COVID-19 And The Cruel Side Effects Of Trying To 'Ban Death'

The COVID-19 outbreak is a scourge like no other, but not because of the dangers that this particular pathogen presents.

In, Bogota, Colombia
In, Bogota, Colombia
William Ospina


BOGOTÁ — Why is there so much fear? Why the quarantines? Why are we treating this pandemic like it were the first in human history?

The fact is, progress has been a fillip to this panic. Viruses used to travel by horse or boat. They now fly by plane. Before, they would arrive in communities for which death was a reality. Now they have come to societies that have banished death, first from the home, then from the mind.

Humanity already suffered the plague of Justinian, the Black Death, cholera epidemics, smallpox and the Spanish flu. Still, there's a reason why this plague seems unprecedented, paralyzing the world like an extra-terrestrial invasion. People experienced previous pandemics with a sense of fatalism and the resignation they felt before plagues of all kinds — wars, crusades, conquerors, the devastating "discoveries' of continents. They were seen as a punishment, and inevitable.

Now, however, there is a slither of hope, and we know that not everyone who dies should have died. We believe many are dying not from a virus or fatality, but for lack of proper care. To put it another way, the last great pandemic — the Spanish Flu that killed some 40 million people — preceded the invention of ventilators.

While we have been trying to find artificial breathing systems since the days of Galen in antiquity and Paracelsus and Vesalius in the Renaissance, our present-day "steel lungs' were only invented in 1929, and perfected in 1951 through IPPV. It has only been 70 years (one lifetime, in the Biblical King David's view) since intensive care units, with their ventilators and monitors to aid respiration until a patient's recovery, have become standard across the world.

So, this is the first pandemic when many who would have swiftly died before could now be saved. So, why are there 1.5 billion cars around the world, poisoning the air our lungs need, but only 150 million, humble respirators that could save all the lives that are suddenly made fragile in a pandemic? That is where a natural phenomenon is aggravated to the point of becoming a nightmare, by a social system that cares more about business than caring for lives.

Yes, we are curbing your liberties. But it's to save your life.

We might have been saving more lives had health systems not become enormous, though exclusive businesses. In the United States, fear of becoming infected has often less to do with the fear of death than of a ruinous medical bill. There are no healthcare systems ready to confront a pandemic — not even one of a moderate scope like this one — because in normal times, governments consider these an extravagance and medical protocols are relaxed. That is why more people are dying in Spain, Italy and France than in Germany, whose cultural rigor brooks on negligence.

And that is where power comes into play. States have taken the opportunity to turn the health crisis into a matter of policing. And they conceal the shortage of hospitals and Intensive Care units for all. States have not treated people's panic at the prospect of not receiving care as relating to their own neglect of political duties, but as cases of social indiscipline to pin on those same individuals. Death was already proscribed. Now it is banned, and banned with police terminology though as often happens, anything banned tends to proliferate.

States, after all, never lose an opportunity to approach arbitrary and authoritarian rule. What a sight for their sore eyes, seeing the streets emptied of people, bereft of criminals, but also of revelers and especially protesters! For the controlling imagination, order is never as perfect as when it has an added instrument of intimidation.

Yes, we are curbing your liberties. But it's to save your life. Peasants are being forbidden from walking through the countryside as quarantine becomes an exaggerated tool of power.


A Venezuelan woman stands with her child in the streets of Bogota — Photo:​ Daniel Garzon Herazo

They say they want to save our lives but if they were so concerned, there would not be so many people dying of hunger, and all the automobile deaths would have led to a ban on driving by now. Poverty would long ago have become the main concern of states, and needless to say, hospitals would have ventilators to spare and universal healthcare would be assured.

In a context of negligence, social helplessness and short sightedness, of course you need a quarantine to block the triumph of death. But what a golden opportunity too: to exercise, test and deepen the instruments of social control.

The background behind this episode is this: The virus is but a flash that gives you a glimpse of the storm and of hidden crises. If unemployment spikes within days, if families in precarious conditions need more payments, if a social explosion is around the corner, it is all because a ticking bomb lay beneath the world's apparent normality.

There are other components to this historic episode, and one is the drama of old age. Nobody wants to grow old, but societies are increasingly aging. The paradox is that living longer does not even mean living well, because a society that no longer believes in the past, in wisdom and experience, leaves the elderly without a place in the cultural order.

Finally, for a few days as pollution falls, the air and the seas have cleared, you can see dolphin again sliding in and out of the ocean, and foxes, raccoons and opossums, which usually hide. It all shows how ominous our presence is to other creatures. It's a reminder, as Spanish writer Álvaro Fernández Suárez put it, of "Man's terrible gaze."

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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