The Cost of Human Life
The recent weeks have awakened us to a new and unprecedented reality. Life is at stake, we are told, and life is precious, priceless in fact. The world needs our actions to save life. There is no price for human life. Unless, of course, it’s someone else’s life or someone else’s war. For that, we will not halt our world. We will not close a single shop. We might just change the channel.
The COVID outbreak presented us with a real-life question of how far we are willing to protect and preserve life. For most of us, citizens of the ‘lucky world’, it is the first time such a question is posed not in a metaphysical sense but as one with real-life consequences.
The disruption and the near-complete world halt is due to the drastic measures taken globally to curtail the spread of the virus. Global response is indeed impressive. Border shut down, city lock-down and national emergencies.
As it stands today, the unprecedented global death toll of the new virus has crossed the 200,000 line, still mostly among the elderly. Our measures appear effective in slowing the virus’ progression and “flatten the curve”. But what more are we to do if that death toll were to climb? How about 300,000? What if it was nearing half a million lost human lives?
When it comes to global crises, those numbers are not fictional, nor they are made up. They are very real numbers of real lost lives in the last decade alone. 700,000 is the number of Syrians who lost their lives since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 with a peak of 20,000 a month. Syrian healthcare systems, schools, infrastructures, water, and sanitation system are entirely destroyed. Once busy marketplaces and bazaars in historic city centres have been reduced to rubbles and ashes. Parents buried their children who died by bombs of by drowning in the Mediterranean. The corona virus might spare the lives of children, but war doesn’t. Children like Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach, have a better chance surviving the epidemic than that of surviving human conflict.
Nearly 12 million Syrians were displaced in and outside Syria. At the same time, over 3 million displaced Iraqis fled their homes from the violence of the Islamic State. In Afghanistan, the last decade was the deadliest and the most devastating with tens of thousands of deaths annually. Millions of displaced Afghanis fled to Pakistan, Turkey, and then joined Syrians and Iraqis in their flight to Europe. Our last decade produced more dead and more displaced families than at any other time since WWII .
Yet, and unlike with the corona outbreak, the world completely failed to act. Middle Eastern countries failed to maintain the stability in their region, stop the virus of violence and act to absorb the refugees from neighbouring countries. Unable or unwilling to intervene, Europe stood utterly helpless facing a wave of millions of newcomers who overwhelmed national institutions, governmental services, school and health systems. The decisive actions that we see today were very much absent when it came to Syria, Congo, Yemen or Darfur.
Today, the UN and humanitarian organizations must care for nearly 70 million displaced refugees globally. The COVID-19 outbreak is particularly threatening to those who can’t wash their hands as often as we do and lack a home to go to, or a government to depend on. With a reduction of global labour, movement, and humanitarian efforts, those displaced families are at risk of being victimized once again by bad luck and tragic misfortune.
Viruses are dangerous. Infectious diseases remain responsible for about one quarter of deaths worldwide, causing at least 10 million deaths per year – although mainly in Africa. Violence – state led for the most part – kills hundreds of thousands per year and Corona will hopefully be defeated before it reaches these numbers. Are we failing in recognizing our priorities if our reactions to bigger calamities aren’t as vigilant as our reactions to our current pandemic?
These words are not written to criticize ‘social isolation’ nor they meant to compare catastrophes. After all, life is priceless and we are commended to protect them, especially when the threat is at our doorstep. But perhaps our time away at our homes might help bring another lesson from this crisis. A lesson of perspective and responsibility. We know how to save lives when we decide to do so. But we have killed many more lives by our inaction than saving lives now by action. Now, as we begin to leave the confines of our homes and deal with our broader world, shouldn’t this teach us that we should act some more?
Dr. Nir Boms is the author of “The Syrian War between Justice and Political Reality (CUP) and fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies. Hussein Aboubakr is an Egyptian-American writer and commentator.