Humanity, united, will win war against Covid-19, but will we win the peace too? – Susan Dalgety

An atheist praying on Fisherrow sands, Muslims during Ramadan, people in a country with fewer than two dozen ventilators, are all facing a common enemy, Covid-19, writes Susan Dalgety
People wash their hands as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus on the last day of full gatherings at Saint Don Bosco Catholic Parish Church in Lilongwe, Malawi, in March (Picture: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images)People wash their hands as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus on the last day of full gatherings at Saint Don Bosco Catholic Parish Church in Lilongwe, Malawi, in March (Picture: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images)
People wash their hands as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus on the last day of full gatherings at Saint Don Bosco Catholic Parish Church in Lilongwe, Malawi, in March (Picture: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images)

The shrine emerged slowly, as if from the sea. Just as lockdown began, someone planted a large piece of driftwood on the Fisherrrow sands, next to Musselburgh’s small harbour.

This single, gnarled sentinel was joined by another, then another. Five weeks into the new normal and there are around 100 of these standing sticks, some as tall as trees, others more modest, all facing the sea. Silent, yet eloquent.

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People stop on their daily walk to admire the new art installation. It regularly pops up on Instagram and Facebook. It has become as much a part of our community life as the ancient mussel beds that give the former fishing town its name.

“It’s like lighting a candle in church,” I said, somewhat theatrically, last weekend as I planted our branch. My husband smiled. We are both atheists, but ritual still matters. “It is,” he replied, so giving me permission to say a silent prayer.

Community matters too, now more than ever. We may be locked in our own homes with only our closest family – or ourselves – for company, but we need the comfort of others. Human beings are not solitary animals. Since the beginning of time, we have gathered round the communal fire, sharing stories of our day.

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Social media offers some relief from the loneliness of lockdown. Twitter is as full of angry people and fake accounts as it ever was, but sharing outrage at Donald Trump’s latest crazy uttering is strangely comforting.

So too are the carefully curated pictures of friends’ and family’s daily walks or their latest culinary creation which dominate Facebook and Instagram, even if no-one posts pictures of fighting children or burnt cupcakes.

And WhatsApp allows conversations to spark, almost as if we were in the pub, instead of under the covers at 5.30pm. Gossip is gossip, whether told over a gin and tonic or by smartphone.

Malawi braces for ‘rich people’s disease’

It also lets me stay in touch with my friends and colleagues in Malawi, 5,000 miles away. Coronavirus has just arrived there, with only 33 cases so far and three deaths, but the country is bracing itself for the virus to burn its way through the 18 million population.

Widespread disease is nothing new to the people of Malawi. Malaria kills thousands every year, one million live with HIV, and cholera regularly breaks out in crowded townships.

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But the “rich people’s disease”, as coronavirus has been dubbed, seems more threatening. Hardly surprising in a country where there are fewer than two dozen ventilators and just a handful of intensive care beds.

A lockdown, modelled on the one we are enduring just now, would also mean starvation for many in a country where people buy what food they can afford every day.

“We have no fridges, no money to stockpile. If we cannot leave our homes, we cannot earn money, our people will go hungry,” messages Harry Mnyenyewbe, a councillor in northern Malawi.

And the impact on Africa’s already fragile economy will be just as devastating. The World Bank predicts the continent will have its first recession in 25 years, its valuable tourism industry has collapsed, and trade may shrink by as much as one-third.

“We are very worried,” says Issa Jafali from his village in the south east of the country. He is helping the local chiefs prepare people for social distancing, an alien concept in communities where people still sit together every day, sharing stories of their day and of their ancestors.

“We are also encouraging people to wash hands when they return from the market and other places,” says Issa. “But it is difficult when most of us do not have running water and soap is so expensive.”

Ramadan prayers at home

Issa was also preparing for Ramadan, which began on Thursday night after sundown. Ramadan is the holiest of months in the Islamic calendar, marking the time when the Koran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. During Ramadan, Muslims fast for 30 days, with no food or drink during daylight. When the sun sets, families and friends meet for the traditional Iftar meal, to break the day’s fast. Many go to their local mosque to pray. It is a sacred month, a time of reflection and community.

But not this year. Ramadan under lockdown will be like no other. Harun Khan, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, told the Muslim community that in 2020, Ramadan will be celebrated on social media.

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“The message for this Ramadan is clear: fast and pray at home and share Ramadan digitally,” he said. “This is the way to worship Allah and help save lives.”

Glasgow MSP Anas Sarwar is determined that this year’s celebrations will be as meaningful as any other.

“Ramadan will be slightly different as it means no breaking fasts with extended family or friends, no nightly trips to the mosque,” he told me (by WhatsApp of course).

“Instead people will be expressing their faith by donating generously to local and international causes, volunteering to support the isolated or vulnerable, or organising free food deliveries.

“People, understandably, associate Ramadan with fasting,” he adds, “but actually it is just as much about charity, community and family.”

Read what Bill Gates has to say

Ritual. Charity. Community. Family. Basic human values that matter as much now as they did 1,400 years ago when the Koran was first revealed, or 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross. Or when women first cooked on firewood, gathering family and friends together to share the daily meal.

Philanthropist Bill Gates published an 11-page memo about the pandemic on Thursday, around the same time as Nicola Sturgeon revealed the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 “framework”.

I prefer Gates’ jargon-free paper. He has no political axe to grind. No Westminster government to wind up. His is not a partisan pandemic.

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“The coronavirus pandemic pits all of humanity against the virus,” he writes. “This is like a world war, except in this case, we’re all on the same side.”

Atheist. Muslim. Christian. Scot. English. European. African. Male. Female. Young. Old. Rich. Poor.

For the first time in my living memory, perhaps the first time in modern times, we are all on the same side, fighting a common enemy.

We will, eventually, win the war. It is what we do with the peace that matters.

You can read Bill Gates’ memo ‘The First Modern Pandemic’ here:



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