‘Dear World, How is the Lockdown?’ Gaza: Takeaways From the Coronavirus

Using humble means, a refugee worker sterilizes the streets in Al-Shati refugee camp. (Photo: Fawzi Mahmoud, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Benay Blend

During the early days of Covid-19 lockdowns, a variety of social media posts from Gaza, such as the one above, appeared from the blockaded Gaza Strip. Ranging from satire to “schadenfreude,” as Zainah El-Haroun observes, these dispatches emerged from a population under Israeli-enforced confinement. For years Gazans have lived this way, so the irony is not lost on them that the borders they have fought to open might now contribute to denying entry to the virus.

Referring to the abundance of “black humor,” Dpha al-Sadi, a 28-year-old school teacher, informed Middle East Eye that “almost every Palestinian in Gaza has gone through a life-changing experience during Israel’s military attacks or due to the suffocating life conditions in the Strip,” so it seems “normal” to her that their response would be sardonic.

Are world-wide lockdowns similar at all to that suffered by Gazans for many years? The short answer, as Nada Elia notes, is “no.” While the rest of the world is living with insecurity, “social distancing,” “sheltering in place,” and shortages of necessary goods, there are no accompanying bombs, white phosphorous, or snipers shooting from across a border fence.

What other lessons are to be learned from Palestine and/or the current pandemic crisis? In a recent article, Jonathan Cook lists several takeaways from the virus. Most importantly, Cook declares, we have always been “bound together” in a “miraculous web of life on our planet,” not islands in a stream. Moreover, Cook continues, contrary to popular opinion, Western capitalist societies are not “the most efficient ways of organizing ourselves,” a fallacy “laid bare” by the current crisis.

Yet another Facebook meme, involves a takeoff on crisis hotlines: To all quarantined Israelis who are “restless in isolation. Not sure how to cope” — please call the following hotline to reach “highly- experienced, Gazan enclosure experts”— “1-800-266-KARMA.”

The message here is clear: Due to years of Israeli-imposed suffering, Gazans can weather any storm, including potential confinement inflicted this time by an epidemic. Beware, though, those who enforced the human-imposed isolation, for that crime might backfire in time.

Indeed, there is a certain amount of blowback, karmic justice from various political actions mostly on the part of the United States. For example, Keyvan Shafiei relates that since the outbreak of the pandemic, there have been 14,000 reported coronavirus cases in Iran, leading to a death toll of approximately 900.

The situation is a direct result partly of economically punitive measures, imposed by the U.S. and its allies, that have stymied the flow of basic humanitarian and medical goods into Iran. Because the pandemic is “a crisis without borders,” Shafiei claims, concerned citizens within the United States should lobby Congress to lift the brutal sanctions on Iran and other countries so that innocent people do not pay the price for our country’s politics.

Moreover, as Kathy Kelly explains, as conditions worsen in Iran, Afghans are returning to their country, thereby weakening Afghanistan’s already battered health care and food distribution systems. Not only will Afghans suffer, as they have been doing for decades, but U.S. troops stationed there will also be at risk to themselves and others if they are ordered home.

Cuba, also a target long-time target of U.S. sanctions, appears to be leading the battle against the pandemic. According to Alan Macleod, it has been partnering with China since 2003 to produce an antiviral drug, Interferon Alpha 2b, that boosts the human immune system to fight the disease. Like Palestinians, who are admired for their sumoud (steadfastness) in the face of adversity, Cuba developed its own pharmaceutical industry because of U.S. restrictions.

There is a danger in romanticizing resilience, both in Palestine and in Cuba, because no one should be expected to stay strong without ever breaking down, especially children who are often denied a childhood in this way.

Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from steadfastness that is founded on cooperation rather than the “notion of rugged individualism” that Tess Taylor explains has led Americans to this brink. “We are all linked. There really are no islands. There really are no gates,” Taylor says, a lesson that Americans might (or might not) learn.

While Sol Henrik Bockelie relates that Cuban medical students are conducting door-to-door community screenings for the virus, Americans have been slow to recognize what Taylor calls our “wider fault lines” that were indeed pre-pandemic. “Because we’ve tolerated a mediocre, partial, inefficient and expensive healthcare system,” she explains, “we’ve veered towards an economics that allows some people to stockpile and privatize” their right to services, while others are left without, wondering, for example, what has happened to the toilet paper.

“COVID-19 isn’t an individual problem,” declares members of The Red Nation (TRN), an Indigenous activist group based in New Mexico but spreading throughout the country. “How we respond must be collective, with human dignity and love. We urge people to share both materially and emotionally with those who are more vulnerable. Just as regular people have responded to crises in the past, we must reach deep beyond what capitalism has forced us to become and come together, physically distant but socially united.”

“By building the collective capacity to fight back—and win,” concludes TRN, all will “weather the uncertainty and danger as comrades and relatives” in a shared struggle.

If Covid-19 is but the first wave of novel diseases that climate change has wrought, what lessons can be learned in the aftermath? Listening to colonized people—in Palestine, in the Americas, and around the world—who have been on the front lines for decades provides some answers. “Now is the time for us to organize and build power,” writes TRN:

“In this time of great danger, we need human solidarity — the politics of love, not the politics of hate. We must respond with our hearts and all of our humanity, not just to stop the most catastrophic effects of COVID-19, but to end this inhumane and criminal capitalist system once and for all.”

Is Gaza really “the safest place in the world,” as Tayssir Balbissi shared on Twitter? Because of the blockade, travel difficulties and isolation, it is hard for the coronavirus to cross its boundaries. Those same circumstances, though, in reality, represent a “medieval siege,” writes Nada Elia, that has gone on for 13 years, “with no relief in sight.”

From adversity, Gazans have developed what Ramzy Baroud calls the “essence of being Palestinian,” perhaps illustrated best in the “collective psychology” behind the Great Return March. During the weekly protests, carried on for nearly two years, Baroud attests that “hundreds of thousands of besieged people” took their place as agents of their own future, a stance that will serve them well in these times.

Despite their isolation, Palestinians also understand the value of solidarity beyond their borders. In Bethlehem, where the Coronavirus is most concentrated, Palestinian soldiers raised Italian flags in a show of sympathy with beleaguered Italy reeling under the impact of the virus. Perhaps this is the most important takeaway from the pandemic.

After 9/ 11, America received the sympathy of the world but soon squandered it by invading other countries on the pretext of fighting terror. While the American government turned its country’s suffering into vengeance, other people, no less besieged but who have dealt with adversity more creatively and collectively, are faring better, a takeaway that remains to be seen Americans will ever learn.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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