Souls beyond borders

Souls beyond borders

In all my years working in international development and humanitarian relief, and in all the words I’ve ever penned in an attempt to make people feel connected to human stories and situations in faraway places, I could never have been as effective as COVID has in a span of mere weeks in facing people with their shared humanity and the irrelevance of borders.

Whether we’re ready or not, it’s time to face our collective indifference… that sense of discomfort in looking squarely at injustice, poverty or crisis which makes one turn away and try to avert their attention. Indifference is, clearly this time, not going to keep you “safe” or make the problem go away.

As I see it, COVID is challenging us to embrace each other. To embrace the idea that my health depends on your health, and yours on mine. That my actions and choices impact you, and yours reach me too. So, in that way, I’m grateful for it, even though it is a brutal teacher.

And it surely is a brutal teacher…

Consider… Canada’s Battered Women’s Support Services has seen a 300% increase in calls because of COVID; because abuse and violence thrive in isolation and silence. In Nova Scotia, the first person to die a COVID-related death was not someone who contracted the virus. It was a woman murdered by her abusive, male partner, with whom she was forced into isolation. But this isn’t unique to Canada – the UN recently reported that Lebanon and Malaysia, for example, have seen the number of calls to helplines double; in China they have tripled, and in Australia, search engines are showing the highest rates of searches for “domestic violence help” in the past five years.

Consider… in Ethiopia, COVID-related travel restrictions have meant that women all over the country are no longer able to reach health services for delivery or post-natal care. The Marie Stopes International maternity center in Adama, roughly 100kms from the capital, Addis Ababa, currently receives more than 10 calls a day from women unable to reach the center to give birth. This trend is of particular concern in poor areas with no ambulances and where traveling even small distances can be difficult. It means that many women, unable to arrange transportation even for planned Caesarean sections, are forced to give birth at home where medical emergencies cannot be treated.

Consider… in India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan (the four most populous low and middle income countries in the world already struggling with inadequate health services), mothers and newborns are destined to experience devastating COVID-related consequences. Estimates from what was learned after Ebola show significant increases in maternal and newborn deaths across these four countries over the next year. Specifically, it is expected that there will be as many as 31,980 additional maternal deaths, 395,440 additional newborn deaths, and 338,760 additional stillbirths. That’s a 31% increase in mortality across these four countries alone.

All this is hard to digest, but we’re really only scratching the surface. Hospital records during the past two months all over Canada, the US and Europe show spikes in all the same areas… child molestation, spousal abuse, alcoholism, anxiety, depression, suicide. Additionally, in all these places, education has dropped off and economies are stalling.

Though these issues are referred to as “secondary effects” of COVID, the truth is that these issues do not originate with COVID, they have been exacerbated by COVID. The underlying conditions which perpetuate and support these problematic “secondary effects” were already waiting for our attention and compassion. Our societal priorities (materialism, consumerism, egoism) have caused, perpetuated and then distracted us from these underlying conditions.

In other words, the problems are deep-rooted, multifaceted, and they are much bigger than COVID itself. So, where do we go from here?

It seems to me that for the first time, it is clear that “family” is not a circle defined by blood or geography – your survival (and the survival of your loved ones) depends on your understanding that you are connected to and dependent on the health of everybody else, even those you don’t know and will never meet. Your family, albeit precious, is no more precious or deserving of health and safety than the abused woman in Nova Scotia, the Ethiopian woman delivering her baby at home, or the Indonesian man who watches his wife bleed to death after giving birth.

Now is the time to let your heart break open; to think widely about all those who truly need nutritious food, drinkable water, clean air, good health and quality care. Social isolation and distancing will NOT save us. The opposite is true… Social harmony and collective, international community is what is required now.

Everything is connected. Every action and consequence ripples around the world and is experienced, ultimately, by everyone.

Unfortunately, not everyone wants to hear this message, and some call it “idealistic”. But isn’t idealism where it (something new) really begins? If, in your individual choice, you choose for something greater, based on a deeper value… doesn’t that change the outcome?

Consider pesticides, pollution, persecution, hatred, oppression. If you choose these or accept them or deny them, you have already chosen their consequences (for yourself and everyone else). But if you consciously choose a different path, possibly an unknown, uncertain and inconvenient path, based on a higher ideal, then you’ve chosen that outcome too. And that is a very different world. For you and everyone else.

The fact is, global challenges such as the climate emergency, mass human migrations, and the spread of disease will never be contained by lines on a map. These shared human experiences don’t respect borders, and neither should our love. Neither should our desire to uplift, empower and improve the conditions of life for the planet and our human family.

As hard as it is to appreciate, we have been given an opportunity through COVID. COVID is challenging us to work together; to build bridges to a new way of being in the world. To reverse our priorities such that we finally value humanity over economy, spirit over material, and compassion over pity. The only question remaining that can shed light (on the darkness imposed and the darkness revealed) is: What do we do next?

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world… And ready to fight for it.”
~Arundhati Roy