“Hey, are you good? Trump is saying Americans need to come back home.”
This is what my friend Ryan texted a couple of weeks ago. He’s a black American, originally from Miami, but is studying in Tokyo. For a second I wondered if this was by some kind of decree, and I furiously texted him back.
“Wait, I don’t get it,” I wrote, “are you saying you’re going back there?”
Several minutes passed with no response. I was starting to worry.
“Oh, no. I’m not. Unless things change.”
I sunk back into the cushions of my couch in Johannesburg, relieved, and texted him back my regards, because while many are out there furiously trying to get back to their home countries, lots of black Americans, like my friends and I, are trying to stack our decks to stay gone.
But unlike Ryan, my visa has expired, and some of my friends’ visas are expiring soon, too.
I came back to Johannesburg last December, intending to tuck in for a while. Like many Americans here, I was planning on running the border for three months before a new visa would allow me to return. Needless to say, my plans have been upturned: The coronavirus made sure of that. Now, when I leave Johannesburg, it is unlikely I’ll be able to return for six months to a year. Like some other countries, the entry restrictions added after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic could prevent me from crossing back into the country with an American passport.
Most of my friends here are black women, including some fellow Americans. For a while we watched coronavirus travel around the world from a place of relative comfort; while new countries were lighting up on the map every morning signaling new infections, we stayed clear down here for much longer than most. And we thought it would stay that way for at least another month or more, but here we are in the thick of the outbreak. Just as I was planning to leave, we watched borders close around us like dominoes, and with my options slowly dwindling, I was left looking for somewhere, anywhere, to go until the answer was finally nowhere.
I think it was on March 23 when people started seeing tanks on the streets. Even though it was only a few at first, news like this has a way of making the rounds on WhatsApp. The next night, President Cyril Ramphosa announced a comprehensive 21-day lockdown from which I am writing to you right now. South Africa is much more comprehensive than some other countries’ mandatory quarantines — the only times we are allowed to leave our homes are for groceries or medical care, and penalties can be harsh and swift. No planes in or out, and over two-thirds of land border crossings are completely closed, even to freight. The sale of alcohol and cigarettes is strictly prohibited, as is anything else not deemed absolutely necessary. VFS, the government body responsible for, among other functions, granting visa extensions is closed until further notice.
I’ve been traveling for 20 years, and this is my first time ever overstaying a visa, which expires two days into the lockdown.
My friend Courtney, another American, has until the end of May until her visa waiver expires. She’s been based in Johannesburg for over two years; she was six months in when I first met her on a Maboneng balcony over a cup of coffee.
The last time she reset her visa it was with a trip to Kenya to see a friend. It was fairly recently, but now it feels like an eternity has passed since everything was normal, and it was only a couple of weeks after she came back home that we woke to find their border was closing in two days’ time. We were shocked. We texted our friends we knew were headed to Kenya soon, warning them what they might encounter. They’ve all had to make other plans. We’ve all been making other plans, actually.
You see, we can’t just go back to the States. We’ve made lives out here and don’t have anything to return to. Out here, in the wide world, is where we’ve been able to find some of the things that have always been so elusive to us stateside.
For us, life in the States means fighting over jobs in industries that don’t value us, promote us, or pay us the same as our white and male counterparts, and then criminalizes us for wearing our natural hair. In the States, even when we try to change our circumstances, we are marginalized from academia, overlooked in recruiting, and ostracized by the prevalent agents of white feminism who never seem to believe in the veracity of our stories. Just walking down an American street we are less likely to be trusted and assumed to be criminals. We’re even found to be less attractive when trying to date online, and then, somehow, also more likely to be the victims of sexual and partner violence.
And that’s on a regular day.
Now, in the era of COVID-19, going back to the States would mean arriving on the brink of the worst recession either of us has seen in our lifetime and joining the millions of people already fighting for too few providers who treat the un- and underinsured. And as the number of cases there climbs, we increasingly believe that returning would be more than an inconvenience, it could be a death sentence. This isn’t hyperbole. And the early reports already show evidence that black people are contracting and dying from coronavirus at an escalated rate than other Americans, and while we don’t yet know if this is a failing of circumstance, education, or care, Courtney and I have our own theories.
Because for us, as black women in America, we receive disproportionately poor medical care compared to our white counterparts.
Almost 14 percent of black women in the United States are uninsured, compared to only eight percent of American white women. But even for those who do have access to health care, we are not receiving the same treatment, and the disproportionate poverty that black women live in cannot account for the disparity in our health relative to American women of other races.
In a 2005 study, the National Academy of Medicine found that “racial and ethnic minorities receive lower-quality health care than white people — even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable,” and they back it up with some disturbing statistics.
In a survey of 400 American hospitals, they found that we were less likely to receive more expensive treatments even when they were generally thought to be the best course of action. They found that we are discharged earlier from the hospital, frequently at stages where discharge would be inappropriate. They found that we are way too frequently denied dialysis, radiation, cardiac care, interventions to prevent amputation. Even the maternity care we receive results in a much higher rate of maternal and infant death following pregnancy, in some areas of the country by as much as four times than if we were white.
And that’s if we can find treatment.
The struggle isn’t over once we’ve found care: We must then find a way to pay for it, which can be shockingly difficult in the States.
Back in Texas, Courtney pays about $76 for an inhaler that she needs to live and has to replace every one or two months. Here in Johannesburg, that same inhaler costs 100 South African rand. Today, as the rand is plummeting under the weight of this pandemic, that’s about $5.
And that’s just an inhaler. We shudder to even consider how much treatment on an American ventilator might cost.
Other countries that cost as much to live in have vastly more social services available to their citizens in times of crisis such as this. Courtney and I should know: We’ve been to many of them.
On March 19, the United States Department of State levied the highest travel warning available against every country in the world, a “Level 4 – Do Not Travel,” the same severity of alert that it has traditionally reserved for the likes of North Korea and Iraq. “U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States,” the statement it released read, “unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”
A friend of Courtney and mine, Imani, went back to the States recently. She left Joburg on a sunny afternoon, promising to be back in two weeks. She’s a filmmaker and had acquired a brief contract in DC, and we all thought we’d see her soon.
A couple of days before the lockdown, we met with the super of her building who let us into her apartment to collect her belongings. They had already found a new tenant.
We took all her things to Courtney’s apartment. We arranged her belongings between her suitcases and stored them under the sofa and in the closet. We wheeled her bike out onto the balcony and stood there, staring at the Ponte, wondering when Imani would be able to come back.
Courtney’s taking the wait and see approach: In the two months that she has left until her waiver expires, she hopes to be able to get an extension, or even better, watch this whole thing dissipate while borders pop back open.
I’m not so sure.
Sometime after the lockdown, I’ll be headed to one of the few countries where I can get a shockingly long visa on arrival, any of them that will take me, though ideally the country of Georgia. There, just like nationals from 90 other countries, my American passport will get me a year without worrying about running the border, so I could stay there pretty indefinitely. While my friends are hopeful this will all pass soon, I imagine myself getting a bit established: a little apartment by a grocery store, maybe with a shopkeep I can wave to as I pass by in the mornings when I’m allowed out. I’m preparing to stay put for a while if need be, but I’m already fantasizing about how it will feel to break out my passport, ready again to depart.
But in the meantime, if more of my black American friends are forced to leave South Africa or Japan or whatever far-flung place they’re currently in, they can come to me instead of going to our homeland. And maybe by then I’ll have found some furniture and a television, and maybe we’ll watch our president say something horrific while our country crumbles around him, and feel like our little home isn’t so weird anymore.
As nomads, the one thing we’re sure of is that plans change. Planes get canceled, and trains are brought to a halt. And right now that’s happening more than we’ve ever seen in our lives. But this is what we’ve been preparing for this all of these years on the road, and we are fortunate to be more ready than most.
But wish me luck anyway because I’ll be making a new life somewhere I’ve never been. And though I’m not quite sure what will happen, I figure I’ll be alright as long as I can actually manage to get my passport stamped.
And if you don’t want to go home, but you’re not quite sure where else to go, you’re welcome to come find me and join. I’ll be there until things change.