“We are all in this together,” posted by the Ohio State Department of Transportation Twitter Page, March 16, 2020
“We are all in this together.” That's the consoling statement I've been seeing lately on social media and in the news when fighting the global spread of coronavirus. However, I have been wondering if we are really in this together. In this moment, I feel as if my soul has been exposed, a common Burmese expression လိပ်ပြာမလုံ (latepya malone) to connote the feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and insecurity. My soul is exposed precisely because we are not in this together, at least not in the same way.
On March 23, 2020, the Facebook page of Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports published a report on the nation’s first two positive cases of COVID-19. Subsequent reports on coronavirus cases paint a distinctive picture in Myanmar; that is, the virus travels from western countries like the US, England, and Europe to “coronavirus-free” Myanmar. As the number of positive cases began to rise, Myanmar social media became saturated with public outrage, shaming returnees from western countries with the virus. At the time of this writing, Myanmar reports to have a total of 22 positive cases and 1 death and the Myanmar government has stopped issuing international visas.
Comment 1: “Because of those animals who return after getting green cards and those who only think highly of the foreign countries, now it’s all gone! It’ll be a trouble if we have to close our businesses and lock down the nation. Why are we accepting everyone who returns?”
Comment 2: “The present of those dogs who returned from abroad, they gave us the trouble and suffering!”
(Comments posted under the Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports' Facebook post on the first reported cases of coronavirus in Myanmar on March 23, 2020)
I was born Burmese and am now a naturalized US citizen. I left Myanmar in 2012 at the age of 20. All my family members remain in Myanmar. Eight years later in 2020, the day after I became a citizen on January 31, the US announced a travel ban with Myanmar. The ban limits future immigration, including family-based migration. The new barriers imposed between Myanmar and the US intensified the feelings of separation with my home country, now exacerbated in this pandemic.
In times of emergency we have an instinctive desire to be close to our loved ones. However, the xenophobic hatred towards expatriates in Myanmar challenges that desire in me. At the same time, it makes me question the privilege of choosing to expose my family to a potential threat of contagion just so I can feel closer to them.
The rhetoric of "we're all in this together" understandably tries to evoke a shared sense of vulnerability. Yet the outbreak inevitably underscores systemic hierarchies in our societies. National sovereignties and geographic border policies like the US travel ban have already split our bodies and minds apart. The spread of the coronavirus further stresses our existing differences in socioeconomic and immigration status, cultural and moral values, race, gender, age, (dis)ability status, and more. The international response to this pandemic today remains as fragmented as our own individual ability to cope with this crisis. My soul is exposed by the feelings of guilt from this realization and the shameful fact that we are not really all in this together.
Epilogue: “Dry or ခြောက်ကပ် (chautkat)” streets of downtown Yangon, shared by a friend on Instagram Story, April 3, 2020
Acknowledgement: မလုံ့တလုံ လိပ်ပြာကို အတတ်နိူင်ဆုံး လုံအောင် ဖုံးပေးတဲ့ Juan García Oyervides အားကျေးဇူးတင်လျက်
Chu May Paing
PhD Student, Department of Anthropology