I’ve been thinking a lot about the Southern African concept of “ubuntu” lately. I spent a couple of years living and working in eSwatini, until recently called Swaziland, which is adjacent to South Africa. The Zulu word “ubuntu” embodies a philosophy of social unity, expounded on with the phrase, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which means, “A person is a person through other people.”
In other words, my humanity depends on yours; what happens to you happens to me.
As we watch the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe, it is increasingly clear just how true that is. An outbreak in one corner of the planet impacts us all. Social distancing measures to fight the spread of the virus are necessary because of how connected we are.
One person’s life ripples out to touch a thousand others. When some members of our global society get sick with this contagious virus, we all feel it. What happens to you happens to me.
As stay-at-home orders and social distancing closures lengthen, it is increasingly clear how much we depend on grocery store clerks and delivery drivers and warehouse workers — not to mention the people growing and harvesting and processing our food.
Some of those people are getting sick, as outbreaks at meatpacking plants across Iowa and the rest of the Midwest have shown.
Those who can need to stay home now not just to protect themselves but to protect us all. If I get sick and pass it to one of those essential employees and it spreads through the workplace, suddenly a whole supply chain could crumble. What happens to me happens to them, and what happens to them happens to all of us.
A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, and I suppose a sinking tide grounds those boats.
I hope we can remember this when the crisis has passed. In the United States, including here in Iowa, data shows disproportionate numbers of black and Latino people are becoming infected, which reflects wider health disparities baked into the systemic racism of our society. When we don’t address those issues, the consequences impact everyone.
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Such disparities aren’t limited to the United States. Around the world, there are places where people have to choose between staying home and starving, as images of people stampeding for food in Kibera, an informal settlement in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, starkly illustrate.
Running water still is a luxury in much of the world, making directives to constantly wash hands a challenge. People who live in crowded slums cannot easily social distance.
When these inequities aren’t addressed, they will ripple back to us. Even if the United States manages to flatten the curve, we are still connected to the rest of the world. If the virus flares up in countries around the world in the months to come, it will keep coming back to us.
It was just Easter, and next week Ramadan begins. I think of Jesus telling his followers that feeding the hungry and looking after the sick was the same as looking after Jesus himself, saying, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” I think of those fasting for Ramadan to increase their empathy and solidarity with the poor and hungry. We are all in this together, our faith traditions tell us, again and again. The reality of the world proclaims it to be true. Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.
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