Spare a thought

February 25, 2022 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Spare a thought.

Spare a thought for the long queues of forlorn souls, lining up in solemn, groveling silence, as they trudge towards having their noses pricked and throats swabbed, in identification of an enemy – an enemy that exists within, as opposed to from the outside.

Spare a thought for those who are driven to the edge of the abyss of darkness, driven to their wits’ ends, by the weeks after weeks of isolation – self-imposed or otherwise. Consider, for one, the woman whose screeches for help reflect a deeply embedded yearning for freedom – from the distance that divides her from the rest of us, Penny’s Bay from the city proper.

Spare a thought for the caged-home tenant who has forced herself to go homeless – to sleep rough on the streets of Hong Kong, in order to avoid passing the bug onto her neighbours. Twenty souls, packed into crammed boxes and crevices, in turn separated by paper-thin walls, as thick and dauntingly sullen as granite.

It’s easy to think that politics is glamorous, that it must be iterated and developed through the slogans and phrases chanted by many on the streets of this city – yet all this neglects the fact that to be able to walk the corridors of political power, to traverse our terrain’s streets and alleyways whilst disseminating politics, is itself a form of privilege.

Those who lack the most, who are deprived the most, are also those who remain perennially invisible in our discourses. I want to draw our attention to three groups of such individuals, who have been particularly adversely affected by the ongoing onslaught and pandemic. Politicians want us to believe that they exist only through the carefully curated and compellingly crafted frames and pitches that they appropriate for self-serving gains.

I want you to think otherwise.

First, think of the impoverished – the ultra-poor who are languishing in unemployed silence, idle not out of choice (that’s what the conservative tell you, they assert and slap on labels like “work-shy” and “lazy” to discredit the voices of those who deserve better), but out of choicelesness. Single mothers, new arrivals and migrants, asylum seekers, individuals with stories to tell and lives to live, stripped down to the raw identity of “caged home residents”, stripped now further – bare and naked to the invasive searchlights of public health – to conjoin with nothingness. The politics of invisibility has never been stronger. The politics of virtue signalling, on the other hand, ebbs and wanes. Think of those whose families count on them to be the bread-winner, only to find that the bread is rotten and there is no bread left in the markets. Think of those whose livelihoods are deeply intertwined with industries that have all but gone into the void as a result of the economic downturn.

I want you to think of them, and ask – not what we can do for them, not how bad you feel about these folks (which I’m sure you and I would convey through eloquent, grandiloquent prose at the dinner table), but, how on Earth did we get here? How did we let this happen?

Second, think of those who have been told to stay home – to stay where they are, to stay at designated spaces and camps, to stay where they are authorised, to stay. To stay because they must fight. To fight because the virus is bad. The virus is bad because the virus is bad. I do not mean to dispel the argument that eliminating COVID-19 is of utmost importance. But it is equally vital that we uphold individuals’ mental health and psychological wellbeing in so doing. Lockdowns have devastating psychological costs. Mandatory testing – with repercussions for those who are caught positive (note the nomenclature here), too. We need more systemic solutions that genuinely provide financial and psychosocial relief for those who find themselves asphyxiated and buckling under the pressure of endless isolation periods and quarantine. Think of what we’re missing in our status quo public health systems – whether it be community healthcare, grassroots doctors, or psychiatry that is user-oriented, there remains much to be seen to, and much to be desired in our otherwise largely robust (yet crumbling) public health system today.

So think of them – but also think of the real, quantitative impacts that flow from such psychological devastation. The damage is real, and the repercussions enduring.

Third, and finally, I’d like us all to think of the victims. The victims who have died, not by choice or neglect, not by ineptitude or uselessness, but by the fact that we could have done so much more to tackle this Omicron surge – pushing up vaccination rates, providing real support for public and private medical practitioners, and allowing folks to abide by a clear, unambiguous, and well-thought-out set of guidelines… And yet, it strikes us that we have not.

And it’s easy to want to fault the government – but it’s equally intellectually lazy to do so. We’ve all got dirty hands in this – we’re all complicit. So spare a thought for yourselves, for ourselves, and on the things we have lost to the fire (yes, that is a Bastille reference).

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Assistant Professor, HKU