Pandemic Journal: New York Review of Books

9:23 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

 ARIS, FRANCE—A few days ago, we all became soldiers. French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised speech that we were at war. At war against a virus that spread exponentially, causing an unprecedented public health crisis across the globe and shutting down one country after the other. So that’s how it went. We collectively accepted the order of the day to stay at home, to buy food, avoid contact even with loved ones, and surrender our freedoms in the name of an overriding civic duty to vanquish the monster. 
Only, Macron isn’t my president and France isn’t my home. 

Over two weeks ago, before the crisis rapidly escalated, I was in Paris on a short trip. I knew, we all did, that we were days away from a shutdown similar to Italy’s. As my attention was on Europe, I failed to see the signs back at home in Morocco. On Friday March 13, rumors started floating around the Moroccan media that flights to the North African kingdom from Europe were going to get cancelled. I quickly booked a flight back home, but on that same day, Morocco banned flights coming from and going to France. For the next three days, every time I tried to book through a new route (via Lisbon, Dublin even), my flight got cancelled. After the third time, and hundreds of dollars wasted, I had no other choice but to stay in Paris. 

“Let the confinement begin,” I wrote in a WhatsApp group to my Columbia friends from graduate school: a chat group made of journalists confined in several parts of the world like Italy, Jordan, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia, and Colombia. We were all getting hit by the same reality, one after another, actively keeping each other informed on what measures were being taken in our countries, and also, trying to get some mental relief from the onslaught of negative news by sharing funny memes and not-so-funny videos of people fighting over toilet paper. 

A couple of days after starting to settle in an apartment that wasn’t mine, in a city where I no longer lived, I woke up to a message from my brother that said, “look at Dad’s Twitter.” There it was, a selfie taken in a café in the center of Marrakesh: he was out of the house—despite several messages from me and my siblings begging our parents to stay home for the weeks to come. I got angry at my parents again, and I told my mother that if something happened to them, none of their three children would be able to get to Morocco (my brother lives in Cameroon, my sister in Paris).  
Our parents’ nonchalance seemed to capture the general state of fighting the virus in Morocco: keeping people indoors would be a huge challenge in a country where people tend to trust fate more than anything to take care of them.  
As I remotely observed the events unfolding at home, a mixed picture started to emerge. Videos of deserted streets and closed shops, sending the message that people understood the gravity of the situation, were contradicted by videos of police officers violently cracking down on those who didn’t follow the rules and who refused to stay home. Friends who once fervently fought for the rule of law and human rights were suddenly sharing videos of cops calling them “Moroccan heroes.”

In spite of this cognitive whiplash, I am amazed myself at the volunteers who are going around the country telling people to stay home and explaining the danger of the virus. I am thankful that the Moroccan government decided to react quickly, but I worry nevertheless.

The number of cases of people infected is officially still not high, but years of neglect of the health-care system means that the country does not have the means to deal with a crisis of this scale. But that’s not all. While these emergency measures are necessary, this moment also carries the painful risk of empowering authoritarian governments. Moroccans have suffered for years from a lack of access to public services and also lack of freedoms. Though I have no idea when I will be able to return home, I have never felt closer to it. ■

you can read the essay on the New York Review of Books' website.

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