For months she had been dreaming of it and finally Susheela Moonsamy was able to do it: get together with her relatives and give them a big hug. Throughout the pandemic she had only seen her siblings, nieces and nephews fully “masked up” at socially distanced gatherings. But a few weeks ago, as their home state of California pressed on with its efficient vaccination rollout, they could have a proper reunion.
“It was such an emotional experience, we all hugged each other; and with tears in our eyes, we thanked God for being with us and giving us the opportunity to see each other close up again and actually touch each other,” she says. “We never valued a hug from our family members that much before.”
A couple of weeks later, the high school counsellor set off from her home in Oakland for a family trip to Disneyland on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It felt “strange … but wonderful” after a year spent hunkered down with her elderly parents. But while they were away she and her relatives received news that brought great sorrow: one of Moonsamy’s cousins, the daughter of her father’s sister, had died of Covid-19.
This was not a family member in California, where Moonsamy has lived for 35 years, but in South Africa, the country where she was born and her parents left during apartheid. There, Covid is running rampant in a virulent third wave. Less than 6% of the population has had one dose of the vaccine and less than 1% has had two.
The virus has now claimed the lives of 13 of Moonsamy’s family and friends, and she feels every day may bring more bad news. Amid talk of the pandemic nearing its end in California, where more than half the population is fully vaccinated, she has very mixed feelings.
“It’s definitely exciting,” she says. “But at the same time you think of the ones that have gone, and you feel, if only they were able to get to this point – to celebrate with us. That would be just so great. We need to remember them … and look forward. To celebrate the freedom but at the same time keep the ones who have gone in mind.”
Moonsamy is far from the only person to feel conflicted about the easing of restrictions. Across Europe and North America in the coming months, mass vaccination programmes are expected to bring back some form of normality. In England restrictions are due to be eased on 19 July, baptised “Freedom Day” by the tabloid press. In the US, most states have lifted restrictions already. Across the EU, to varying degrees, countries are preparing to reopen for summer.
But in much of the rest of the world – from Kampala to Cape Town, the Philippines to Peru – the pandemic is not only ongoing but worsening. In low-income countries just 1% of the population on average has been given at least one dose of the vaccine.
Caught in the middle of this growing divide are millions of people with relatives in the developed and the developing worlds, who find themselves struck by the staggering global inequality in their daily family catchups, WhatsApp groups and Skype chats.
These huge differences have long been a facet of the diaspora experience, but the pandemic has magnified them. For many, the two-speed vaccination programmes have come to represent all that one part of the family has and the other has not.
“[I feel] a huge amount of guilt … and a lot of sadness,” says Isabella (not her real name), a law student born in Colombia but who has lived in Canada since she was four.
“You know, why is the world the way it is? Why is it that you have to leave your home country to be safe, to be healthy? Why couldn’t we have just stayed home and had the same experience as Canada’s having?”
Like much of South America, Colombia is in the grip of a third wave of Covid-19, which has claimed about 45,000 lives since mid-March – more than 40% of the total death toll. About 24% of the population has had their first dose of the vaccine; in Canada, the figure is 69%.
Isabella, 23, is fully vaccinated. Getting her first dose last month was an emotional experience. “I felt happy but I also remember just wanting to burst into tears when I was sitting in the little chair, because when I looked around me it was incredible to see how well organised the vaccination programme was, but I also knew that this is not the case in Colombia and it would be at least another year before my cousin my age in Colombia would be sitting in the same chair,” she says. “And who knows what might happen between now and then?”
Farouk Triki, 30, is a Tunisian software engineer living in Paris. He left his parents and siblings behind to move to France with his wife four years ago. He has had his vaccination, but none of his family back home have: the Tunisian rollout has seemed tortuously slow to those living there, with just 5% having received both doses.
Last month, as cases reached a record high, the first cases of the Delta variant were confirmed among the population, which has had the highest reported Covid-19 deaths per capita in Africa.
“[I’m] concerned and scared,” says Triki, “because I’ve heard that it’s even worse than the British [variant]”, which his family caught in March. His parents, Farouk and Hanen, both teachers in Sfax on the Mediterranean coast, emerged unscathed from the illness, with neither requiring hospital treatment. But Hanen remembers the time with sadness. “Many relatives and friends died of Covid 19,” she says.
For Isabella, who could only watch from afar as Covid tore through first her mother’s side of the family and then, last month, her father’s, the predominant feeling is helplessness. “I think [that] is the biggest thing, a feeling of not being able to do anything,” she says. “We try to help our family financially, sending them money if they need it, but other than that … that’s really all we can do from here.”
Others in a similar situation have attempted to rally the community to send money to help their home countries. Raj Ojha, a mortgage broker from Nepal living in Slough in the south of England, has raised £2,000 through his organisation, the Nepalese British Community UK group. The money will go to two grassroots charities helping those hit hardest in the small Himalayan nation.
“We are here in the UK and we can’t physically go back to Nepal. All we can do is extend our helping hands to the organisations that are working tirelessly in Nepal,” he says.
Ojha, who is in his 40s, is fully vaccinated, whereas when he spoke to his elder sister, who is 62, last month, she told him that she had been refused her first dose.
“That is the difference. She told me she was pushed away from the crowd, told ‘you are not 65 yet, you can’t get the vaccination yet’. And she has got diabetes and other illnesses as well,” he says. Ojha has family in Kathmandu and eastern Nepal, and none of them have been fully vaccinated; less than 3% of the country’s population has had both jabs.
At the start of this year, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that the world stood “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” if it did not get more vaccinations to the developing world. But such efforts have stalled. The Covax scheme, designed to deliver cheap doses and promote vaccine equality, was already facing accusations of aiming too low when its chief supplier, the Serum Institute of India, announced it was diverting its vaccine exports for domestic use. So far, it has distributed only 95m of the almost 2bn vaccines promised this year. Supplies are not the only problem: in many lower- and middle-income countries the logistics of a mass vaccination rollout put a huge strain on fragile healthcare systems.
Moonsamy, Ojha and Isabella agree that there is an ethical imperative for richer countries to help those with fewer resources. However it would not simply be altruism – it just makes sense.
“Now that developed countries are getting on the way to having their populations vaccinated, huge, huge efforts need to be made to get vaccines to developing countries – if not for the goodness of doing that for others then at least to protect the rest of the world from more variants,” says Isabella.
Moonsamy agrees. “This is a world problem that affects all of us. By helping others, we are actually helping ourselves,” she says. Last weekend, Moonsamy held a 4 July gathering for some of her Californian relatives. They laughed, ate and talked. They also prayed for their family in South Africa. “Our hearts ache for them,” she says.
“As much as we enjoy our amazing freedom from being locked down for the past year … we are not really free until we are all free. So we continue to do our part by helping others so that we can one day all celebrate our freedom together.”
Russia to lose Swift access, pipeline if it invades Ukraine
“Work is already underway for … disconnection of Russia from the Swift banking system, sanctions on the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 [to Germany],” if it invades Ukraine, Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said in The Guardian Tuesday. “If [Russian president] Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” US national-security adviser Jake Sullivan told Reuters.
Can artistic freedom survive in Sudan? The writing’s on the wall… | Global development
In the new dawn of a heady post-revolutionary era, Suzannah Mirghani returned in 2019 to the country of her birth for the first time in years. Her mission was to shoot a short film on Sudanese soil. It proved unexpectedly straightforward.
“When the revolution happened, there was this exuberance,” she says, from her Qatari home. “When we came to make our film, we were given the green light. We were told: ‘Anything you want’.
“Nobody harassed us. Nobody told us what to do. Nobody asked us for the script. I call this time in the history of Sudan ‘the honeymoon’,” says Mirghani.
More than two and a half years after the toppling of the longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, Mirghani fears the honeymoon is over, at least for her. The turmoil into which Sudan has again been plunged means she feels unable to return safely.
On 31 October, as her film, Al-Sit, won the latest of many awards, Mirghani had to give an acceptance speech that was anything but celebratory.
Six days before, the military had seized power in a coup, detaining the civilian prime minister and bringing the country’s fragile transition to democracy to an abrupt halt.
In a video address from Qatar to the Africa in Motion film festival in Scotland, Mirghani said “the only reason” she and her crew had been able to make Al-Sit was the active encouragement given by the civilian-military partnership government. “Now,” she added, “we’re in very serious danger of going back to the bad old days of military rule and stifling creative expression.”
Since the coup, a lot has happened: huge pro-democracy protests thronged through Khartoum and other cities, with at least 40 demonstrators killed.
After almost a month, the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, was released as part of a deal struck with the coup leader, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
But the protesters, who want the military out of politics for good, are not convinced, and even less so as security forces fire teargas into the crowds that continue to gather despite Hamdok’s return. With the creative gains made after the revolution now hanging in the balance, Sudanese artists feel they have to speak out.
“We artists will be the first to be targeted if the military government continues in power,” writes Aamira*, a painter, in an email from Khartoum. “We are demonstrating in the streets, facing guns, unarmed. There is nothing to fear any more.”
In an interview with the Financial Times last week, Hamdok defended his decision to strike a deal with the military, saying it was essential to stop the bloodshed and “preserve the achievements of the last few years”.
It may not have been uppermost in his mind, but one of those achievements was the flowering of an artistic community that had long been harassed, censored and forced into the shadows. Assil Diab, a street artist, says: “I painted Omar al-Bashir as the [face of] coronavirus in a stadium in Bahri during the daytime, which would have been just impossible; my whole family could have been killed two years ago.”
Feeling compelled to return amid the revolutionary fervour, Diab returned to Sudan in 2019 and made her name painting the faces of the revolution’s “martyrs” on the outside of their families’ homes, with a getaway car close by in case the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces saw her.
For Mirghani, the “absolute elation” of the revolution yielded creative results. Al-Sit is the beautifully observed story of a Sudanese village girl whose parents want her to marry the sharp-suited son of a wealthy cotton trader in Qatar. “To finally be able to express yourself, to say what you had wanted to say to these people for 30 years: it’s amazing.
“My film is about women’s rights. It’s social commentary on arranged marriage. I don’t think we could have said that a few years ago,” says Mirghani.
The “honeymoon” was not without its challenges. The dictator was gone, but social and religious conservatism – and a reluctance to champion the arts – remained. Artistic freedom was patchy: in 2020, the renowned film-maker Hajooj Kuka and several others were detained during a theatre workshop.
Asim*, a documentary film-maker in Khartoum, says that, although in the capital the “direct censorship” of the Bashir era has eased, the rest of Sudan is not as relaxed. “It’s partially freedom and partially censorship,” he says. “It is a battle about 10% won.”
Khalid Albaih, a political cartoonist based in Qatar, returned after the revolution to launch the Sudan Artist Fund (SAF), to provide budding creatives with money and mentors, and with an ambitious plan to create a public art and design library. He says: “I thought: this is it. All doors were open and this is what we were going to do.
“I took all my papers, and for the first time in 10 years I’m in Sudan walking around, not scared of any police, or secret police, or anything. I went to every business owner in Sudan and everyone that can donate money to these causes. And I got nothing but rejection – for a library and for an artists’ fund.”
Finally, Albaih secured $7,000 (£5,300) from CultuRunners, a cultural exchange organisation, and the SAF awarded its first grant of $500 in October – just before the coup. “It was incredible because the internet cut out [after the coup leaders imposed a nationwide online blackout] so the artist didn’t even know he had won. We had to call him. It took two or three weeks to send the money to him,” says Albaih.
The cartoonist knows there will not be any more funding for a while. “Now everything is rocky. No one knows how things will go. It’s going to be really hard for artists and these kinds of initiatives to move forward.
The coup, says Diab, left the creative community feeling “disappointed and just broken down … because we finally thought we were free and then this happened.” She intends to apply for political asylum in the US, where she is studying, feeling she “can be of better use to Sudan” from overseas.
Those in the thick of it cannot afford to give up hope. Asim was at a protest in Khartoum against the post-coup deal last week and was “teargassed the entire afternoon” amid chants of “no partnership, no negotiation, no legitimacy”. He is realistic about future challenges but knows that people have made up their minds.
“I feel like there is a grip on power and it will not end today; it will not end tomorrow. Whether those power-hungry authoritarians will roll with democratic transition and allow people to express their freedoms, allow journalists and film-makers to operate or not, that is something that is still [up in] the air, because you never know with the ever-changing dynamic of power in this country,” he says.
The momentum towards democracy is undeniable, he says. “I believe that is possible and I believe there is hope. The people will not stop asking for what they really want. [Will] that future come tomorrow? The day after? In two years? In five? We never know. But it seems like the consensus is that people agree it has to happen.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identity
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EU agrees to sanction Russian mercenaries
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