Since the Covid-19 crisis was declared a global pandemic by the WHO, two major ostensibly prophylactic “remedies” have been proposed to the world: i) social distancing which triggered global “shelter-in-place” orders, often reinforced by curfews and ii) washing hands with flowing water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
I got thinking particularly of the “WASH” factor in the proposed remedies. I was reminded of the prior and enduring crisis of WASH: (i.e. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) a crisis that haunts many impoverished rural communities in the global south and in sprawling mega slums euphemistically called “informal settlements” such as Kibera in Kenya. In these communities, clean water to drink, leave alone wash hands is a pipe dream. In such communities, a bottle of Coke is cheaper than a bottle of water. Hygiene perennially eludes them since they lack proper sanitation (e.g. clean toilets.) And so , as I contemplated the proposal to wash hands, I wondered what sense this proposal makes in such communities, even as I watched with appreciation and gratitude as concerned advocacy groups (such as SHOFCO in Kibera) spring into action to try and help communities comply by setting up hand washing stations on strategic places in the congested slums. Lining up to wash hands however often compromised the first remedy, social distancing: A paradox and a dilemma thus emerging.
A second issue that haunted my mind is that washing hands is not only mandated, one is supposed to wash hands frequently with flowing clean water for at least 20 seconds. This , I thought as I went to wash my hands yet again is easy and doable, particularly for those like me who are privileged to have clean water flowing through our taps. A simple solution… (Well, maybe not in Flint, Michigan.)
Simple, that is, if you do not consider how much clean water is literally going down the drain as millions around the world fulfill the mandate to wash hands multiple times (while singing songs like “Happy Birthday” to ensure 20 seconds) and to protect themselves from Covid-19.
It occurred to me that that is a lot of water even if only people washed their hands only once per day! I tried to measure how much water would flow down the drain If I washed for only 2 seconds… and that was already a lot of water. Now, considering the prior and enduring global crisis of water (see documentary Blue Gold) a crisis which has led ethicists like Vandana Shiva to predict that whereas previous recent wars have been fought over oil (Black Gold), future wars will be “Water Wars.” I wondered at the paradox and emerging dilemma. Might today’s solution become part of tomorrow’s exacerbated crisis of water? In our efforts to wash away Covid-19, are we washing away the cumulative gains that we have found from past efforts to conserve and diffuse the water crisis, including for example taking one minutes showers. As I continue to reflect on this emerging paradox, I wonder whether and hope that someone is counting and measuring how much water is going down the drain and potentially worsening the global crisis of water.
With regards to the shelter-in-place orders, I think that for many who are privileged to have shelter in the first place, this too has been an easy solution (“cabin fever” notwithstanding). But what about those who did not have shelter in the first place? (the millions of un-housed people, street families, those on the high seas en route to seek asylum or those in refugee camps. Even more paradoxically those whose homes have been literally washed away by floods linked to climate change?) As I write this, many in Kenya, the US and Bangladesh, etc. have been displaced by typhoons and floods and their homes and livelihoods washed away. The mandate to “shelter-in-place” sounds like a contradiction in terms… and a factual improbability.
And so as I continue to wash my hands dutifully, with soap (quite a privilege!) my mind is awash with a sense of overall paradox in our quest for solutions to Covid-19, admittedly “a wicked problem” that defies easy solutions… I am reminded too of how complex life is and that there is an enduring myth of the right answer… Yesterday’s solutions become today’s problems.
Further food for thought on this topic came from an unexpected source: two colleagues emailed me (separately). One was an invitation to tune in and listen to a recent sermon entitled “A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery.” The other invited me to tune in to a musical piece entitled “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” Just as I was preparing to tune in to these thought-provoking videos, breaking news interrupted my thought: yet another black man had been killed… in broad daylight and with many eyewitnesses.
These videos are a grim reminder that whereas Covid-19 is a biological virus, there are other preexisting, metaphorical viruses which are enduringly lethal. These are the virus of racism and other intersecting viruses, sexism, classism and ageism. These viruses cumulatively work together to make Covid-19, as they made HIV/AIDS, not just a pandemic but a syndemic.
As I continue to reflect on the question of hand washing, I wonder, what soap is there to wash away the virus of racism? or sexism? or classism?
All this talk of hand washing reminds me of the (in)famous hand washing , two thousand years ago. We read of this handwashing in the Passion narratives, i.e. Pilate’s handwashing.
His washing was symbolic as he claimed that he had done all he could on behalf of Jesus whom he had found innocent of the charges of “treason… yet his claim that he was not accountable for his death was made in spite of the fact that he had tortured him and mocked him.
And so as I continue dutifully to wash my hands, I can’t help but wonder about the symbolic implications of my hand washing? How similar or different is my handwashing to that of Pilate… this is an enduring point of discernment and reflection for which I have no immediate answer.
More recently, as I wash my hands for the umpteenth time, the mother in me is heartbroken, as I contemplate the last words of the latest black man (George Floyd) to die in the hands of police. Three words, which I wish I could wash away but which I can’t, and maybe shouldn’t. Three words which like a terrible echo continually in my heart… “I Can’t Breathe!”
Racism is a global pandemic. While it may have flared up this time (and multiple times) in the USA, it manifests globally. We can consider, for example how Kenyans have been treated in China, and even in Kenya, by Chinese. We can see how Chinese people have been treated by the rest of the world as they were accused of fostering the novel Coronavirus. We also observe flare-ups of xenophobic attacks on Africans by African, channeling internalised racism. Much greater recognition needs to be accorded to the systemic factors which underlie this racism, if global transformative action is to work.
NB: This was written on the Eve of Pentecost, May 29th 2020. In the meantime, the murder of black men by American police has not abated, despite the almost global Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
 This is an intentional cross reference to the “Seven Words of Jesus on The Cross.” This time commemorating and reminding us of the last words of those whose lives have been cut short by police. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=od6DMd3sP4s