A Small World?

COVID-19 has exposed the illusion of the global village

I’ve always been comfortable with having a long distance family.

That makes it sound as though I don’t like them that much, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have a strong and close bond with my parents, grandparents, and siblings. I love them so much it hurts, and can say with the same firm resolution many have about their family that they are, in fact, the best family in existence. 

The thing is, I grew up with my Dad living on another continent. Navigating different time zones and sitting through long haul flights were unremarkable realities of my childhood.

I remember our excitement when, what feels like aeons ago, Skype first hit the market, and we could suddenly see and talk to our Dad’s face on a computer screen. Seeing where he was sitting and the movement of his exaggerated smile as he spoke felt like a great technological leap from talking to a headless voice on the phone.

Even headless, though, it never felt like he was unreachable. If there had been a crisis, if we had really needed him, he was only 10 or 12 hours away. Though unlikely, it was fathomable that he could surprise us at a birthday or Christmas, and because of this, it never seemed like he was actually that far from us.

Since then, technology has only improved, making long distance contact almost seamless to the point where when I last flew home to surprise my family in person, my Mum said it felt as though I’d hardly been away (somewhat to the annoyance of my Dad, who had paid for my plane ticket).

Through my smartphone, I’ve watched my cousin grow taller from afar, and seen her drawings in detailed technicolor captured by the powerful camera on my aunt’s phone. My relatives can sing me happy birthday, and watch me open presents they ordered online and had sent to my door. I can take my Mum on virtual tours of my office and apartment, so she sees them exactly as I do, belying the eight thousand miles and seven time zones that separate her from them in geographical reality. It all felt so easy.

Like pratically everything else, however, this feeling changed significantly with the global response to COVID-19. 

Quarantined in my apartment in Hangzhou in the south of China this March, I watched the situation worsen. I flew back into China about ten days before the country’s borders were sealed, barring all non-citizens from entering even if they had a valid visa. Colleagues who hadn’t acted fast enough were now marooned in their home countries, unable to come back to work. I was unable to leave.

Flights were few and far between, and the price of those that remained had skyrocketed to nearly 80,000RMB ($11,300). Even if I had that type of money to spare, concern for myself and my family made travelling feel irresponsible.

For the first time in my living memory, home feels a truly long way away. In a cinch, I can’t be by my family’s side. 

I know that many across the world feel the same. For the privileged, it’s been a collective wake up call to the almost absurd convenience of long distance air travel. Polished airlines, sleek airports and eletronically managed border services do a fantastic job of disguising the intricate difficulties involved in traversing the globe.

The nuts and bolts of air navigation are hidden behind the mysterious cockpit door, and scenery slides past far below, seen only through a layer of clouds and a thick, triple-paned plastic window (if you’re awake to look at it at all). 

A locked down world also holds lessons in empathy. Temporarily blocked access to flights is a diluted version of the harsh reality of many, for whom travel home is never easy due to safety concerns or economic and political impossibilities. More than before, my heart swells with pain for migrants crowded onto rickety boats in the Mediterranean sea, who left their home country on an uncertain and dangerous one way road. It makes you realise how big the world really is; that the global village is an illusion, created by wealth and technology. 

And more than physical distances are separating us. The pandemic has opened (or perhaps just widened) chasms of suspicion and resentment between countries and cultures, from the conspicuous racism against Asian ethnicities in the West, to the ugly, politicised blame game over the virus’ origin and containment in US and Chinese media. Despite touching stories of solidarity from hospital staff teams, residential streets or whole villages in any given country, international distrust and disparagement has been, at times, vicious.

As a recent Guardian article pointed out, countries that have succeeded in stamping out the virus can only ensure that they remain virus-free by maintaining extremely strict controls on international travel.

It could be a long time before the world feels small or open again. 

Part of me is saddened. Part of me thinks that maybe this is a healthy reality check. Modern life has infinitely expanded the definition of “essential”, to the point where it includes things as trivial as the air transport of tropical fruits. Perhaps being starkly reminded how large the obstacle of distance really is will make us more aware of the incredible privilege of our ‘small world’; of how much hard work it takes to keep different cultures cooperative and connected, and of the things we would like to really keep close.

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