‘Do you have any hand sanitiser?’.
The store clerk in the Parisian pharmacy I am standing in looks at me with such incredulity that I feel as though I have asked for crack cocaine. I give her a sheepish smile, ‘I know, I know….’.
I am a few days into a long planned overseas holiday and my trip to la pharmacie is my first real acknowledgement of coronavirus, or COVID-19 as this particular strain has been coined.
Days earlier, home in Australia, I had shrugged off any concerns about travelling amidst the coronavirus outbreak. Since then, Italy has gone into virtual lockdown, Saudi Arabia has suspended pilgrimage to Mecca and my fellow Australians have literally been fighting in the supermarket over toilet paper. I’m not worried but willing to concede that it may not be the worst idea to take some precautionary measures.
The internet is full of memes about travelling during the coronavirus outbreak, now officially a pandemic, or going on a ‘coronavacation’. ‘If the world is going to end, you may as well spend it in a five-star hotel in Italy for $20 a night’ declares one meme; ‘here for a good time, not a long time’ declares another.
According to famed Canadian theorist Marhsall McLuhan the ‘medium is the message’. For millennials, the meme may as well be the message and the message is pretty existential. For Australians, it has been a particularly existential start to the year marked by fires, floods and hail storms.
Travelling during the coronavirus outbreak does have a slightly existential air. Every airport I enter is filled with people covered in masks. Every cough elicits a sideways glance. Every news alert feels like it could bring with it news of further doom.
However, the virus, which cares not for borders, language, nationality, race, gender or celebrity, with even Tom Hanks not being immune, is a reminder of how connected we are and the responsibility we all have towards one another. Similar to the Australian bushfires, underneath the deep fear and concern is a camaraderie that has bonded people. In these precarious moments, we realise what is important and our stark mortality become very clear. The small issues become inconsequential as we recalibrate what it is important – our health, families and loved ones.
Let it be a reminder to never forget the most vulnerable among us.
It becomes a point of shared connection with nearly everyone I encounter. We compare notes on our countries responses to the coronavirus. How to ensure even if you are not among a part of the population particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, you don’t give it to someone else. A stranger on the train tells me to stop touching my face (which incidentally I have discovered is my favourite pastime I never knew about). ‘Did you wash your hands?’ becomes my new love language.
The speed at which the virus has spread and upended our lives from travel bans to the cancellation of major events is a reminder of just how vulnerable and interconnected we are. We are together, ironically in our isolation, like the human condition itself.
For those of us privileged enough to have never even previously contemplated or even confronted by this type of fear, let it be a reminder to never forget the most vulnerable among us – asylum seekers, the chronically ill, casual and service workers and those in countries without adequate health care. It’s a stark reminder that as a human family - we are ultimately in this together and need to make society fairer and more equal for all.
As for me I now have 24 hours of flying ahead of me, can someone spare me some hand sanitiser?
Fatima Malik is a lawyer and a writer. You can follow Fatima on Instagram here.