On the glass of a bedroom window, one of the students across the road tallies ‘days inside’ in red lipstick, the letters oriented to be read from the street. My desk faces this window and its cheery running total that, with no release date in sight, lacks the sense of scratchings on the walls of a prison cell. An uncertain, unwelcome freedom awaits, with promises of economic collapse, unemployment, austerity and, for many, the long, potholed road of grief. Still, it is a comfort to see signs of life in another household, and to know someone is counting as though these were normal, individuated days and not a continuum of lost, fretful time.
While they count days, I, like many others, am counting deaths. Every day I wake up later than I’d like from thick, strenuous dreams, turn on my computer and bring up columns of live data. Once or twice I’ve caught a digit as it ticked over, and tried to chase from my mind an image of the movements that might have begun the chain of information: the gloves peeled back, the mask doffed, the pause before the phone call.
Death-counting isn’t new to me. For years I’ve been watching another counter with the same distress and no hope of abatement. The International Organisation of Migration’s Missing Migrants Project monitors and maps the deaths of those who lose their lives while trying to migrate, providing live, interactive maps pinpointing those who have suffocated, starved, frozen, drowned, been shot or hit by a vehicle, or failed to access medical care as they have tried to cross borders. As a Briton I take a particular interest in those who perish on their way to Europe. It’s like looking out from a Medieval bastion at bodies floating in the moat.
More than three hundred people have lost their lives so far this year in and around the Mediterranean, and 16,700 people have died since 2015. As spring advances, the seas are becoming calmer, and crossings will rapidly rise, as they do each year. Many more people will drown. Most will be healthy, far from home, with no one to reach for as they try and fail to take another breath, their lungs filling with fluid.
Last week, four boats containing hundreds of migrants set out from Libya, where 700,000 refugees wait, hoping for passage to Europe. Italy had already announced that it would block any rescue ships from docking at its ports. A day later, Malta did the same. Both claimed the pandemic reduced their capacity and prevented them from providing safe harbour. Over the Easter weekend, four boats, holding 258 migrants, were lost in the Mediterranean, with EU states refusing to respond to distress calls. One vessel, carrying 85 people, is still missing. A further 149 people have been held off the coast of Italy on a boat whose name, the Alan Kurdi, is an indictment of how little has been learned. Three people were evacuated on Wednesday after a suicide attempt on board. The others are now being transferred to a ferry for testing and quarantine.
Migrants’ journeys are not the beginning of their trauma but nor, for those who survive, are they the end. Half of the inmates at a refugee camp in Germany have tested positive for Covid-19. As with the camps in Greece, the answer so far has been to quarantine them, to lock in the outsiders. Yet there can be no physical distancing if 20,000 people are crammed into a camp that was meant for 3000: the infection will spread and many will die. Which of the counters will those deaths be reflected in? How many will have survived a sinking boat only to gasp for breath in their place of refuge?
Covid-19 is teaching many of us what it feels like to be dislocated from the past and face a future that hangs in the balance, to scan the faces of loved ones on grainy video calls for signs of illness or worry, to have our travel documents become meaningless, to feel unable to seek healthcare, to wonder who will be taken from us before we all land somewhere safe. Yet most of us are facing this discontinuity in our homes, speaking of the return to ‘normality’ as a place of refuge and belonging. There’s a port at the end of all this.
Now think of Italy at the height of its epidemic, synonymous in the West with fear, contagion, terror. And then imagine getting on a flimsy, crowded dinghy with a hundred others, sick and exposed on choppy waters, hoping against hope to reach Italy, a place of safety.