During the first wave of COVID-19 in the Spring and Summer of 2020, every evening at the same time – as seen on television news as much as in our city streets – we beat saucepans with wooden spoons and we also clapped. We clapped as if our lives depended on it. Not in our Vancouver building, though: we have no balconies and we are nowhere near any hospital or health clinic for gratitude to be heard or acknowledged, but we silently clapped with our hearts. COVID fatigue has now set in as we enter our second year of pandemic, and our hearts are clapped out.
If we feel fatigued as mere spectators, what can we say of those who care for us? We see the exhaustion on their faces, those men and women doubly or triply masked, wrapped in plastic from head to toe. We know taking care of others takes its toll but such a toll, and for so long, is hard to bear, yet their enduring compassion is compelling.
All will soon be well, we are told. Vaccination has already started for very old and fragile people, together with those who care for them. Others will follow, until everyone is made to feel safer. This is not true of the whole world, naturally, particularly of Africa where in one of the poorest countries only twenty-five people have been so far vaccinated. “Not twenty-five thousand, not twenty-five hundred,” the head of the World’s Health Organization tells us, “Just twenty-five.” Only 230,000 vaccines have been administered in the whole continent, in contrast to the millions of Westerners already vaccinated.
Faced with worldwide demand, manufacturers struggle to ramp up production while governments clamour for the existing supply. Anticipating this challenge and to allay the discrimination of access, several NGOs created COVAX, a plan for wealthy countries to help offer “fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.” These vaccines were clearly intended for developing countries shut out of an open market––for poverty is also a pandemic. However, faced with delayed shipments and an uncertain supply chain, as well as political embarrassment, Canada decided to recover some of her share of the COVAX order and use it at home. Canada privileging her own: what could be more natural?
But privileging one’s own is not always the rule. During three days at the end of June 1859, the women of the small city of Castiglione did something we might do well to remember today. When the long lines of wounded from the nearby battlefield of Solferino started arriving, the authorities first tried to repulse the wounded Austrians, only allowing through the Sardinian-Piemontese troops and their French allies. The women of Castiglione stared them down. “Tutti fratelli,” they said. They are all brothers.
Leaving nearly 5,000 dead behind, many of the 23,000 wounded continued to arrive, their various uniforms equally stained into the same hue of mud, blood, and guts. They came, brought on makeshift contraptions pulled or carried by mules, the blind and the lame supporting one another. The women nursed them all, side by side, dragoons and grenadiers, bersaglieri and zouaves, voltigeurs and uhlans, lancers and hussars–– King Victor Emmanuel, Emperor Napoleon III, but also Emperor Franz Joseph’s men. All received their share of whatever could be mustered of water, food, bandages, and compassion.
There have been many battles but Solferino, where modern Italy was forged, remains among the bloodiest. It is said that even the horses, caught up in the spirit of carnage, fought among themselves. Yet, during the three days that followed the horrifying battle and the fury, as the wounded were triaged and first treated in Castiglione, all that prevails was organizing, tending, feeding, reassuring, caring for all.
One civilian, a travelling Swiss gentleman by the name of Henri Dunant, surveyed the battlefield of Solferino and was inspired by the women of Castiglione. He and the Red Cross he founded as a result of what he witnessed between 24 and 27 June 1859 were three times awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A monument celebrates The Courageous Women of Castiglione, who “accepted human pain beyond uniforms.”
Surely, if there is a time when these women’s message should be remembered, it is now. The message is still “tutti fratelli.” Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also the smart one, for the family of man can only be safe when all its members are protected, not just those in our own household. It is also the best way to show those exhausted nurses of ours that we admire their dedication. It beats clapping.
Henri Dunant, Un souvenir de Solferino(1911), Patrick Turnbull, Solferino. The Birth of a Nation(1985).
Random thoughts by an anthropologist on living in a time of upheaval.