Glory to the Unknowns: A Visual Tribute to the World’s Poor and Vulnerable in the Time of COVID-19
The tragedy is immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years. Who doesn’t remember the videos of “patient dumping” — sick people, still in their hospital gowns, butt naked, being surreptitiously dumped on street corners? Hospital doors have too often been closed to the less fortunate citizens of the US. It hasn’t mattered how sick they’ve been, or how much they’ve suffered. At least not until now — because now, in the era of the virus, a poor person’s sickness can affect a wealthy society’s health.
— Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal,” Financial Times
“GOD ONLY KNOWS how many of us will die,” shivers Fayza Ahmed Ibrahim, a 63-year-old widow and unemployed mother of four, who resides in a densely populated informal settlement in east Cairo. The “us” she refers to is the third of Egyptians who also live hand-to-mouth and below the poverty line — on less than $1.50 a day — as the novel coronavirus tightens its global grip. “What can we do when the virus comes for us?”
It’s impossible not to notice her eyes above the blue facemask. They are bloodshot from both crying and chronic illness (diabetes-related retinal fibrosis), a testament to the double pandemic she faces of corona and poverty.
The warnings and prognoses from international charities and crisis organizations are bleak. “By the end of the year 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself,” Oxfam cautions. “[T]he number of children living in multidimensional poverty — without access to education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation, or water — […] has soared to approximately 1.2 billion due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” UNICEF and Save the Children alert. And, in recent calculations of the International Labour Organization, “the COVID-19 outbreak means that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy — that is nearly half of the global workforce — stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.” In Fayza’s homeland of Egypt, for instance, some 60 percent of the population is either poor or vulnerable, and an estimated 63 percent of the workforce is informally employed. Many are inching closer and closer to poverty-driven struggle, day by day.
Egyptian photojournalist Hamada Elrasam, who spoke to Fayza outside an increasingly stretched east Cairo food bank last April, wants his corona coverage to spotlight Egypt’s forgotten majority. In essence, he says, “I want to make the struggles of the ‘unknowns’ known.”
“What do you mean by ‘unknowns’?” I asked Elrasam, a longtime collaborator, over the phone in May. At first, he replied visually, passing along an allegorical scene from the deepening crisis: a midday snapshot of a 2014 graffiti mural by Egyptian artist Ammar Abo Bakr, as seen on downtown Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street (where dozens of demonstrators were either shot dead or blinded by counterrevolutionary security forces in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising).
While I gazed at the sorrowful child pictured on my screen, the photojournalist unpacked his evocative backstory:
It was March 25, the first night of the nationwide curfew. I grabbed my camera and headed for Tahrir Square, which was devoid of people and cars but filled with way more police trucks and personnel than usual. Officers at a checkpoint turned me away. I felt disappointed by the missed opportunity and fearful of the months of crisis to come.
On my way home, I cut across an eerily empty Mohamed Mahmoud Street, lit by street lamps and the ghosts of the fallen. I instinctively stopped at the sight of one of Ammar Abo Bakr’s iconic murals, which I must have passed hundreds of times in the last six years. For the first time in a long time, I observed it uninterrupted … In the foreground, a young boy with bloodshot and sunken eyes stared back at me: Sayed Khaled, a homeless child who was the youngest martyr of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Ammar, who refers to Sayed as “the crying boy of the revolution,” had painted a pair of wings coming from his back and a sandwich in his hands. Just over the tip of his right wing, an Arabic inscription reads, “Glory to the unknowns.”
That quiet moment brought this raging pandemic into sharp focus for me: the poor and vulnerable were the “unknowns” before corona, and they’ll be the “unknowns” long after it if we don’t begin to cure our world of poverty and inequality.
Elrasam went on to show me a collection of mid-pandemic scenes from across Cairo that he says “collectively embody” the mural’s inscription. Women work long hours at a food bank so hundreds of thousands of families won’t go hungry. The entrance to a private charity is crowded with frantic mothers, the luxury of social distancing eclipsed by their families’ hunger.
On the banks of the River Nile, two laborers, Ali and Mohamed, break their fast for Ramadan with a meal provided by a local charity. Like an untold number of Egyptians, they frequently travel long distances from the climate-crisis-affected agricultural countryside to earn poverty wages for their families. Further downstream, a keeper at the Giza Zoo cleans an enclosure, fulfilling his responsibilities to both the animals and his family in spite of the virus’s ominous spread. Back in mid-March, a group of these zookeepers braved a torrential storm for many kilometers on foot after public transport was halted. “Who’s going to feed the animals,” they asked Elrasam, adding: “It’s God’s will for us to care for them.”
Just off Tahrir Square, a cleaner disinfects the vitrine of a macabre mummy inside the now-shuttered Egyptian Museum. The tourist site exemplifies the vital industry that employs millions of Egyptians, accounts for at least 12 percent of the country’s GDP, and has been suspended in grave uncertainty with losses estimated at $1 billion per month. A short walk from the museum, near Mohamed Mahmoud Street, uneasy working-class people amass outside the Central Public Health Laboratories. As they wait to take the coronavirus test, many of them tell the photojournalist that they must reach employment opportunities in the wealthy Gulf countries to better support their struggling families here in Egypt.
Since the start of the corona crisis, Elrasam has interviewed scores of “unknowns” as part of his coverage, from mothers like Fayza to laborers like Ali and Mohamed, who are all teetering on the breadline. Their collective message is one of global fragility: “If we don’t die from the virus, we’ll die from poverty.”
Note: As of late September, Egypt has confirmed over 102,000 coronavirus infections and nearly 6,000 fatalities. Back in May, the health advisor to Egypt’s US-backed president told reporters that around 100,000 tests for the coronavirus had been conducted across the country, which officially hit the 100 million population mark earlier this year. Around that time, the Egyptian Medical Union sent a letter to the “health ministry and concerned authorities” calling for the speeding up of regular “PCR tests for all health workers to help with the ‘early detection of infections and to provide the treatment before it becomes too late.’” A couple months later, reported cases saw a decline as Egyptians “struggled to return to work,” critics (doctors and journalists) remained incarcerated, and the state urged citizens to “coexist with the virus” until further notice. However, infections spiked in August as mosques and churches in Cairo reopened after a five-month shutdown. “We are worried that the virus will start spreading faster,” a young man, flanked by his wife and two children, told Elrasam, “but we don’t ever want to stop praying or going to church.” The photojournalist says that in Egypt there is “great stigma attached to being corona-positive, so people often hide it to protect their families and livelihoods, which means that the true number of infections and deaths are unknown, too.”
Elle Kurancid is an independent writer and editor based in the Mediterranean region.
Hamada Elrasam is a freelance photojournalist and videographer based in Cairo.
LARB Staff Recommendations
From the early days of the pandemic, Steven Shapin on the ways COVID-19 requires us to care for each other and our communities.
On the “Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen” and the Western-supported, Saudi-led coalition has targeted Yemeni civilians.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!