Social distance and social media

Can pandemic communication become sickening as well?

Almost 10 years ago, in 2011, social media probably saw its first huge hype as a political tool for communication and organising revolutionary movements in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya. During the pandemic the internet is again celebrated as a space where face to face connections are possible while maintaining a physical and spatial distance. Just after those movements the limits of online activism were drawn up quickly by heavily armed military forces, are we going to discover our inner boundaries of pervasive crisis communication soon? These are the reflections of a PhD student from Egypt living in Italy.

Right now I am only sharing my whereabouts with my mom who knows that I will be as safe as possible about my movements. Other friends know that I have spent some of my time during the heat exploring cities in the South of Italy but now that I am home alone in Florence I feel a little more comfortable to share my everyday life with friends and family, because I have similar routines and rhythms. In a way, the lack of excitement I am feeling after my summer holidays is making me more comfortable.  

In Egypt, the lockdown is not very strict. Since the country is slowly opening up again, there is less awareness of the potential risks of the virus. My family and friends are trying to be cautious and do not go out more than absolutely necessary, avoiding huge gatherings at a moment where even the cinemas are reopened – but that is their voluntary decision, no measures are there to limit people’s movements anymore. We have my grandmother living with us, she is 88 and even my father belongs to the risk group so my mom, my sister and her husband, everyone is trying to be careful.

On paper cases are falling but these statistics have to be viewed with caution. There has never been a clear indicator for us about the number of tests carried out, the only indicators reported are new detected cases, people passing away, the recovery rate as well as the total number of infections since the beginning of the outbreak. I think part of the reason for those lower numbers is that there are too little tests. Even at the peak of the pandemic, there were about 4000 tests a day which is nothing given the population of Egypt which is roughly over 100 million people. There has always been a gap of information sharing. Until today the number of accumulated overall tests is unknown. 

At end of May and during all of June I opened my Facebook and I saw that it had turned into a place of mourning. Everyone was sharing stories about witnessing cases among their dear ones, a lot of warnings against the virus, a lot of and reports of deaths. My friends’ mother was among thoseem who passed away from the disease. I thought, if this is becoming so widespread at least within my circle then there must be a gap of information, even if Facebook itself is skewed due to its focus on sensationalism and algorithms and how it surrounds you with people holding the same views, there must be something wrong. 

Even within the family of my friend whose mother passed away, when they got tested, the test results  did not become out immediately available the way as they should have. My friend needed to use her her network and call get help from people who have access to health facilities. And s she is highly educated with a PhD from the UK, she might be able to have by default more opportunities and connections than others. Imagine what people from less fortunate backgrounds with less education, or simply from a village outside Cairo might have faced during this time. Cairo is the city with the most possibilities and facilities and even there it was hardly possible to get a test quick enough before it was too late. My friend’s’ father got his results only 12 days afterwards, by that time his wife was already dead. 

Right now the most dominant images on Facebook are those of people posting about their beach holidays. So as a collective effort, socially speaking I cannot really say where this is going, even with people on alert, living with the virus as a part of life, they are not really scared anymore as was the case month and a half ago. This probably also has to do with attention being diverted to other political crises. In those discussions taking place, There is a lot of concern about the Nile dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia – up to the point where military threats have been expressed implicitly, thereby catching most of the attention rather than a focus on the virus. Then you have the explosion in Beirut, the discussion about of redrawing the borders of international waters between Egypt and Greece, you have the escalation with Turkey, and the interventions in Libya. There are so many unresolved regional and domestic issues that make the virus is the least of their concerns.

It seems that the Nile crisis is transforming into something that – at least locally – has such a great impact that it will not only affect Egypt today but also future generations to come. Ethiopia is intending to construct a dam which would significantly cut Egypt’s water resources if filled faster than anticipated. That makes it not only an issue of national security, but also development, poverty, agriculture and so many more sectors of economic activity. Even if there may be a huge amount of state propaganda pushing this topic to the top of the agenda, but that does not negate the fact that there is a nationwide concern. 

In this conflict, there have been various phases of escalation and de-escalation but it has reached a new level with many international players involved, including the US and China – two antagonists who yet still entertain strategic partnerships with both parties in the water conflict. There are Chinese investments in the Ethiopian dam project, but so are many stakes from Chinese in Egyptian investments in Egypt. The US has been rather silent on the issue which has been noted in Egypt with caution. But it seems that many African countries – including Eritrea which had many border conflicts with Ethiopia and just recently signed a peace treaty in 2018 – are now siding with Ethiopia. Some of them, like Sudan have an interest in a share of these emerging Ethiopian water resources.  

These days I am consciously switching off from the news. I miss out on a lot of things. In recent years, Facebook has become my main source of news, because many sites of journalism like Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian news website, and Al Jazeera are blocked in Egypt. So many sites and blogs are inaccessible, so Facebook is the only sphere that still allows a form of information sharing. When I go on Facebook today, I see either Lebanese homes that are flattened or conversations of my friends from Beirut talking about how the city is never going to be the same. I don’t even feel like speaking about it, because it hits me so hard that this was the first city I lived in for over a year that gets suddenly destroyed by a war-like catastrophe. Places I used to hang out, now look like places of war.

To make sure I can get out of bed, to not feel paralyzed by this, I have been trying not to think about it, just to go to the kitchen and cook something, to make sure of my own reality away from these places where those crises are unfolding. I feel useless, ineffective, guilty for not being in the contexts I care about, that I can ride my bike safely to just go to the grocery store. I am starting to feel like, it should not be like this. I am consciously disconnecting from these realities to manage the information overload. We have been living under crises since 2010, not just in Egypt, but also in Syria and Lebanon and the rest of the region, which is really psychologically hectic and unsettling.

But this is not only about the issue of reading posts by others, but also engaging into the debate myself, what I share and how I do it. When the explosion in Beirut happened, I received many texts from friends to check in on me. They assumed that I was still living there and wanted to know how the situation was. This was partly probably also because ever since I moved to Italy, I have not been sharing much about my whereabouts. Within the last year there was a process of disconnecting for me from these platforms. 

This has been really agonising, I have started thinking of the act of posting in in a destructive way, I feel like it is motivated by the wrong reasons. Either you do it for your own image you want people to have, or to get it out of your system, to give yourself the relief that you have done something for the cause with your online action. Once I get the urge and start writing, I feel like, no it is going to be stressful for others to read. I became very skeptical, I don’t even want to share happy moments, I prefer to actually spend time with people.

During quarantine I used to post stories, but I started thinking that this is unfair to people having a hard time in Egypt right now. Or if I posted about Lebanon, it could be triggering for people who are there right now and how they don’t want to be pitied by others for example. So I have been really censoring even how I think about these things, I am becoming a very private person, I don’t want people to have clues about my live. I was even thinking of cancelling all my social media accounts. 

This stress had some very real physical effects on me. There has been a gang rape case in Egypt of which details are slowly emerging on the surface over the last months, even if it already happened six years ago. My stomach turns when I read about it. Your system gets clogged up, it makes you freeze.


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