I asked a friend over the phone, as we move towards the partial lifting of the lockdown, if he could imagine respecting physical distance while working as a mason on a construction site. He said yes. He had thought about it. It would be possible. I notice that in New York State, where they think aloud on such things at Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings, construction is one of the first new sectors they are considering opening up. My friend said it would take some thinking and trying for each site and each action they perform. They would need, he added, to get used to working with masks on. I suppose in Mauritius one of the hardest things for men in this mainly male domain is to not shake hands every morning when they meet. It has for decades, maybe centuries, been an important ritual expressing respect and also affection. You don’t shake hands just when greeting someone formally, but every single day. That will be a hard gesture to forego.
Another friend who works as a hairdresser said clients might have to be stricter on turning up just at the moment of their rendezvous. So, part of the social aspect of waiting around together, chatting and laughing, might have to be foregone. The “psychotherapy” part of hairdressing might have to be sacrificed. She might need a mask on, she says, and she might need to supply clients with disposable masks. How will they judge their new hairstyle? Clients and staff would need to use hand sanitizer ostentatiously.
Yet another friend has read a copy of a document prepared by some group of senior education staff (directors of schools?). The friend said she didn’t know who it was being submitted to, but it seemed to aim at the higher echelons in the education bureaucracy. It includes, ominously, a violently anti-union phrase. This is a warning, as we come out of lockdown. The forces of repression are organizing against the working class.
Other friends dread that their bosses are going to try to force working-from-home on them forever and ever. This is true purgatory, they think. The law has already been amended, calling such workers “atypical” and meaning mainly “without rights”.
All this to say that there are thoughts and actions moving towards gradual “coming out” – like snails – of our houses as we move towards 4 May, the putative date for the end of the lockdown. I use the snail comparison, not for the slowness of snails, but for the capacity they have to venture out of home and then withdraw into their shells really quickly. This is because, with an epidemic as dangerous on the double-measure of infectiousness and high mortality rate as this one, venturing out has to be coupled with the ability, collectively, to retreat fast if exponential infections begin again.
And when I think of the end of this state-of-siege, I think of the people of Gaza and of the West Bank. They see no end. They are under permanent lockdown. The borders are closed. Airports are empty, bombed. Ports are blockaded. And there is an army of occupation that can, at any moment, confine you to your home. There are checkpoints, often between you and your place of work or your school. There are flying checkpoints that were not there yesterday. You have to queue up to get out. Why are you here? The occupier demands. Where are you going? Where is your pass?
So, you, like all the Palestinian refugees that live in camps in the Lebanon or Jordan, in Syria or in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or Gaza, live under indefinite lockdown. You are not allowed to work – and this state of affairs persists, with no end in sight. And this limbo is true for all refugees. All those Syrians displaced by war. There are some 70 million refugees in the world, just over half displaced within a country, and just under half displaced in another country and registered with the UN. When people in rich countries in Europe and in the USA whine and moan and complain, and when their leaders can use this nurtured self-pity amongst their people about having “to put up with” refugees, it makes you smile. You might think it were the USA or France or the UK that has the most refugees. But no. Per 1,000 population, here is the list of the top five hosts for refugees: Lebanon (164 per thousand), Jordan (71 per thousand), Turkey (43 per thousand), Uganda (32 per thousand) and Chad (28 per thousand). No exactly rich countries. And rare to hear them complaining. Here is the list of countries by sheer number of refugees hosted: Turkey (3.5 million refugees live in Turkey), then come Pakistan and Uganda with 1.5 million or so each, then comes Sudan and only then Germany, as rich country, with over a million.
These people, refugees world-wide, live in endless lockdown. So, one of the things we must remember as we come out of our puny lockdown, as we emerge from our difficulty of not having been able to go to work and earn a living for a few months, is that the world, including us, must address this problem of people being kept under permanent lockdown i.e. refugees.
And the place to start, to symbolize the struggle for all refugees, is with full rights for the Palestinian people. Their entire country has been continually colonized by the Israeli State, even as the decolonization of the world was being undertaken and this has happened and is today still happening, with the full political and military might of the USA backing Israel in its anachronistic reproduction of an apartheid social project. Trump and Netanyahu are now in a trio with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is notorious for having master-minded the murder and dismembering of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Turkey. But, then again, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is about to see a massive social upheaval that may make the Arab Spring look small – what with oil revenue so unstable. And the people of the USA have the chance now of not only getting rid of Trump as President but of mobilizing for a better society in general, where people will no longer be homeless, have to queue for food parcels, and have to work in three jobs.
The bit we can do in Mauritius as allies of the American working people is to get the USA military out of Diego Garcia, and get the whole of Chagos integrated into an egalitarian state where each of the island spaces has equal weight, and each human being equal freedom and justice in a society without a separate ruling class that owns and controls everything for us.
So, we have a chance today, as we come out of lockdown, to fight for change. We have seen that things do not have to be as they are. They can be better than they are. Everywhere. That is the spirit of internationalism, as Labour Day dawns tomorrow. And as we remember that we can, one day, all be essential workers, and we can all work less. We don’t need non-essential bosses at all. We just have to get organized properly to control, together, the capital the bosses have grabbed hold of. We need to organize to control capital, and land, in a democratic way. Not easy. But not impossible either. We have seen that what seemed impossible is not impossible. So, let us move forward.
for LALIT, a personal view.