Whiff Of Australian Smoke In South America, World On The Brink

From the apocalyptic Australian fires to the killer drone strike on Iran's top military commander, these are troubling times indeed.

Wildfires across Australia photographed from satellite on 31 December 2019
Wildfires across Australia photographed from satellite on 31 December 2019
William Ospina*


BOGOTÁ — People suddenly smell smoke, which isn't unusual in Chile. Only this time around it's not coming from anywhere nearby. The haze isn't from one of those fires that blaze from time to time in the hills around Valparaíso and Santiago, but from far-off Australia, from a conflagration so immense it's darkening skies on the other side of the planet.

Mother Earth is in flames, a young girl from a northern land has been telling us for months. We're reminded of that again by an inferno in one of the world's great historical monuments. The two most searched subjects on the worldwide web in 2019 were the fire of the Notre Dame cathedral and Greta Thunberg's environmental campaign. Time magazine named her Person of the Year, to the abominable Donald Trump"s frivolous indignation.

At his golf club in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, Trump wasn't thinking of the Australian fires but rather the killer drones that his chiefs of staff had decided to unleash on Qasem Soleimani, Iran's most powerful soldier, and start the new year sowing even more apocalyptic seeds.

There are still forests but we are living dangerously on this planet.

As the Americans devised their murderous strike, drones — some 2,000 of them — also flew high above Shanghai Bay. They welcomed the arrival of 2020 by forming the pattern of a man, a dragon, a sphere, and the auspicious Chinese characters Zhui meng, which means "chasing dreams." Drones for killing, drones for dreaming. The lights in the New Year sky remind us that everything we invent can serve beauty or horror.

Human madness contrasts with nature's order and its fidelity to its laws, with the efforts of the birds and bees to fulfill ancient cycles and the dutiful trees that do so much to carry out the indispensable work of supporting life in the world. Nature, as the poet Jorge Guillén said, remains "the enormous peace that gives refuge to war."

Climate protest in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 10 January 2020. - Photo: Florencia Martin/DPA via ZUMA Press

There are still forests, we tell ourselves. Still rivers, and snow on the mountains, and fish in the water. Still, pigeon chicks in nests and puppies playing in prairies, and every flower retains its habitual color. Everything is in its place. But we only need divert our gaze from nature and its habits a little to recall we are living dangerously on this planet.

Because we all know what caused the Australian fires, and the ones that rage in the forests of Portugal, Italy and California in summer. We can put a face to them today: It is the face of all those who deny that we are irreparably altering the planet's climate.

More brazen and destructive every year, the fires bear the face of the hotel magnate chosen to run a country so vigorous in fanning climate change, a phenomenon he vehemently dies against overwhelming visible evidence. There are powers in this world, it appears, that can pay a ruler to negate history's gravest evidence.

Iran responded to the assassination of Soleimani with its own strikes — on a military base in Iraq, but without killing anyone. Either way, a martial wind is sweeping the world as fast as the smoke Australia is sending across the Pacific.

Our leaders don't know how to stop.

This time of ours, with our fascination for spectacles, our eagerness for fun and distraction, is all too reminiscent of the Belle É​poque, at the outset of the 20th century. A period that deemed itself the essence of civilization, even as it nurtured the embryo of an explosive war. There are also parallels to the 1930s when people thought the war was a thing of the past. Inebriating themselves in Paris and Berlin, people looked away as the Rights rearmed, and the Left rose up, and factories pumped out munitions — all in blind preparation for the madness that would soon engulf them all.

Instead of helping the needy and fighting the monstrous inequality that causes so much conflict and migration, it might again occur to someone that the real problem is that there are too many of us and that the solution is to abandon the world to the immense arsenals which armies are again amassing.

There is unease across the world. The result could either be the destruction of the world by a society of waste and ostentation, and exacerbated climate change, floods and pandemics, or a renewed consciousness that will impose new spiritual and ethical paradigms on dazed humanity.

We talk so much about our rulers. We shower them with attention and entrust in them our hopes. But the only thing we know is that if there are changes, they will come from citizen bodies, not the great powers. Because our leaders don't know how to stop. They can't see beyond their utilitarian horizons or contemplate a future beyond their immediate calculations.

Something with more perspective, a more distant light or a brighter star must help humanity invent a more generous mode, more grateful and austere, and a more fitting way to inhabit this world.

*William Ospina is a Colombian novelist and poet.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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