Bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari makes a compelling argument about the propagation of social stratification in his scientific evolution hit book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The fear of pollution, he explains, revolves around the concepts of purity and impurity of human beings, harnessed by dominant people of different societies who were against sharing resources. Realizing the immorality of their selfish intentions, they found creative means to justify discrimination against others, and maintain power and privilege. This deserving vs. undeserving conditioning, the historian argues, took care of sowing seeds of fear, hatred and deprival of marginalized groups for millennia to come.
Image by Sumy Sadurni for AFP via ifex.org
The thought of harmful substances or in recent times, viruses, liberally spreading is a scary one. It's especially petrifying during this Covid-19 era, as we might all be experiencing. With the fear comes anxiety, panic, hopelessness and sometimes, even a lapse in judgment. In April when Uganda started registering cross-border cargo truck drivers as daily Covid-19 cases, Twitter erupted with a call to #StopTruckDrivers. With the hashtag were arguments that if it wasn't for the drivers making entry into the country, we would have a better chance at defeating the virus. And perhaps there was a truth in that, albeit conjectural. If the registered cases rise from a two week long double digit to a two-week streak of positive tests, all from one group of people, 'they're bringing us the Corona,' aren't they? Not to mention, when a country like ours with an indisposed health system is hit by a deadly flu that has brought developed countries to their knees, panic is inevitable. The Twitter campaign was stopped in its tracks by the President who in a subsequent national address warned that stopping cargo was, "suicidal" (for the economy) and the calls to stop drivers were "anger eclipsed by knowledge."
Both the campaigners and the President did not seem to have factored in the humanity of these essential workers. As with every case of discrimination, there’s disproportionate assignment of blame for even the most out-of-hand occurrences. You see, the same way that the coronavirus is not a “Chinese virus,” truck drivers were not “bringing” the virus. Not quite. In fact, should it be argued that they were, we would dig a shallow pit into events just a few months back and come to the conclusion that it was the traveler from Dubai that “brought the virus”. Even then we wouldn’t say for certain unless the entire population was tested and even then we won’t know who was the first patient. More importantly, there’s a reason ethics dictate that patients be protected; and not chastised or exploited. Covid-19 patients are not malicious carriers of this virus bomb, neither are they mere pawns to keep the economy afloat.
Anyone who has been on a 12-hour bus ride knows just how much fatigue the journey dumps on the body. This exhaustion is probably twice as much if you have to drive a truck for that long. As per the standard operating procedures, the drivers who normally stop to eat, rest and freshen up in remote town lodges didn't have that option as most lodging and eating facilities were closed at the time. As a result of these Covid-19 imposed closures, the drivers had been directed to sleep in their vehicles. There was no known plan for alternative restaurants where they could get food at least. So, of course they made pit-stops in towns to get food - one has to eat to survive. Regardless of what the risk to the nation might be, you'll agree a meal and a bed are more comfortable than the reclined front seat of a cargo vehicle. And why shouldn't one exhausted driver take that option if as we've come to learn about ourselves post-lockdown, we choose convenience too. You know, strutting down crowded streets with our mask-clad chins, risking spread. So should an unsuspecting truck driver carrying the Covid-19 virus come into contact with a handful of people as they gallivant through border towns, it would be careless on account of flouting guidelines, yes. It would also, unlike for many of us who refuse to wear masks, be to survive after deprivation of the most basic of needs - food and rest. Not to mention, a huge chunk of fault lies with the health authorities in their country which did not test them prior to the trip.
Trucks on the Kenya-Uganda border, image via fes.de
The Twitter hashtag #StopTruckDrivers by a panicked citizenry was laden with insults, blame and stigmatization. "They're going to kill us." "Why don't we close them that side so they don't bring their corona to us?" Media editors had a field day with the headlines: "Truck drivers drive more cases into Uganda" and "truck drivers become a headache in fight against Covid-19." A ministry sponsored TV ad featuring a popular sex worker ran, dissuading young women from getting close to these truck drivers. Elsewhere, ministry officials reached out to travelers from high risk countries and tested them in the comfort of their homes where they quarantined.
In all these seemingly harmless acts and words, we collectively discriminated against a group of people who like us deserve safety from this brutal pandemic. Now, the narrative that cross-border truck drivers are virus carriers might or might not hold. If it does, they will be regarded as socially repulsive for a long time. Regardless of the result, our actions stemmed from what Harari aptly describes as a "fear of pollution."