Will Racism Color How We Remember COVID-19? | Opinion

Two narratives have dominated the coverage of the pandemic and our reaction to it so far. On the one hand, there are those who argue that family and health should come first, that everything should be done the spare the lives of high-risk populations and that going back to work prematurely is a bad idea. On the other, some assert that sacrificing the economy and young people's lives for the sake of a fraction of their elders is an untenable position.

There is another take on the pandemic which has hardly been heard in Europe and the US. For a majority of Africans, whose healthy life expectancy hovers around 55 years of age and for whom not going to work on any given day means being unable to feed their families that same evening, the notion that the whole world would come to a grinding halt seemingly only because a relatively small fraction of white people in rich countries aged 70 and more had suddenly become high-risk populations is hard to fathom. It's not, of course, that the majority of the world's population not included in the above are immune to Coronavirus; it's that COVID-19 is just the latest addition to a long litany of preventable dangers that are yet to prompt even a slight change of course to the global economy, never mind hitting the emergency break. The incongruity stings.

It is not by chance that the outrage sparked by the murder of George Floyd extends far beyond America's shores. Many of us just spent several months in a similar headspace: a state of shock where we sought to figure out how exactly this pandemic 'changes everything'. We have the beginnings of an answer. What is taking place in the U.S. is what happens when the discrimination, inequality, and injustice that country is founded upon is suddenly multiplied by a factor of... COVID-19. The pandemic has made it painfully clear to all that what happens on the other side of the world is very much our problem, too. But this goes both ways.

George Floyd is not just an American martyr. He is a martyr for the condition of all those who are categorized as 'black or brown'. Progressives in the West find it comforting to believe that racism, discrimination and the colonial mindset are the preserve of the Trumps, the Le Pens and the Johnsons of this world. This pandemic forces us all to reconsider the stories we have been telling ourselves about who we are and how the world goes round. And the truth is that the dominant narrative of modernity, the notion that while the world certainly isn't perfect, things have been getting better for humanity as a whole since the Enlightenment is the view from the top of the human pyramid.

This self-serving narrative about brilliant white men who figured out how to make the world a better place through sheer hard work and ingenuity presents the world as a level playing field. Some of us got ahead, others didn't. In truth, a growing body of research shows that the emergence of the globalized capitalism of our present under British imperial rule was fueled by crops confiscated from peasants in India and China, leading millions of them to starvation, to feed the workers toiling in factories in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. In many ways, what came to be called the Third World last century was literally engineered by Western colonial administrations. It wasn't "left" behind. It was forced there. And the luxuries of our contemporary lifestyles, from the way we power our cars and houses to the way we feed ourselves and the cattle and poultry we insist on eating, are still predicated on the remnants of this colonial system.

This isn't only about getting the past right, but the future as well. Claiming that the experience of Europe and North America since the scientific and industrial revolutions constitutes the proper yardstick for measuring and deciding what is good for the planet, its flora and fauna, including humans, reveals that what we have been calling "humanism" has become a form of anthropocentric and geocentric hubris, a form of Western madness gone global whose quintessential feature is racism. The time has come for the enlightened minds who in good faith argue that year on year, the human condition has improved on average and across the board, to recognize the intrinsic callousness of this worldview. To count among the world's 10 percent richest humans "all" it takes is a net worth of $93,000. The world's privileged can't go on pretending they are representative of humanity and arguing that "things are getting better for everyone, even in Bangladesh and the Sahel", when they couldn't bear to live a single day in the shoes of a middle-class person in those places.

The death toll of COVID-19 pales in comparison with the number of people, mostly people of color, who die each year from malaria, diarrhea, or from the endemic violence tied to the extraction of the rare earth metals which make their way into our smartphones and tablets. The odd television report alerts us to the sheer horror of the situation of our fellow humans. It briefly captures our imagination. And then we move on, as we do after putting down a good work of fiction. However, for a sizeable chunk of humanity, this fiction goes by a different name: reality. This pandemic is our chance to acknowledge this and to acknowledge them. And to drop the comforting, convenient narrative of modernity.

Rebecca Enonchong is the CEO of AppsTech. Felix Marquardt is the author of "The New Nomads," coming from Simon & Schuster March 2021. They are cofounders of Black Elephant.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.​​​​​