From the Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 8, 2020.
The outbreak of COVID-19 here in the United States is not to be minimized. The deadly virus is taking the lives of thousands of our fellow citizens each day, and the efforts to abate its spread has put millions of Americans out of work. The pain of this pandemic is incalculable and will be lasting.
As we trudge through this difficult time in our history, it is worth looking at the comparable realities of those of us in prosperous nations and those living in impoverished ones. In addition to gaining a sense of gratitude, we might be able to even glean a lesson or two.
With COVID-19 spreading throughout our neighborhoods, we now have a new normal. Just months ago, accustomed to abundance, convenience and prosperity, Americans now are confused and anxious and afraid as we face a sense of scarcity.
We find ourselves impatient with long lines, supply shortages and restrictions on movement. We fear that our health care system will be overrun and attempt to flatten the curve until more medical supplies and ventilators can be manufactured. We are panic-stricken about food supplies not being in adequate stock. We don’t like the boredom of “shelter at home” orders; telephone calls, Zoom meetings, books, family and television are not enough to satiate our tiny attention spans.
Consider on the other hand the daily and normal plight of the more than 70 million refugees living across the world today. For them, our new normal is their normal.
Refugees are accustomed to long lines. They daily walk long and wait just for water — if they are lucky enough to have access to it. They live without basic supplies. And they have no access to any clinic that is not already overrun. The medical supplies we are short of don’t even exist in their poverty-stricken camps. Refugees shelter at home every day in tents without access to internet, TV or any of the distractions we take for granted.
The fear, suffering and angst that we now feel are felt by refugees every day.
Most of us among the affluent in America have too much food, more stuff than we want, tremendous health care, retirement plans and insurance. For many of us, our first worlds only fall apart when facing the rogue difficult events in life: death, cancer, divorce, addiction, and business failure, to name a few.
Across the world, things are always falling apart for its millions of refugees. The only difference between them and us is that they are poor and have no country. They want the exact same things we do: safety, security and a better life for their children.
When we hear politicians and news commentators say, “We are all in this together,” what does that mean? Does it mean our families? Does it mean our neighborhoods, our states and our country? Should it not too include those who are far away and among the very poorest and most disenfranchised populations?
When Jesus of Nazareth, history’s most influential leader, was asked: “Who is my neighbor?” his answer was someone far away, of a different race, and in great need. We must come to see the world’s refugees are our neighbors.
The global poor do not want our pity. They want to be treated respectfully, and they deserve to be. When you hear that much of the planet’s poor live on less than a dollar a day, what do you think? Have you ever considered how difficult it would be to live on a dollar a day? What attributes are needed to live on so little? Courage, resourcefulness, frugality, creativity, flexibility and, above all, strength and steadfastness.
Refugees don’t read books on having purpose; they already have it — simply to survive. They don’t study how to slow down; they live one day at a time and derive great simple joy in doing so.
While it would seem natural for refugees to resent having so little, almost every one I have met has emphasized how thankful they are for having what little they do. Their lives are defined by needs rather than wants.
So while we in America brace ourselves for the brunt of this epidemic, which will be heartbreaking and tragic, we also cannot forget that our refugee neighbors are a thousand times more vulnerable. “Shelter at home” is an impossibility with extended families living under one small roof. Face masks, incubators and ICU rooms are nonexistent. Even soap to wash hands is a scarcity. While we do what we can here in America to protect ourselves, we are morally obligated to do all that we can to help our refugee neighbors who are by far the most defenseless against this terrible virus. History will be our judge.
Ward Brehm, of Minneapolis, is a retired Twin Cities business executive. He serves on the board of directors of Alight, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that works with refugees, the Eastern Congo Initiative, and the U.S. African Development Foundation in Washington, D.C.