Many talked about Coronavirus as being ‘indiscriminate’. ‘We’re all in the same boat,’ we were told. As the pandemic has progressed, it’s all too awfully clear that whilst the minuscule droplets don’t care who you are, embedded inequalities have established definite faultlines. But what if you exist on both sides of this divide? This is the painful dilemma facing diaspora communities across the world, as those that left their home country watch from afar as their family and friends endure a much more brutal pandemic experience.

India and beyond

The images that are coming out of India are shocking and distressing. Whilst the catastrophe that’s unfolding is beamed across our screens, we can choose to switch off and are comforted by the knowledge that, as it stands, we are in a much better position here in the UK. The government is sending nine cargo planes of aid to India, including 495 oxygen concentrators and 20 manual ventilators. But for many Indians and other diaspora communities, the issue is deeply personal, and government aid will provide little relief. For people whose roots extend beyond our borders, switching off the news is of little help when phone messages will provide a constant stream of updates through family WhatsApp groups. Normally, the place for memes and gifs, chain messages and Facebook recipes, these virtual hubs are now tense and serious. Just as in good times they allow those of us away from home to stay connected to weddings, graduations and gossip, now they are the place of obituaries and prayers.

But Covid has added another layer of pain. It has seized upon a deeply felt guilt that many scattered across the world feel all the time. It is the injustice felt for those back home, who don’t have access to the same medicines, healthcare, or state support as we do here. Even in the developed world, systems have been brought to their knees. Elsewhere, however, these systems were already creaking well before Covid emerged. It is from this position of relative safety that generations of diaspora communities look at the situation at home, feeling helpless. The fact that many from ethnic minority backgrounds have worked in frontline jobs across healthcare and retail throughout, makes it sting just that bit more. There has always been this underlying sense of ‘betrayal’ amongst those who stay put in their homeland. Of course, that’s not to say that they don’t want a better life for their loved ones, but there’s always been a feeling that not enough is being given back to those at home. People will very reasonably argue that the home countries could really do with the help of their vast diaspora right now — and not just at this present moment.

Whenever a disaster occurs in Sudan, the differing responses are telling of the attitudes amongst family members at home, and those abroad. Throughout the pandemic, my grandmother has been cynical. She’s not surprised at the lack of medicines, hospital beds, PPE, or even doctors. In her view, it’s an incompetent country that’s been run into the ground by its corrupt leaders. She may not live there now, but my grandmother’s memories of home are still more vivid than, say, my mother’s. She is outraged. She chastises the significant Sudanese diaspora across the world, many of them doctors, scientists, engineers. ‘Where are all of them now?’ is what she is surely wondering. They hold onto the romantic memories of their homeland, but don’t feel a sense of duty to help when it is in crisis —?

I think that would be a harsh assessment. The reality is that people leave because there are no opportunities. Africa, for example, is the youngest continent, with almost 60 per cent of its population under 25. Many who leave have dreams of ‘returning’, to retire happily amongst the people and culture of their childhood. But that is simply a fantasy. They won’t return to the same country — if they return at all. Whether it’s through war, economic deprivation, or disease (most likely a combination), they will simply be reminded of why they left. It’s also not simply a case of packing up and flying away. Many of the ethnic minority doctors working in our NHS will have been trained abroad, only for the rewards of their country’s investment to be reaped by another. But then, surely the benefits will trickle back to those at home? Not really. People may send their relatives money every month, but what is really needed is for skills and expertise to stay in the home country to build the necessary infrastructure and give people a reason to stay.

Dr. Adil ElTayar, the first working surgeon to die of Covid in the UK, had volunteered to work on the COVID frontline. His story is one familiar to the Sudanese community. Bright student who worked hard and sought better things, not just for himself. He was known for his charity work and helping people back home. And that is the case across the board. Be it through money or helping to navigate complicated systems, there is always a hand outstretched from the diaspora across the world. In return, the home country has always been just as welcoming. A place of familiarity and nostalgia. This is why it is so painful when, at the same time that you hear of the many Sudanese-British doctors who have died in the UK (it is a well-connected community where everyone knows everyone), you also hear of the few experienced doctors left in Sudan, dying because they had no PPE. A generation that, whilst divided by borders, shared the same ambition to better their countries.

Watching your people die

That is all aside from the obvious but still crushing fact that people across the world are watching their loved ones suffer elsewhere, and perhaps needlessly. When my aunt forwarded a message to our family group chat one morning, it was all in Arabic and I didn’t have the patience to read it. It was only that evening when I heard my mother crying and saying a prayer that I asked what was wrong. The message had said that her uncle had died of Covid in the early hours of the morning. The little ‘forwarded’ in the corner signalled that the news was going round fast. In a few hours, it was in the state news. Her uncle had been a well-known, you guessed it — doctor.

An injustice that I know many will share is that being in his 70s, albeit otherwise healthy, he would have been vaccinated by now had he been in the UK. Or perhaps I should just say, had he simply not been in Sudan (or any other underdeveloped country), where Covid deaths are being censored, hospital beds are filling up (if you can afford one), and resources and expertise are scarce. My mother’s uncle was ‘lucky’. His children are doctors (in the UK), and they had the finances and knowledge to provide oxygen and other treatment at home. But it shouldn’t be like this. We talk about inequality all the time, like a dichotomy. But when you’ve got a foot on both sides, it’s much more complicated. Covid has only amplified these conflicts. The death of my mother’s uncle led to her reminiscing about the period in her life when she lived with him and his family whilst she was studying.

‘He treated me like one of his daughters’.

‘He was the most generous, funny and kind man’.

When I heard his name, I couldn’t put a face to it because I was so young when I had met him. But the associated memories were vivid. I remembered stepping off the plane for the first time and (according to my mother), picking up a pile of sand and shouting: ‘Look! Sand!’ as it was my first time seeing it outside of a sandpit. I remember the chatting and entertaining into the next morning, the horrendous traffic, the fresh juice bar, the many relatives who would pinch my cheeks and ask me if I knew who they were. The answer was mostly no. It feels unfair that the only time these memories, and these people, do come into sharp focus, is when they are gone.

People don’t set off from their home countries in some quest for riches and success. Yes, they want opportunities and a chance for their skills to be utilised. But, so much is sacrificed in the process. How many people take for granted having their relatives living nearby, or at least in the same country? The familial support network, the community and mutual understanding, the sense of belonging — all is severed when one joins the diaspora. And now with family suffering back in the homeland, suddenly all those lost years of connection and being together are bought to the fore.

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