A virus in search of asylum

This satirical treatment of coronavirus as a new type of migrant presents an elegant parody on patronising attitude to refugees, a cry for help in disguise. As a Moscow-born bilingual novelist, broadcaster and short story writer, Zinovy Zinik has been reflecting on the notions of alienation and exile in his prose for many years. His citizenship was revoked by the authorities in 1975 after he was forced to emigrate from the Soviet Union. He has been living and working in London since 1976. Many thanks to ZZ for allowing us to publish this piece.

We should put a stop to the paranoid demonisation of coronavirus orchestrated mainly by white privileged elderly males who imagine they are the prime targets of this so-called “pandemic”. These scaremongers isolate themselves from the virus in their social ghettoes, but none can give a clear definition of the coronavirus’s symptoms, just as nobody can provide a list of the Semitic features defining a Jew without resorting to Nazi stereotypes. Sometimes, the virus’ presence – nay, its very existence – is extremely difficult to detect. In fact, nobody, unless he or she has been tested in hospital, can state with certainty whether he or she had the virus and then recovered, or just had a severe flu attack. False accusations of murder by the virus grow by the day: a person dies of Spanish flu or chicken pox but coronavirus is picked out and blamed for the crime. It has been held responsible for all thinkable and unthinkable illnesses. The elitist malicious nature of the virus is also fake news: it is egalitarian in its choice of abode and ageing progressive liberals are not its only “victims”. The facts demonstrate the inherent multiculturalism of the coronavirus – it affects different races and ethnic minorities differently. 

Unquestionably it has upset our established way of life; but in our hearts we all know that the coronavirus is only a new type of refugee seeking a place to settle down away from Chinese totalitarianism and other oppressive regimes. Having been persecuted so cruelly in Communist China, no wonder it chose to seek political asylum in the Western democracies. It has found asylum in our bodies. Indeed, its origin and cultural traditions are alien to us. Its demands on our bodies to be unconditionally accommodating are sometimes arrogant. And yet, a lot can be learnt from the virus: it urges us to improve our shabby standards of hygiene and bedside manners. Pontius Pilate had his own reasons for washing his hands, but the Inquisition identified citizens of Jewish origin in medieval Spain exactly by this habit – the ritualistic washing of hands. The virus prompts us to cover our faces in the same way that our persecuted minority of Muslims has always instructed its women to do. It is time now for men to follow this healthy advice too. Let all of us be niqabbed from now on, males and females, and maintain a safe distance from each other as traditional British pillar boxes always did. We need a foreigner to remind us of our national moral values. The virus urges us to return to solitude and contemplation in the countryside, away from the society of spectacle in our big cities and the cruel pursuit of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

Indeed, the virus attempts a degree of restructuring of our bodily functions, which leads in some cases to serious trouble. It changes some parts of its new dwelling like a new lodger moving furniture around in a rented property to fit his sense of home. If the landlord resists these changes, or if our bodies overreact with unreasonable aggressiveness and intolerance towards the virus, it can indeed have deadly consequences. There is nothing unusual or perverse in this overreaction of the oppressed towards the oppressor. We have witnessed similar responses from every new wave of migrants and refugees reaching our shores. Can’t we dig a bit deeper to understand the ways in which coronavirus sometimes turns out to be so lethal to us? We learned the lesson in past about the sinister role played by British imperialism in forging worldwide terrorist movements from Ireland to Palestine. We once embraced Soviet mass murderers as the defenders of the poor, as it were. By the end of the last decade we had run out of persecuted minorities on our worldwide list of victims. The virus has been timely and propitious in filling the gap.

Perhaps we should start accommodating the virus without any preconceived prejudices. Our liberal traditions of tolerance and kindness to strangers instruct us to treat coronavirus on an equal footing with other asylum seekers, to grant it equal rights and embrace it as one of us in a modern world riven by the evil legacy of global capitalism. We should welcome the emergence of coronavirus as a rejuvenating force for humanity and worldwide socialist aspirations. Coronavirus is the arch-refugee whose contagious nature can trigger either worldwide revolutionary violence or a worldwide renaissance. Let’s hope for the latter.

© Zinovy Zinik, 2020


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