Seeing loved ones turned away from hospitals while UK politicians wasted resources, I felt a sort of moral vertigo
In Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, a 1987 film about the South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, there is a line that has haunted me since I was a child. Biko is trying to explain to a sympathetic white newspaper editor what it is like to grow up in a world where your fate is sealed before you’re even born. He describes how black children feel when they see the life white people live. “No matter how smart or dumb a white child is, he is born into that world. And you, a black child, smart or dumb, you are born into this. And, smart or dumb, you die in it.”
The words expressed the very opposite of what every youngster should believe: that, with enough individual effort, you can become whatever you choose to be. Instead, as Biko saw so clearly, the shape of some children’s lives is already decided. All over the world, children are born into lives they will never escape, limited by the circumstances of their race, gender and economic or social status. Those on the wrong side of the divide will be told a variation of the same myth: with enough hard work everyone has a shot, no matter how remote, at a better life. In the west, the pandemic has shattered this illusion, claiming people’s lives and livelihoods according to their racial and economic status. In low-income countries, that illusion was never there to begin with.