For months she had been dreaming of it and finally Susheela Moonsamy was able to do it: get together with her relatives and give them a big hug. Throughout the pandemic she had only seen her siblings, nieces and nephews fully “masked up” at socially distanced gatherings. But a few weeks ago, as their home state of California pressed on with its efficient vaccination rollout, they could have a proper reunion.
“It was such an emotional experience, we all hugged each other; and with tears in our eyes, we thanked God for being with us and giving us the opportunity to see each other close up again and actually touch each other,” she says. “We never valued a hug from our family members that much before.”
A couple of weeks later, the high school counsellor set off from her home in Oakland for a family trip to Disneyland on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It felt “strange … but wonderful” after a year spent hunkered down with her elderly parents. But while they were away she and her relatives received news that brought great sorrow: one of Moonsamy’s cousins, the daughter of her father’s sister, had died of Covid-19.
This was not a family member in California, where Moonsamy has lived for 35 years, but in South Africa, the country where she was born and her parents left during apartheid. There, Covid is running rampant in a virulent third wave. Less than 6% of the population has had one dose of the vaccine and less than 1% has had two.
The virus has now claimed the lives of 13 of Moonsamy’s family and friends, and she feels every day may bring more bad news. Amid talk of the pandemic nearing its end in California, where more than half the population is fully vaccinated, she has very mixed feelings.
“It’s definitely exciting,” she says. “But at the same time you think of the ones that have gone, and you feel, if only they were able to get to this point – to celebrate with us. That would be just so great. We need to remember them … and look forward. To celebrate the freedom but at the same time keep the ones who have gone in mind.”
Moonsamy is far from the only person to feel conflicted about the easing of restrictions. Across Europe and North America in the coming months, mass vaccination programmes are expected to bring back some form of normality. In England restrictions are due to be eased on 19 July, baptised “Freedom Day” by the tabloid press. In the US, most states have lifted restrictions already. Across the EU, to varying degrees, countries are preparing to reopen for summer.
But in much of the rest of the world – from Kampala to Cape Town, the Philippines to Peru – the pandemic is not only ongoing but worsening. In low-income countries just 1% of the population on average has been given at least one dose of the vaccine.
Caught in the middle of this growing divide are millions of people with relatives in the developed and the developing worlds, who find themselves struck by the staggering global inequality in their daily family catchups, WhatsApp groups and Skype chats.
These huge differences have long been a facet of the diaspora experience, but the pandemic has magnified them. For many, the two-speed vaccination programmes have come to represent all that one part of the family has and the other has not.
“[I feel] a huge amount of guilt … and a lot of sadness,” says Isabella (not her real name), a law student born in Colombia but who has lived in Canada since she was four.
“You know, why is the world the way it is? Why is it that you have to leave your home country to be safe, to be healthy? Why couldn’t we have just stayed home and had the same experience as Canada’s having?”
Like much of South America, Colombia is in the grip of a third wave of Covid-19, which has claimed about 45,000 lives since mid-March – more than 40% of the total death toll. About 24% of the population has had their first dose of the vaccine; in Canada, the figure is 69%.
Isabella, 23, is fully vaccinated. Getting her first dose last month was an emotional experience. “I felt happy but I also remember just wanting to burst into tears when I was sitting in the little chair, because when I looked around me it was incredible to see how well organised the vaccination programme was, but I also knew that this is not the case in Colombia and it would be at least another year before my cousin my age in Colombia would be sitting in the same chair,” she says. “And who knows what might happen between now and then?”
Farouk Triki, 30, is a Tunisian software engineer living in Paris. He left his parents and siblings behind to move to France with his wife four years ago. He has had his vaccination, but none of his family back home have: the Tunisian rollout has seemed tortuously slow to those living there, with just 5% having received both doses.
Last month, as cases reached a record high, the first cases of the Delta variant were confirmed among the population, which has had the highest reported Covid-19 deaths per capita in Africa.
“[I’m] concerned and scared,” says Triki, “because I’ve heard that it’s even worse than the British [variant]”, which his family caught in March. His parents, Farouk and Hanen, both teachers in Sfax on the Mediterranean coast, emerged unscathed from the illness, with neither requiring hospital treatment. But Hanen remembers the time with sadness. “Many relatives and friends died of Covid 19,” she says.
For Isabella, who could only watch from afar as Covid tore through first her mother’s side of the family and then, last month, her father’s, the predominant feeling is helplessness. “I think [that] is the biggest thing, a feeling of not being able to do anything,” she says. “We try to help our family financially, sending them money if they need it, but other than that … that’s really all we can do from here.”
Others in a similar situation have attempted to rally the community to send money to help their home countries. Raj Ojha, a mortgage broker from Nepal living in Slough in the south of England, has raised £2,000 through his organisation, the Nepalese British Community UK group. The money will go to two grassroots charities helping those hit hardest in the small Himalayan nation.
“We are here in the UK and we can’t physically go back to Nepal. All we can do is extend our helping hands to the organisations that are working tirelessly in Nepal,” he says.
Ojha, who is in his 40s, is fully vaccinated, whereas when he spoke to his elder sister, who is 62, last month, she told him that she had been refused her first dose.
“That is the difference. She told me she was pushed away from the crowd, told ‘you are not 65 yet, you can’t get the vaccination yet’. And she has got diabetes and other illnesses as well,” he says. Ojha has family in Kathmandu and eastern Nepal, and none of them have been fully vaccinated; less than 3% of the country’s population has had both jabs.
At the start of this year, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that the world stood “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” if it did not get more vaccinations to the developing world. But such efforts have stalled. The Covax scheme, designed to deliver cheap doses and promote vaccine equality, was already facing accusations of aiming too low when its chief supplier, the Serum Institute of India, announced it was diverting its vaccine exports for domestic use. So far, it has distributed only 95m of the almost 2bn vaccines promised this year. Supplies are not the only problem: in many lower- and middle-income countries the logistics of a mass vaccination rollout put a huge strain on fragile healthcare systems.
Moonsamy, Ojha and Isabella agree that there is an ethical imperative for richer countries to help those with fewer resources. However it would not simply be altruism – it just makes sense.
“Now that developed countries are getting on the way to having their populations vaccinated, huge, huge efforts need to be made to get vaccines to developing countries – if not for the goodness of doing that for others then at least to protect the rest of the world from more variants,” says Isabella.
Moonsamy agrees. “This is a world problem that affects all of us. By helping others, we are actually helping ourselves,” she says. Last weekend, Moonsamy held a 4 July gathering for some of her Californian relatives. They laughed, ate and talked. They also prayed for their family in South Africa. “Our hearts ache for them,” she says.
“As much as we enjoy our amazing freedom from being locked down for the past year … we are not really free until we are all free. So we continue to do our part by helping others so that we can one day all celebrate our freedom together.”