Amnesia all around

Racism and eurocentrism is only part of our collective amnesia and our response to the news cycle

Muhammad Hamid Zaman June 14, 2022
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman


Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of this year, the humanitarian crisis on people’s mind was the famine, poverty and disease in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in the months since the Russian invasion and attack, the crisis in Afghanistan has not gotten better. In fact, if anything it has gotten worse. Recent reports from the capital Kabul show long lines in front of offices of the World Food Programme, and many in the lines are those who not long ago were able to make the two ends meet. They are no longer able to do that. Hospitals are struggling, infection is still out of control and there is less to eat.

The world, it seems, and along with it the international aid agencies have moved on. There are fewer stories from Afghanistan reported today than there were in January 2022. There are undeniable elements of racism and Eurocentrism in the collective action of the countries in the West, but it is hard to understand why the countries in the neighborhood of Afghanistan, including affluent Muslim countries, are no longer interested in providing much needed aid and care to the millions those who are in the midst of famine and disease.

Racism and eurocentrism is only part of our collective amnesia and our response to the news cycle. In late summer of 2021, several staff members of a humanitarian agency that I worked with in Yemen were moved to the Afghanistan office. The Yemen crisis — while still raging in full force and the system ravaged by poverty, conflict and Covid — was somehow no longer a priority. Everyone needed to be in Afghanistan, they were told.

We can go back in time a little bit more to see similar trends. Rohingyas are still in a state of displacement, still denied many basic rights, still dealing with repeated episodes of fire in their tents, and still longing to get their dignity back. The only reason an occasional story appears about them in the newspapers is either because there is a case of a new fire in the camps, a boat carrying Rohingya capsizes, or because some of them who had tried to settle in India are attacked in the wave of anti-Muslim campaign that is continuing unabated.

The problem is not just in camps and countries outside our borders. Last year, with the 50th anniversary of the war of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh, a number of people wrote and spoke passionately and eloquently about the plight of millions of stateless Bengalis in the country. Many of the Bengalis who are stateless were born in Pakistan and are eligible for Pakistani citizenship. Yet, in a world of suspicion, racism, bigotry and a court system that does not work for the marginalised, they remain in a state of exclusion, anxiety and fear. There was a sliver of hope last year that there may be some reflection and action to undo the injustice. Nothing came out of it. We moved on, they stayed in their misery.

It is true that the news cycle is overwhelming and there are new challenges on the ground that need to be reported. However, the news cycle as we see it is not simply reactive to the ground realities. It is also deliberate in choosing what it seems worthy or marketable. There is often more emphasis on leaked videos of politicians or celebrities, caustic one-liners on Twitter, or inane back and forth bickering. This cycle creates an environment where it is easy to forget that millions in Afghanistan have nothing to eat, or that in Bangladesh there are Rohingyas who need our help. Or that we need to face our own racism in Machhar Colony in Karachi. By choosing to not report on the protracted crises, we allow our amnesia to guide our lives and our (in)action. By choosing to “move on” we become a party to the misery of the displaced and disenfranchised.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2022.

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