Social distancing, lockdown, quarantine, isolation, confinement. These are some words that inspire a sense of stuck-in-betweenness like no other: they signify a clear boundary between the past and the present, and provide no solace for our fantasies about the future. Some of us are well accustomed to this detached anticipation. Some of us, who have witnessed conflict from too close a distance, know this feeling of cosmic dread intimately.
Today, it’s seeing people wearing surgical masks and gloves scanning their meal-deals at isolated self-checkout machines. For us, in North Macedonia in 2001, the tension between extraordinary circumstances and mundane activity manifested itself in similarly tragicomical ways. I clearly remember my family having a barbeque in the snow in the echoes of distant gunfire exchanged between militia and armed forces. But I guess sometimes, a kebap is a kebap.
In Skopje, we were bystanders in an ethnic conflict that a very large part of the world was unaware of. It was a localised, ‘confined’ crisis that would affect the immediate surrounding area. Specific supply chains critical for the comfort of the affluent West wouldn’t be disrupted as they have been today because of the covid-19 pandemic, so there was no need for ‘international’ outcry. One to two million people felt the direct effects of the conflict, and for others it was business as usual.
The witnesses of this conflict, like many other witnesses of such violent crises, however, learned what it meant to exist between emotional extremes: to be afraid and nonchalant, accepting and defiant, hopeful and apathetic all at the same instance. This nebulous and unpredictable state of being that we now occupy is therefore not ‘unprecedented’. It is, was, and has been the living reality for many people around the world.
I am not by any means suggesting that the pain and suffering that this pandemic has brought to people isn’t real or worth discussing. It obviously is. However, thinking about the pandemic in a historical vacuum or as an isolated incident of human suffering is short-sighted. Here, removing ourselves from the past by highlighting the uniqueness of our present strengthens a sense of exceptional individualism and undermines community. This relentless focus on the singularity of individual pain (as well as individual perseverance) is emblematic of a dangerous neoliberal morality. By highlighting the distinctness of the misery that this pandemic has caused, we create untranslatable mythologies.
Ralph Fevre in his book Individualism and Inequality (2016) seperates ‘sentimental individualism’ of the 19th century, associated with authors such as Thomas Paine and Adam Smith, from ‘cognitive individualism’ embodied by neoliberal politics. While the sentimental individual believes that we all share a ‘common humanity’, the cognitive individual believes in self-direction, self-actualisation and self-determination. Cognitive individualism then rests on the belief that any success or failure is the responsibility of the individual. This understanding of human experience is inevitably alienating and isolating. It breaks down notions of community belonging and instead rewards or punishes the individual.
In our case, we have our ‘heroes’: nurses and doctors who have lost their lives providing essential care for the good of the many. A disproportionate amount of them were BAME. This disproportionality is not being treated as suspicious, or as a reflection of a wider pattern of inequality, or something that could have been prevented, by those in power.
Many authorities and institutions are instead portraying them as individuals who sacrificed themselves for society. But by treating each case as a show of sacrificial bravery and occupational perseverance, we lose sight of patterns that are staring us right in the face: patterns of inequality, injustice and ignorance that have affected economically and socially marginalised communities for decades. We ignore historical continuities when we label these ruptures as unique, individual, or unprecedented. This is a perilous line of logic and has dangerous consequences for marginalised workers.
So is this pandemic truly an ‘unprecedented’ crisis? If the same communities, not only in the UK, but all across the globe, are bearing the brunt of it as always?
Idil Galip is writing from Southside, Edinburgh. She is a PhD researcher in sociology at the University of Edinburgh and studies memes, art and digital labour: https://twitter.com/idilgalip