Members of the Palestinian civil defence force wear protective masks before spraying disinfectant in the port area of Gaza City on March 24, 2020 to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak. Image Credit: AFP

In her work of critical theory, Illness as Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag, the American essayist and philosopher, challenged the victim-blaming language often used to describe diseases such as cancer and AIDS, along with those who suffered from them, as if the victim of an offence could be held at fault for the harm that befalls them.

People like United States President Donald Trump, who has a penchant for ad hominem attacks, such as labelling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus”, would do well to read that work, for it is clear by now that the virus transcends nations, cultures and geographical locales. We all, all together around the world, face the challenges of the pandemic in equal measure, simply because its reach extends to the outer rim of the entirety our global village.

In the US and other affluent western countries, you are told that if you want to stay safe, stay at home. Comprehend the epic scale of the pandemic. Every nanosecond outside, touching surfaces, shaking hands, hugging friends, presents a danger of infection. Have your fun virtually, say, by joining that communal Twitter reading (hosted by a literary journal) of 12 pages per day of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Telework, shelter in-place and self-isolate, all the while practising “social distancing”, a clumsy term that as recently as late February no one had ever heard of.

There is no evidence that the Arab League is coordinating a pan-Arab effort to confront the challenges that the region will soon be inevitably confronting.


All well and good, I say, in terms of people in the US and other western countries, who can hunker down, even for the long haul, in their baronial living spaces and suburban heartlands — and wait out the virus.

People in poor countries in the developing world, however, with few resources and infrastructure at their disposal to combat the virus, cannot afford the luxury — in the two senses of the word — of social distancing because they live in overcrowded neighbourhoods, in densely populated cities, that are ill-prepared to efficiently combat the spread of the virus.

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Now consider, more importantly, the wretched millions in the Arab World who had been displaced by conflict in recent years. There will be carnage when — not if — the virus reaches parts of war-torn Syria, where nearly 4 million refugees are crammed into a sliver of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border; parts of Libya, where there are nearly 900,000 Libyans displaced by fighting among warring militias, sheltering in schools and other temporary locales; parts of Yemen, where close to 2 million people, displaced by civil war, live in overcrowded, makeshift camps; parts of Iraq, where 1.5 million civilians displaced by the battles against Daesh, are packed across camps or cramped in apartment blocks; and in the occupied Palestinian territories, where Palestinian refugees, especially in Gaza, inhabit densely populated camps, living two families or more to an apartment.

In a news report in the Washington Post last Saturday, filed by Louis Lovelock, we read: “For residents and health officials alike, the prospect of a Covid-19 outbreak within one of the dozens of refugee camps, migrant centres and displacement cites across the Middle East is a nightmare within a nightmare. Agencies are bracing for the rapid spread of the disease through tightly packed camps where feeble health systems, poor sanitation, warfare and political restraints could make it nearly impossible to contain”.

Objective reality

Yet, there is no evidence that the Arab League (a union of Arab states that celebrated its 75th anniversary last Monday) is coordinating a pan-Arab effort to confront the challenges that the region will soon be inevitably confronting.

Meanwhile, consider how our objective reality, worldwide, has already crossed a surrealistic line from life before the advent of the pandemic to life after it, where the destruction of human life now appears to us, in its catch-as-catch-can randomness, to be either a mere instant in the rational design of God’s purpose or the wanton, mysterious choice of destiny.

As this virus strides forward — with 335,000 so far infected worldwide — and still counting — the leitmotif of death grows insistent in our human narrative. COVID-19, a juggernaut that reportedly measures between a mere 60 and 140 billionths of a metre across, has turned the world upside down.

Imagine, it is with a Lilliputian monster that we are now at war. Unto the breach, dear friends.

— Fawaz Turki is a writer and lecturer who lives in Washington and the author of several books, including the Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.