Vol 16 No 2 (2023): Life Matters: The Human Condition in the Age of Pandemics—RIAS Vol. 16, Fall–Winter (2/2023)

In December of 2019 a new illness was identified in the city of Wuhan, China. It resembled a flu, but caused fever and a type of pneumonia which was very difficult to control and could be lethal among older adults. The virus was quickly identified as a type of coronavirus and named SARS-Co2 but could not be contained by the Chinese authorities. Carried by international travelers who had visited Wuhan, it rapidly spread to the United States and through Europe, first wreaking havoc in Italy and Spain and then in the entire world. In March of 2020, when the virus had reached most countries, causing major suffering and death, the World Health Organization (WHO) called on national governments to take special measures to avoid contagion as much as possible. These measures included “preventing transmission amplification events, and preventing further international spread.” In March of 2020, WHO declared COVID-19, as the condition provoked by the SARS-Co2 virus was named, a pandemic. WHO declared the end of the COVID-19 emergency on May 5 of 2023, after at least thirteen million people had died from the SARS-CoV2 virus. The COVID-19 pandemic led not only to a drastic loss of human life worldwide, but also posed an unprecedented challenge to human existence and survival at the global level, probably the greatest test to humans in the post-World War-II history, causing devastating economic and social disruption. Thousands of people lost their jobs, often falling into extreme poverty and thousands of businesses folded. Suicide statistics skyrocketed; the count of isolation-related depression cases has never been higher, and mental health, especially among the youngest, has become imperiled. And although the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2021 and Israel’s war on Palestine, in 2023, diverted the world’s attention away from COVID, millions of people world-wide continue living under the constant threat of the virus, as registered by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in October 2023. New COVID strains keep researchers and vaccine specialists on their toes, while politics, both globally and nationally, impacts the availability, cost and even efficacy of the booster shots. Beyond doubt, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone. As the world survey quoted above shows, the aftermath of the pandemic seemed to point towards a renewed focus on the fundamental truths of life, such as survival, livelihood, human dignity, and basic human rights. But in reality, COVID-19 awakened many demons. Governments leaning towards the old divide et impera cynically used regulations concerning isolation to pass laws that would otherwise cause riots in the streets. Scapegoating, xenophobia, and the intensification of hate discourses dangerously resembling those reverberating in Germany in the 1930s emerged during the pandemic and have continued in its aftermath. Intellectuals have been targeted by silencing policies worldwide. Importantly, the pandemic brought forth the manifestation of yet another face of privilege, glaringly showing through the pandemic’s global statistics, that not all lives matter equally. Some social groups have proven to be more vulnerable, and governments protect some groups while caring less or even abandoning others, and after the massive vaccination campaigns of 2021 and 2022, which saved millions of lives, came along new, brutal wars, including the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and Palestine by Israel. These circumstances continue to remind us that we live in a world widely divided by politics, privilege, and military objectives. Needless to say, the effects Stiglitz pointed out in 2020 continue to date: the pandemic has proven particularly detrimental to the elderly, to Indigenous nations, and to those living in utmost poverty. People without access to running water, refugees, migrants, or displaced persons also stand to suffer invariably both from the pandemic and its aftermath, which includes the current wars in Ukraine, the Middle East and several African countries. This issue of the Review of International American Studies aims to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our cultural milieu, and the pathways now opening (or closing) for humans and life. (Read more in the "Introduction" by Gabriela Vargas-Cetina and Manpreet Kaur Kang)