Nuriye Ortaylı

MD, public health specialist

The virus pays no mind to the figures in one’s bank account or celebrity. But it certain layers the most: poor people with no access to sanitary products and healthcare, the elderly, and those that the state excludes. That is the class reality that the mirror that is COVID-19 casts onto our faces as the pandemic continues.  (Photo: Ban Yido, Unsplash)

It was the beginning of March. It looked as though all the world’s celebrities had contracted COVID-19. England’s Prince Charles, Iran’s Parliamentary President Ali Larijani, Hollywood’s Tom Hanks, and Turkey’s millionaire football coach Fatih Terim, aka Emperor, all had it. The list went on. People expressed their sadness. But in the meantime, statements like “this virus treats us all the same, rich or poor” flooded social media. Was that so? We can’t say whether the virus was trying to check bank balances or gauge people’s renown. But in the days of the outbreak, with limited testing capacity, didn’t we need to be “someone important” to have access to a test? 

#StayHome if you can afford to

Then the outbreak gained momentum in Europe. Curfews and calls to stay home began. It was boring but we ought to stay at home, and we would. At that time, few of the people who did manage to work from home using their computers thought about those without a place to stay, the homeless, the ones staying at refugee camps. Not more than a week before the outbreak was acknowledged in Turkey, refugees were waiting at the border with Greece. Whatever became of them? Not many people spared a thought to them, or to the Africans striving to cross the Mediterranean in makeshift boats. 

Still, the most heart-wrenching #StayHome story came from India. On the evening of March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a curfew and public transport ban with four hours’ notice. This ban resulted in millions of women, men, and children to walk hundreds of kilometers back to their villages with no food, water, or decent clothing. These were people who were, needless to say, from the bottom of the caste system. They were working in big cities whose bread depended on their daily earning. Those who were lucky came across volunteers who gave them food and water. The unlucky ones died on the road. Some knew that they had the virus, that they would pass it on to their families, parents, and elderly grandparents. But they had no choice if they didn’t want to die of hunger and wanted to have shelter. Many times during their long march, the police, trying to implement the curfew, stopped and beat them, insulted them. They even gathered them together and sprayed them with disinfectant. In a few days, the government realizes that these people on the road could spread the virus, so those who hadn’t yet made it to their villages were stopped at provincial borders and forced to settle in the camps built around the limits of the cities they were trying to escape. 

This event, an affront to humanity in every way, was announced by the Western press using the word “exodus”, recalling the Israelites’ exit from Egypt. 

Being old in the land of human rights

The COVID-19 outbreak caught Europeans off-guard. Though not because they didn’t know about it. The epidemic had been going on in China for two months and the EU press had been writing about how the Chinese had quarantined Wuhan. Political commentators were shaking their heads in disapproval, clamoring that only authoritarian nations could resort to such obsolete quarantine measures. When the number of cases increased, it didn’t cause much of a stir. Not until the Italian healthcare system began to crumble. Then panic took over. Spain, England, and Sweden began to vacate hospitals to make room for COVID-19 patients. A portion of these patients came from elderly nursing homes and the hospitals had sent them back without checking their clinical statuses or testing them for the coronavirus. 

The nursing homes weren’t in great shape, to begin with. Most of them were privatized and the austerity measures of recent years had decreased their funding. Elderly people shared rooms in most nursing homes, the personnel wasn’t trained for infection prevention, and doctors, at best, would drop by part-time. In most of these homes, the staff had also contracted COVID-19 and couldn’t make it to work, but no new staff was taken in to replace them. The homes were closed to visitors due to the outbreak, so no one knew what was going on inside. 

The first news came from Spain. In the later stages of the epidemic, after the deaths in the nursing homes caused a shock to the public, military units were called disinfection assistance. The Spanish Defense Minister said that during these interventions, they ad found some seniors dead, abandoned in their beds. Sweden, though it didn’t call it that, essentially applied a herd immunity method. Deeming it natural for low-risk groups to get infected and recover, Sweden refrained from measures affecting masses, claiming that high-risk groups would be protected. But Swedish nursing home workers told the BBC that they were asked not to send infected elderly people to the hospitals. Correspondences bearing these orders were out in the Swedish press. In the end, half of the deaths in most European countries, including Sweden, happened in elderly nursing homes. It looks as though, to some countries, deaths of the elderly aren’t undesirable. 

The Americas as the new epicenter

The US didn’t activate its profit-driven healthcare system in time. Now, the US is also shaken by protests against the murder of a black suspect, George Floyd, as a result of the violence that a white police officer enforced while he detained him. For many years, police violence against black Americans has occasionally led to local protests, but this time the prevalence of reactions and the protesters’ anger is much prominent. A significant portion of the people whom the US government forced to work amid the COVID-19 outbreak, or those at risk of infection, are black Americans. They are the ones who get sick and die at the highest rate. One cannot say that this situation did not affect the course of the protests.

While these are happening in the US, the coronavirus is ravaging favelas in Rio de Janeiro and the poor districts in the outskirts of Sao Paolo. While President of Brazil Jair Bolsanaro denies the existence and importance of the virus, the city governments are trying to single-handedly fight the epidemic without much chance of success.

What does coronavirus love the most?

Coronavirus COVID-19 is a simply structured virus comprised of a simple protective cover over some genetic material. As it continues its quest to find new hosts so it can multiply, it takes advantage of all the features of our civilization, which we boast about so much. Its favorite people are those who move about a lot, those who hop on planes to go thousand of kilometers in less than a day, those who live and work in crowds, who hop from one crammed subway wagon or bus to another in their commutes and who, though they’re not feeling well, feel obliged to keep doing so. The social construct that our “civilization” has established has so far given the virus all it needs. Though we’re advanced in information and technology and we know how to protect ourselves now, the discriminations we’ve carefully weaved throughout millennia, the divides of race, age, and financial status that we live by, prevented us from capturing and killing this virus. And they still are. The Coronavirus’s journey hasn’t ended yet, it will keep going, and keep holding a mirror to our societies. 

“Mirror, mirror,

Corona mirror,

Who’s the cruelest of them all?”

Of course, in a corner of the mirror image that Corona reflects, we can see a vision of Turkey. But that’s for another article.