Where were you when you realized how impactful the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be?
For me, it occurred while sitting on the back of a truck driving through the rural eastern district of Rwamagana, Rwanda in early March. I traveled there to visit the livelihood projects of World Jewish Relief, the British Jewish Community’s international humanitarian aid agency. I was going from an agricultural skills development project towards a center for vulnerable youth when a piece of news flashed up on my phone about increasing travel restrictions in Europe.
As UK Community Manager for OLAM and JDC Entwine, two organisations that promote global Jewish responsibility, I visited Rwanda to learn about development work in a Jewish context. I participated in a JDC Entwine Insider trip with a group of young Jewish adults from the UK and the USA. At the time, no one could have predicted this would be the last JDC Entwine Insider Trip for the remainder of 2020.
My thoughts first jumped to my flight home the next day and I hoped the journey would not be a nightmare. Next, I thought about how privileged I am to travel internationally, compared to the people I spent time with and learned from that day, many of whom might never leave Rwanda in their lifetimes. This then led me to think about the vulnerability of many of these communities- some 39% of Rwandans live below the poverty line. Simultaneously, my thoughts also filled with hope, as I had learnt on my trip that Rwanda tells an incredibly inspiring story of development and recovery from national trauma.
In 1994, the genocide against the Tutsi led to the deaths of an estimated one million people and has had profound effects on the country and its neighbors; however, since the year 2000, the Rwandan economy has grown at a steady seven percent every year, earning a reputation as one of Africa’s fastest-growing nations. Not only has Rwanda received large amounts of foreign aid, the government’s ‘Vision 2020’, a long-term development strategy to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by 2020, has contributed to significant economic growth. In fact, – the Rwandan government now has the highest number of women in Parliament in the world – they hold 61% of the seats.
Prior to my departure for Rwanda, COVID-19 already appeared in the headlines, yet I dismissed it and hoped to avoid its impact. As the news continued to filter through and hand-washing stations popped up more and more on the rural Rwandan roadsides, I felt the world starting to change. Currently, if you scroll down the front page of most major news sites, it takes a while to find a story about the pandemic’s effect on the Global South, or on refugees and vulnerable global populations in general. National news coverage has generally focused on the pandemic’s impact on more economically developed nations. The professionals in OLAM’s network of partner organisations say this might be because COVID-19 has not yet reached the Global South at the same level it reached Central Europe and North America. But it is coming.
Experts say that come early summer, we will start to see an increase in the number of people impacted amongst the world’s most vulnerable communities – in the slums of India, in the refugee camps of Greece, and in the rural villages of Rwanda, to name a few. Reports this week indicate COVID-19 is already in the crowded Bangladeshi refugee camps of Cox’s Bazaar, home to nearly a million Rohingya refugees. We saw with the AIDS pandemic 30 years ago that lifesaving testing systems and drugs came to many African countries long after they became available in Europe and North America. With COVID-19 in 2020, we can avoid this situation.
Although health system weaknesses remain acute in many places, including Rwanda, investments by national governments, regional unions of countries such as the African Union, and international initiatives to tackle HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, polio, and post-Ebola global health security have all built important public health capacities in the Global South. This experience is what pushed many African countries into an aggressive lockdown very early, which growing evidence suggests helped to keep transmission rates dramatically lower than Europe and North America. This indicates that many African countries have a lot they could teach about fighting coronavirus, even after demands have drained the continent of skilled medical workers and the ability to develop similar treatment infrastructures.
Unfortunately, we must also note places such as these are already experiencing the acute impact of months of lockdown, with starvation and disease increased due to lack of access to basic food and sanitation. If you do not have access to safe drinking water or adequate sanitation at home, a source of reliable energy, access to information or communications technology, and a permanent source of income or savings, then maintaining lockdown proves extremely difficult.
With the majority of the world Jewish population living in North America, Europe and Israel, this evolving situation provides a unique opportunity for the Jewish community to consider its relationship with, and responsibility for, other less developed or vulnerable populations around the world. In order to capitalize on this opportunity, we need to grapple with a series of questions:
- How do we ensure we stay personally connected to and informed about the Global South at this time?
As mentioned, news articles covering the impact of COVID-19 on the Global South may require a search beyond the headlines. With a lack of testing, the impact might not be visible in the same way when compared with Western countries. There are plenty of other news outlets and organisations reporting the challenges faced, such as the ones listed at the end of this article.
Call to action: Let’s all commit to reading one article a day about the status of the pandemic in a country other than our own. Let’s all reach out to one person we know who lives in a developing country, show empathy, and find out how they, their loved ones, and their nation are doing.
- How do we identify and relate to the struggles of those who live in extreme poverty when we can’t expect to visit these places for some time?
For the last 20 years, the number of Jews taking on medium to long term volunteering placements in the Global South has grown. Yet, their numbers still only comprise a small minority of the Jewish community. With travel restrictions and social distancing in place for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that any short- or long-term trips engaging with issues of global social responsibility will take place until at least 2021.
Yet we must still educate ourselves about “the other” in society and continue to develop our collective identity as responsible global citizens.
In my experience, younger generations identify more than ever as humanitarians and have an awareness of the global challenges they will inherit. However, the responsibility still falls on older generations and communal institutions to provide the resources and platforms through which younger Jews can learn, develop identity, and feel empowered to act.
Call to action: Let’s work together to find new ways to build on our existing educational models and combine them with innovations in our new digital reality to provide exciting opportunities to engage with the challenges of global social responsibility as an expression of modern Jewish identity. Teachers and educators can partner with Jewish development organisations in OLAM’s network to identify these opportunities when they create future curriculum for informal Jewish education. For example, teaching the practicalities of social distancing to young people could be combined with the viewpoint of someone trying to social distance in a much more difficult reality, such as inside a refugee camp or slum.
Call to action: We also need to try to take advantage of the opportunities provided by increased hyper-local volunteering to learn about the challenges facing the cultures, nationalities and communities who live next door, but whom we may not have previously encountered.
- How do we keep our Jewish community committed to this important mission when its priorities have dramatically shifted?
Make no mistake – I am conscious that each individual and institution needs to make their own decisions about where they direct their efforts over the coming months and hyper-local priorities will often trump those further afield. COVID-19 is without a doubt the biggest threat to the global Jewish community in 2020.
But some of us have much more capacity and experience from which to advocate for global responsibility at this time.
Even though our borders are closed, our futures and those of countries in the Global South intertwine more than ever. Critically, we all already know that the virus does not discriminate and that vulnerable communities face a much-increased level of impact from COVID-19. Lockdown has shown that we all have it in our DNA to help each other. Our collective social distancing response aims to protect the most vulnerable in our own communities and countries, yet we also indirectly protect those overseas as well.
Call to action: Let’s deliver new campaigns, communications, and educational messages that further highlight the work already underway among vulnerable global populations, and increase awareness, support and action in our communities. The Jewish community has had a significant response to the refugee crisis in recent years. Some may attribute this to Judaism’s shared experience with migration and persecution. The whole world now has a shared experience of fighting a global pandemic. We need to continue to channel our energy and drive into our ongoing responsibility as Jews to all vulnerable populations around the world.
A former manager of mine once said that people were volunteering less and less in charities because of ‘box-set culture’. Even before lockdown, we were spending increasing amounts of time on sofas binge-watching TV series. Now that we have all watched way too much TV for a few months, and have a limited ability to produce more for a little while, has the age of global social action away from our sofas begun instead?
So, I ask again – where were you when you realized how impactful the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be?
If you want to work with me and the team at OLAM on any of the above or have a response to anything I have said, please send me an email at [email protected], and see more of our work at www.olamtogether.org.
And check out JDC Entwine’s unique offering of virtual programmes at its online meeting place for Jewish young adults, the Thread www.jdcentwine.org/thethread/.
Finally, here are some good global sources of development news:
Graham Carpenter is OLAM’s UK Community Manager. Based in London, he previously served as the Communications and Fundraising Manager for Tzedek, and before that as the Community Coordinator for New Israel Fund UK. He is a board member for Liberal Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and currently co-chairs the latter’s Strategic Committee for Inspiring the Next Generation. He has held various roles at Limmud Festival, and was named in the 2018 30 under 30 list of “individuals set to define Jewish life in Britain for decades to come”. In addition to Graham’s responsibilities at OLAM, Graham also supports the complementary work of JDC Entwine to engage young UK adults in global Jewish and humanitarian issues and to advance the global Jewish service movement.