Posts Tagged ‘curfew’

Covid-19 and me and you

October 24, 2020

Well, yes, I promised I was going to shut up about it after my Corona Chronicles from Bamako but I do find myself currently (and hopefully temporarily) in a very strange part of the world. I am watching with bemusement supposedly competent governments thrashing about in the wake of what must be termed a very large but ultimately not very powerful pandemic (the official statistics report death rates of less than 1 per cent of those affected). Coming from West Africa, Europe has all the hallmarks of a continent that has gone quite mad.

Just one example. As I mentioned in my Chronicles, when Mali and its neighbours decided they had a problem, they acted swiftly, decisively and ruthlessly. Night curfews did not start at 10pm in bars with large numbers of people already present, they started earlier, even when it is well-known that when people decide to partake in the rich nightlife of West African cities they do so very late. As someone astutely observed: will the virus know that it can only come into a packed and crowded bar when last orders have been consumed? This literally makes zero sense. You are either open – or you are closed. There is no halfway house here. 

The debate about face masks is even more bizarre. Look, I loathe the bloody things and I think they are not only a nightmarish inconvenience to wear but also an environmental disaster waiting to happen given the widespread human habit of disposing of your stuff anywhere you please but for crying out loud… Message to the navel-gazing Westerners complaining about this: the wearing of a face mask is, for once in your life, not about you. It is about others. It is not about a dictatorial government turning you into a slave. If you think this is what dictatorship and slavery look like you clearly have led an extraordinarily sheltered and massively privileged life. 

I will leave the conspiracy theorists who believe it’s all a China/WHO/Bill Gates/George Soros/5G/Deep State/Democrat/liberal/leftist/UN/Agenda 21/NWO bid for world domination, to one side. While fascinating in the way slow motion car crashes are fascinating, they add nothing to any rational debate about what we are dealing with and what we should do about it. Arguing with people advancing such points is futile. You will waste your time and fail to sway any of the True Believers. Just ask for evidence for their claims. You will invariably find that they are unable to provide such. All this BS should have one destination only: the bin. 

An even more dangerous cult, which should also find its way to the rubbish dump post haste is neoliberalism, the real point of writing this. Covid-19 has done more to destroy the neo-liberal consensus that began with the Greed Is Good regimes of Ronald Reagan and the equally loathsome Margaret Thatcher than any amount of street demonstrations, bedecked in yellow jackets or not. However, the neoliberal consensus still holds sway throughout much of the world and what is happening before your eyes is not a conspiracy but evidence-based fact: protection for the rich and their companies and banks, hell to pay for everybody else. It is Brexit on steroids.

When health workers get empty and meaningless gestures of nightly applause but no remuneration commensurate to their role in this crisis; when bankers are deemed more important than sewage workers; when shareholders and stockbrokers are considered of far more consequence than the mostly invisible people who ensure that your lights stay on, your water is clean, your internet keeps working and your roads are safe; when teachers are considered less important than some bozo gambling your future and mine away shifting billions around the world with the click of a mouse; when airlines are being kept aloft with billions of euros of taxpayers money that then goes to lease firms and moneymen…when you see all this happening in real time, you realise that you live in a system that is not worth saving. 

The banks’ Ponzi schemes that have been the bane of modern post-industrialist society will collapse once again. The Washington Consensus that brought destitution and war across Africa, Central and South America, Asia, South East Europe and the Middle East, has turned out to be fundamentally misguided, as the consequences are finally reaching the richest shores in the world. The criminals who dreamed it up should be persecuted, as the Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako showed in his film, Bamako

The end of the system, which we now know to be built on fraud, idle speculation and lies, will not come about through the swing to the populist right we are seeing in many parts of the world today. Xenophobia, racism and violence are not the answers to the systemic failure Covid-19 is revealing. The populist right of Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, Trump and the rest of the one trick con artists only serves to entrench neoliberalism even more. Like its kissing cousin, identity politics, it is a dangerous and ultimately pointless distraction. What will end the current systemic insanity is a radical swing towards real progressive politics, which has always been international in nature and always has the ideal of creating fair, equal and just societies in its DNA. You may want to call it socialism, which is fine by me. You can either have that, or you will have barbarism. 

Our choice. 

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

May 24, 2020

Part seven – Le dépôt

 

This is a Malian institution and I happen to live near one of its finer specimens. Le dépôt can vary in appearance: from a dark den hidden behind a clump of trees to a fully-fledged garden with an on-site food service and tables and chairs. You go there to get your beers and before the Corona Curfew you could sit down at a rickety steel table and talk with fellow punters.

The dépôt is, basically, family. From arrival to finding a place to sit under the trees would take quite a while. Because you must greet everyone who is there. There’s the elderly man with a very loud voice who likes to insult everyone – all in good cheer, mind you. It is part of an old tradition that is designed to release possible tensions and ensure that good relations are maintained. It is, very emphatically, not to be taken seriously. A specific kind of humour, like a glue that holds society together and that is a necessity in a city that grew from barely one million to three times as much in the space of thirty years.

Tucked away in the back of the garden you would often find another elderly man (yes, we have quite a few of those…) who had somehow managed to wrench permission from the owner to park his motorbike inside the premises. A very special privilege. Mostly on his own, with the occasional friend dropping in (greetings, handshakes – now forbidden, how are you, how is the day, how is the family, how is your health all the way from the entrance to the back of the garden). He’d sit there, beer on the table, his face hovering over a collection of notebooks, until, fed up with whatever he‘d been doing, he got up and leave. The special privilege extended to his being allowed to start and profusely rev his bike until ready to go. With him, a perfunctory nod with the head and a few words would suffice. We’re all different, at the dépôt.

 

Will they be back, now the curfew has been lifted? Oh yes, they are already slowly trickling back in, elaborate greetings and all.

 

And many will insist of the whole ritual. If you forget to greet someone (how are you, how is work, how is the family, I hear your little daughter was ill how is she now, how is your own health…), be assured that you will be reminded of your egregious oversight on your next visit.

‘You don’t remember me?’

‘Why, of course I do, you’re always here.’

‘Well, yesterday, you forgot me. You know that’s very bad…very bad…’

‘Sabali (pardon me), mon frère, I must have been busy…’

‘Yes! You were busy greeting the other people – but not me…’

‘I will not do this again. What do I do now?’

‘Oh, nothing. It’s alright.’ (Just make sure you do not neglect me on the next occasion…)

And all is right with the world again. Discreetly send a beer his way; he will know who this is from…

 

Strangers are welcome here. Which is how I fit in. There are just a few requirements that you must meet: consumption is not optional, you must be on your best behaviour (this is a society that greatly values politeness in public places), and…you must pay for your consumptions. The very hardworking and highly accommodating staff are totally uncompromising when it comes to money. Beers arrive daily and tomorrow’s purchases are bought with today’s revenue.

This particular dépôt also has a habit of attracting musicians. There are live venues nearby and frequently you would find a maestro parked on one chair, his guitar on another, beer or something else in one hand, the other loosely draped around the back of the chair where “my wife”, i.e. the guitar, had been placed. No country on earth places a higher value on music, especially live. The lockdown has dealt a devastating blow to the live music scene from which I hope it can soon recover. On story has it that a maestro had left his guitar in on of the nearby music venues, thought better of it, recovered his guitar, returned home and discovered the next day that the place had been consumed by a fire. He was distraught for a full two weeks, only by the thought of what would have happened had he not followed his best intuition…

 

Not everyone is back yet, to the chagrin of the staff, who have been holding the fort for all of the six weeks the curfew lasted. You were allowed to pick up beers during the day but…round the back. It almost felt like a clandestine operation, performed with the two young men in their green overalls working there, whose faces spelt gloom whenever you asked them how business was going…

‘Just very slowly…’

‘Will you close when it goes on?’

‘No, the owner runs this place; we are not renting.’

That was obviously a concern. Your landlord does not care when your business goes down by 80%. There is another big worry, though: the woman who ran a roaring trade with her food service and who had given birth only days before the curfew hit. She hasn’t been back and no one seems to know where she is…

It still is eerily quiet in the depot, even when the clientele is slowly coming back in. One reason for this is simple: the television is off and stays off. There’s no football, English Premier League being the staple here. The televised roar of the crowds, now silent, would only be surpassed by the nearby mosque when calling for prayer. Drink and faith: there’s no hard and fast rule. I once watched in wonderment as an elderly man, who looked like he had come straight from prayer, sat down on a barstool savouring the beer he had just ordered. Malians overwhelmingly want to guard that live-and-let-live attitude.

 

‘Soumalemba….’

Now, once you hear this deep bronze voice coming from behind one of those rickety tables, freshly installed, you know that things are going back to normal. ‘Really cold,’ the words mean, and it is a little ritual greeting between me and a corpulent man with a beaming face, who has made this place his second home. Former driver, in or near retirement, and determined to have a good time of it – and he has just drifted back in, too.

Maybe the old depot from before the Corona Curfew, is on its way back after all. But we will not be complete until our friend, one of the few women who has managed to become part of this place, is back with her soup and meat business. And her new child strapped to her back.

 

We have, on this day, 1030 COVID-19 cases confirmed, 65 have succumbed, 597 have recovered. From the Ministry of Health.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 27, 2020

Part six – no distance (note: the term “social distancing” is patently preposterous, as it is entirely clear that the distance required to avoid catching The Virus is physical…)

pic: me.

A Bamako street corner. A very average Bamako street corner, with roadside vendors trying to make a few cents, taxis looking to gain the edge at the traffic light, the Sotrama boys running across the street looking for passengers, the impatient beeping and revving of cheap Chinese motorbikes forever in a hurry, pedestrians looking for a safe place to cross, corrupt traffic police and their sneering whistles, car horns blaring…. Once that red light goes green all that energy will be unleashed and there will be a tremendous roar as thick traffic races to the next light.

That traffic thinned out somewhat after the government announced the strict measures designed to keep COVID-19 manageable. But it’s already growing back to its previous volume – most certainly the motorbikes and their gravity-defying habits.

I recently went to visit a political analyst who explained to me the folly of going ahead with last Sunday’s second round of the legislative elections – more about that in a later post. Enthusiasm for these polls was at a bare minimum and the reason people gave for not going to the polling station was the obvious one: Corona. Rather bewilderingly, fear of the virus vanishes entirely in other places. On the way to the interview my taxi crawled through a densely crowded market, there was the usual sight of the people packed like sardines in the Sotrama minibuses…

I am also reliably informed that mosques fully fill up for Friday prayers. There are very prominent religious leaders in the country who are virtually untouchable and whose authority goes way beyond that of the secular government, again for reasons that are perfectly easy to grasp.

Rushing to market. Pic: me.

So actually, none of this is terribly bewildering. Buying groceries, moving around town and going to pray – especially in this time of Ramadan – are activities that are an order of magnitude higher on peoples’ priority lists than taking part in a pointless exercise in what passes for democracy but is, in point of fact, a complete irrelevance to the vast majority.

In crisis times such as these people have a very stark choice to make: if we stay at home we’ll have no business and no money and we will starve; if we go out and do our business on the streets we may risk contamination. You die – or you die.

That’s a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, if I am permitted a maritime image about 1,200 kilometres from the nearest coast.

Similarly, it is the ordinary folks that get into the crosshairs of the men and women in uniform. In some places street vendors are the target of sustained harassment. Here it is those who are breaking the (increasingly pointless) 9pm to 5am curfew, in place since March 26.

Not exactly locked in but close enough. Pic: me.

Increasingly pointless, indeed, because what’s the use of letting bars and music venues and restaurants – and the many street vendors they attract – go bankrupt because you want to avoid contamination while it is actually during the day that far more people run that very same risk? ‘The only folks happy with the curfew are the people in uniform,’ says the good friend and neighbour you have already met. ‘It’s business for them. The only good thing about it is that they leave people like me in peace when I am at work during the day because they now make their money at night…’ But for him, and many of his colleagues, the very lucrative night business cannot come back soon enough.

Enforcing the curfew now is the new sport in town that extends to the furthest nook and cranny of this vast city. Don’t think you can sneak about in your remote corner of Bamako because there will be patrols and you will be chased, beaten up and be made to pay a fine that goes straight into the pocket of the chap that’s just beaten you up.

Nobody knows how long this will go on. But everyone knows that this can not last for much longer. Requests for money multiply. Food stocks, such as there are, run out, as does the patience of people you rely on for survival. Remittances have ended because the places where your relatives are working, in Côte d’Ivoire, in France, in Canada, wherever, are all closed, too.

There is no full lockdown and it’s unlikely one will happen. And this half-half position keeps full desperation at bay for now, as Mali’s contamination rate creeps upward to 389 with 23 dead, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Does this justify the continued restrictions? That’s up to the government and it does not appear new announcement are forthcoming. So for now, we just muddle through.