs in the Louvre. It depicts 15 sailors of different nationalities, the only survivors of a shipwreck of which there were originally 150, drifting upon a raft after 13 days of suffering and terror. The painting was chosen as an allegory for our own troubled times, when systems of oppression and exploitation seek to reduce humanity to its very worst. However, humanity resists, according the paper’s foreword.
The paper includes a dialogue about phenomena that appeared during the epidemic. These included the masculinity crisis, which intensified after a high rate of men lost their jobs and had to stay at home, unprepared for reproductive labour. Staying home generates a more dangerous form of masculinity and an environment that produces delusions, conspiracy theories and narcissistic paranoia, which constitute means by which men—or some, at least—seek to re-empower themselves as “masters of reality.” This is where the danger of masculinity lies. The dialogue extends to address the shift in the young generation’s perception of gender and their voluntary action to assist vulnerable citizens who are more susceptible to contagion. The intervention asserts the importance of sharing vulnerability as well as fortune, identity, subjectivity and inter-reliance. It denounces U.S. president Trump’s perspective towards the epidemic (identifying the Coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus”) as a global north patriarchal perspective. Several other issues are covered that this foreword is unable to cover.
Under the subheading “Temporalities” is a discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement and its denotations in understanding the current moment in the United States in relation to other movements that struggle against racialisation, oppression, colonialism and exploitation in the world. The section also addresses movements that oppose colonial knowledge and Eurocentric teaching curricula. It refuses to separate colonialism from racialisation in its treatment of Indigenous peoples and the intention to position them in the past, overlooking the heritage of colonial conquests, dispossession, racialisation, land appropriation and racial alienation and exploitation.
Haiven points out how the liberation movements of Indigenous and Black populations understood themselves through solidarity with the Palestinian people and how premature death is both the outcome of police or colonial violence and also the unfair distribution of necessities (clean drinking water, sufficient and adequate food, healthcare, healthy housing and others). Hence, we find large discrepancies in local and global premature mortality rates. The paper concludes with a shrewd and deep reading into the painting’s meaning and the movements and appearances of the characters.
In the article entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of the Repercussions of the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Hilal proposes a number of observations, most notably his affirmation that the strict measures adopted by most countries to confront the Coronavirus outbreak have led to severe recessions in the rate and forms of consumption. He points out that religious institutions have nothing to give against the epidemic. He also argues that neoliberal policies unleashed unrestricted profits at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of humanity and aggravated their suffering, especially for groups that suffer from deliberate discrimination, impoverishment and deprivation. This not only unveiled inequalities in the world, but also deepened and generated new forms of inequality. Hence, many have called to adopt radical policies different from those adopted during the past four decades, including the call to establish a welfare state and a global system with more solidarity and effectiveness.
Several governments have adopted exceptional measures to confront the Coronavirus epidemic, triggering legitimate concerns regarding the abuse of the current situation to legislate oppressive measures and laws that restrict democratic values and freedoms. Those concerns were aggravated by the use of security services to ensure compliance with emergency measures. Agamben was among those who warned of the ‘state of exception’ in confiscating political, civil and human rights. The renowned philosopher Noam Chomsky also said that the exceptional measures taken by most governments have led to the deterioration of democracy and the disruption of the global economic order. Concerns over the consequences of this epidemic and the emergence of other epidemics increased amid the continued denial of the relationship between nature, humankind and culture (in its broad sense) and the advantages the capital and its markets enjoy in identifying the forms of such a relationship.
The article highlights the need to reconsider the structure, goals and functions of international agencies, as agencies concerned with serving humankind at large. It points out the risks of exploiting the epidemic to nurture totalitarian, fundamentalist, racist and narrow nationalistic approaches. It also warns of the abuse of digital technology to produce, use and market tracking and surveillance devices against the citizens, violating individual privacy. It goes on to warn that the course of the epidemic in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is subject to Israeli border control in both regions. The young-age composition of Palestinians may reduce the risk of contagion and increase the ability to resist the disease. The enclave or ghetto nature of the walled areas may also affect the progress of the epidemic, which largely applies to Palestinians living in areas occupied by Israel in 1948. The economies of the West Bank and Gaza are also dependent on external transfers and are under full Israeli control. As such, they lack integration. He also points out the vulnerability of the Palestinian workers at Israeli enterprises and the impact of the intensive presence of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem and Hebron, the least willing to comply with preventive measures against the Coronavirus. He concludes that Palestinians suffering because of the pandemic is intensified because Israel continues its discriminatory, racist, settler-colonial policies, and abuses the state of emergency to strengthen its grip, bolster the neoliberal system and exploit its regional and international status to normalise relations with Arab regimes.
The article expects new forms of mass uprisings because of the aggravating discrepancies in the distribution of wealth, power and knowledge and the increasing rates of poverty and unemployment. This is compounded by the failure of most regimes to address the ramifications of the epidemic, the possibility of new waves and the confused relation between the public and culture, in which social media fails to bridge the existing gap.
At the Palestinian level, the article argues that the Coronavirus crisis has revealed the need to develop a new national strategy. The possibility of establishing an independent sovereign Palestinian state has vanished; the crisis has exposed, Palestinian-wise, the limited role of the private sector and the receding role of civil society organisations. The new strategy should be formulated following a radical review of the performance of political and civil society in Palestinian communities. He believes that the Palestinian condition is pending on the emergence of new formations that are committed to liberation goals based on democratic principles and values that confront the national compound Palestinian predicament.