I was in the last months of my guest artist residency in the city of Copenhagen when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. I was supposed to leave for Sudan in February but travel abroad was suspended by the Danish government.
So, I have had to stay a little longer in Denmark which has given me the chance to observe first-hand how the “first world” is coping with a pandemic.
Just like everyone else around me, I have been quite anxious and worried about what is happening. But I have also been quite amused by the countless articles from American and European experts explaining how the various restrictions on public life which governments have imposed will become the “new normal” across the world.
I am sorry to break it to you, but your “new normal” has been the “old normal” for billions of Brown and Black people around the world. For many of us, restrictions, repression, and deprivation have been a constant feature of our whole lives.
Cannot travel wherever you want anymore? Well, the majority of us were never able to travel anywhere we wanted either – many simply because they cannot afford to do so, and the few who can – because of travel restrictions. That is right – declared and undeclared travel bans are nothing new to us.
To be able to get through those restrictions, we would have to fill out piles of papers asking us about all kinds of things – from the number of household dependents, to recent travel to “hot zones”, contact with “suspicious people” and all the way to past participation in “terrorist activities”. Not to mention that we would have to prove ourselves “disease-free” with all various certificates, such as the yellow fever card, the absence of which would land us in quarantine at the airport.
Throughout the visa application process, we would be kept at a (social) distance. We would submit our papers online, pay fees at a separate cashier at the bank, and wait outside the embassy in the scorching heat because we may be a danger to embassy staff.
And of course, once we get the visa, it would be no guarantee we would be allowed in. At arrival, we may very well be escorted to a small room to join other Black and Brown people for further questioning. And if they do not like us, they may make us leave. Cutting short your stay abroad in order to board a plane home happened to many people in this pandemic. It has happened for a long time to many Brown and Black people, too. You call it “evacuation”, we have had to call it “deportation”.
Some Brown and Black people have tried to make it to their desired destinations by boat, and in many cases they have not been allowed to dock. In a very similar way, many cruise ships full of Westerners have not been not allowed to dock anywhere because of COVID-19 fears. Under the present circumstances, they, too, were “undesirables”. Oh, the irony.
There is of course much anxiety in the West about children missing out on education because of closed schools and universities. Well, many Brown and Black kids cannot go to school even if it there is one open near them or they have to drop out before graduating because of poverty. And where I am from, universities have been shut down every time the governing regime decided some suspicious political activity is going on on campuses.
There has been much noise about service industry businesses closing down, too. All of a sudden, Westerners have been forced to live without restaurants, hair salons, spas, gyms, cinemas, etc – indeed a hard life – one that many Brown and Black people know all too well because it has been their normal forever.
Another thing I have found quite entertaining is the proliferation of speculations about a changing world order and China coming to dominate the West. We too know this fear. Foreign domination has been all too real for us, whether it has been by China, the United States, the United Kingdom, France or any other colonial or neocolonial power.
Indeed, it is quite demoralising and disempowering to know that your people do not have their own fate in their hands and that it is someone else sitting in a faraway capital taking decisions that will determine – most often devastate – your life.
Now many are also worried about growing surveillance, police repression, state of emergencies, and “increased powers” of governments as a result of the pandemic. Well, many Brown and Black people are intimately acquainted with mass surveillance and unlimited power, having lived under dictatorships for extensive periods of time. Many have spent their whole lives under a state of emergency.
Indeed, it seems the pandemic will give many in the “first world” a taste of dictatorship and perhaps mobilise them to resist. I can already see individuals, groups and organisations uniting to support each other in hope of a better future, singing together, praying together, remembering the names of the martyrs who risked their lives to warn us, only to succumb to the deadly enemy.
There is a feeling of uncertainty about the future which is not only scaring people but also making them hopeful, inviting them to imagine the world differently, to rethink political systems, economy, to exchange ideas with others, to debate on social media and read countless analyses of what could and should happen.
I have seen all this before, and so have many other Brown and Black people who have witnessed and been part of resistance movements in their countries. This was my reality throughout last year as the Sudanese Revolution was raging on. It was also the case almost 10 years ago during the Arab Spring.
And today I have the same fear I had last year, and almost a decade ago – that once the dust settles – inshAllah soon – things may not change at all, that we may go back to the “old normal”.
While for us Brown and Black people it has been clear that we do not want to go back, I fear that many Westerners, while indulging in daydreaming about a different world today, will rush to go back to “business as usual” once the restrictions are lifted. They will forget all those discussions and realisations that their “old normal”, while comfortable for the privileged, was ultimately unsustainable.
I do hope that the Western world and the rest of us will treat this experience as a wake-up call and keep our promises for change. We should remember that we are all in this together. The global political and economic system needs to change; we need to start investing in social justice, equality and solidarity.
This should be the “new normal” we seek to establish.