As we enter the month of June and the coronavirus is still very much an unwelcome guest, we are beginning to see some easing of the restrictions that governments and medical professionals are either recommending or imposing upon us. Here in New York City, the weather is sunny and warm but in the last few days there has been rage and anger in the streets. On top of a worldwide pandemic, police brutality has resurfaced, most egregiously with the death of an unarmed African American man by brutal knee to neck choking while he lay handcuffed and subdued by three officers while another looked on apathetically. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has unleashed a wave of protests throughout every major city in America and now around the world.
Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe’’ – now echoed as a slogan by protesters everywhere – isn’t just a reference to COVID-19 but a to greater and more rampant disease that has existed in America since its very creation: unchecked and systemic racism. It is perhaps even more acute now due to lockdowns and a general fear of the unknown, and this has made the public reaction to the killing of George Floyd so visceral and immediate.
There is supposedly an African proverb that says “A child who isn’t embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth”. I don’t know the accuracy or origins of the saying, but its logic has been used to explain the anger and ensuing violence that has erupted. The African American population has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They disproportionately are employed in jobs that do not permit them to work from home, often exposing them to higher risks of infection, and when they do succumb to the disease, their insurance coverage tends to be woefully inadequate for diagnosis and treatment. Add to that generally poorer health conditions and death rates linked to co-morbidity, and the picture gets particularly ugly. The death of George Floyd is just another event on a continuum of trauma which they have suffered for centuries, often at the hands of those who are meant to protect society, but its timing has made it a powerful tinderbox when there is much other kindling on the pile.
Maybe men simply cannot empathize as well as women. What the world needs now is not only love but leadership, kindness, empathy and the ability to hit a reset button, through which inequalities and injustices can be addressed and resolved. Any Arab woman care to step in?
The reaction to both these issues by the man in charge has been childish and unhelpful to say the least, such as cutting funding to the World Health Organization, sanctioning China or gassing people for a photo opportunity with a Bible. With so much at stake for the country and for humanity, one would have hoped for a more positive and timely response. Arresting the officers who cruelly and savagely suffocated George Floyd to death should have been immediate, but instead we witnessed a period of hesitation and inaction, during which rage was allowed to fill the vacuum. The repercussions are only beginning to be felt as the protests grow, alongside accompanying violence from both criminal elements and a small but meaningful numbers of law enforcement officers. As usual, opportunists on both extremes of the political spectrum have taken advantage of the chaos and discord, dividing the country. There seems to be little attempt at unifying the national at the highest levels of leadership.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, the economy continues to crumble. The wanton theft by the political elites has left the population not only hungry but also unable to access their own money. Foreign currency withdrawal restrictions have been in place for months now. The country is frozen in place with unemployment soaring and a general malaise prevails. Next door in Syria, the president has turned on his cousin and accused him of malfeasance and of tax evasion which in itself is comical as the family considers the state coffers their own property and his cousin was their proxy. The last thing that battered country needs is a power struggle which could further fracture the country and bring the bloodshed into the hitherto calmer oasis of the capital.
My mood today isn’t particularly upbeat and isn’t meant to be. Our collective safety as global citizens is threatened by a pandemic, civil unrest, never-ending political overreach by so-called elected leaders who seem to bask in illiberality.
In England, a senior advisor to the Prime Minister took it upon himself to break the lockdown rules to visit members of his family on the other side of the country, and was caught in the act. He weaved an incredulous tale too long to recount here as he sat in the garden of 10 Downing Street – a highly unusual venue for a ministerial aide to be giving an interview, yet perhaps not unexpected given his inflated view of his power. Despite the public furor and objections from within his own cabinet – culminating in a junior mister’s resignation – the Prime Minister continues to support his vaticinator, claiming the letter of the law wasn’t broken. Again, the public anger as elsewhere is directed at the sense of entitlement demonstrated by some, who ignore norms and rules to which they expect others to submit.
I would like see people like Jacinda Ardern ruling the world. The New Zealand Prime Minister handled the pandemic in her country swiftly and efficiently. She had demonstrated similar resolve when a mass shooter indiscriminately killed 51 Muslims at a local mosque, acting swiftly to condemn the actions and introduce new firearms laws. “Owning a firearm is a privilege not a right”, Ardern said in a statement that if uttered in America would consign her to the dustbin of political history. Recently, she continued a live interview with coolness, remaining almost serene as a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook around her. New Zealand is now down to its last new COVID-19 case and the last recorded death was almost two weeks ago, and more than 1,100 people have recovered from the virus.
Lebanon's economy continues to crumble. The wanton theft by the political elites has left the population not only hungry but also unable to access their savings. Foreign currency withdrawal restrictions have been in place for months now. The country is frozen in place with unemployment soaring and a general malaise prevails.
Maybe men simply cannot empathize as well as women. What the world needs now is not only love but leadership, kindness, empathy and the ability to hit a reset button, through which inequalities and injustices can be addressed and resolved. A sign carried by many protesters read: “Stop killing us”. It is high time to stop blaming the other sides or one’s political predecessors and actually begin addressing what lies behind such a tragic request. Change is mandatory, not optional.
I’d like to end by quoting a beautiful song by Sam Cooke which is often used by social or political movements seeking equality and freedom, especially by the Black Movement in America:
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon' come, oh yes, it will
It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die
'Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
Rest in power, George Floyd.