Musings on Life During Quarantine

It is easy to conclude, as Kissinger and Harari do, that the world will never be the same again. Fear and paranoia are at work, and they come from the constant and unbearable memory of the fragility of our lives

A Hanoian rides a bicycle in an almost empty street in Hanoi, Vietnam, on 06 April 2020. Hanoi city authorities will intensify social distancing rules and fine people who break quarantine for non-essential reasons, according to news reports. EFE

Spanish – A few days ago, I read in El País that this damned virus has taken away from us what allowed lives to conclude with dignity: goodbye and that hug. The ability to accompany those we love in their last moments, to embrace them, and to say goodbye.

It is impossible not to be dismayed by the images coming out of this crisis. Parents, who after a day of long hours in a hospital, reach their homes, and must avoid their children’s hugs. Grandparents who meet their newborn grandchildren while a slab of glass separates them.

Recently, many have said that if we want to be together tomorrow, we must be apart today. But the distance now weighs us down heavily. It is devastating. I remember the difficult moments of my life. In all of them, I at least wanted to be with someone. I guess it is human nature. To come together, to give each other warmth and encouragement amid tragedy. But today, we are forced to go against our natural condition and distance ourselves. Living through tragedy surrounded by silence and loneliness.

I was also recently reading Yuval Noah Harari. He wrote a wonderful article about how our world could change forever. A few days ago, Henry Kissinger also wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “The truth is that the world will never be the same after the coronavirus.” There are many thoughts on this subject, and perhaps, the ray of light is that quarantine forces us to have them. For example, in his article in the Financial Times, Harari put forth the moral and human obligation to prevent this crisis from leading to a future dominated by a Big Brother, as we have already called for strong states. This is the recurring debate of security versus privacy —and, now, versus freedom.

This crisis may hasten the arrival of what Oppenheimer warned about in his book The Robots Are Coming! The age of automation is imminent. Then, when this invisible enemy suddenly becomes apparent, we begin to ponder over the indispensability of some jobs and the redundancy of others. Or how strict schedules and the physical presence of employees in their offices are obsolete. Now more than ever, we are considering the practicality of remote work. Similarly, we are discussing the need for the presence or absence of students in the classrooms.

But, anyway. There is so much going on. I wanted to know what everyone is doing through all this. No one has been able to tell me about another similar episode in the history of humanity. Today, more than half the population of the planet is going through the same thing. Billions of people are confined to their homes. The phenomenon is so prolific, both anecdotally and in terms of literature, that there are a thousand ways to take advantage of it —if the drama allows so.

While we are all condemned to spend all day and night in our homes, no one has the same feeling about it. It influences, for instance, what kind of work we have —my case, for example, it was already remote. I thought of asking Antonio Ledezma how he lives in confinement because he was abducted for years by the Maduro dictatorship. He told me:

“Life prepared us for this unexpected experience. I lived as a prisoner for 30 months in our home, two and a half years locked up in my house as a jail. I couldn’t even go out to get some sun. The first thing is to preserve your good mood, not to lose your sense of humor. Battling adversity using the mind. When I was imprisoned, I would take imaginary walks on Avila Hill while walking inside the apartment, for example. I maneuvered on the short route I prepared, separating furniture to turn around until I managed to find hundreds of rounds in that tiny space. I walked for an hour and thirty minutes in the morning and at night. Then I read. I made a routine with several books placed in different spots of the apartment. Then I wrote. Verses, poems, stories. I did yoga exercises. I made up names for each body pose. I painted, made collages, and cooked. Now, here in Madrid, with my inseparable Mitzy, we do practically the same thing. The key is to distribute the time well. Thanks to Skype, we talk and see our seven children and ten grandchildren. We have virtual contact with our families around the world.”

It’s striking. As Antonio says, life prepared some of them. Others, like me, it didn’t change our routine much. However, it is necessary to break the monotony. Never before had a walk in the sun become so pressing.

Pedro Urruchurtu, a political scientist and a close friend, told me that the quarantine is, in a way, a sign of how fragile we are. He is right. Today, faced with the threat of that invisible enemy, we have to confine ourselves to the spaces where we feel most secure.

“There is only today. The future is so unreal and uncertain. Rarely has a routine seemed so protective and yet so harmful. An alarm clock is a constant reminder to start a day when everything remains the same in a world sustained by doubt and vulnerability. It is like pedaling a stationary exercise bike for now. It doesn’t matter if it is Monday or Thursday, except for the little things we still do in a kind of metaphysical comfort.  Our stomachs no longer remind us of the hours that have passed, or if we need to eat three times a day. It can be less or more. It can be eleven or four o’clock, and it doesn’t matter if we are talking about AM or PM. The screens became the last attempt to remind us that our life with others goes on, even for a while. Just hearing voices and sometimes turning on a camera that only reveals a kind of half-truth: the house is the house, even if we sometimes disguise it as an office.”

Pedro decodes very well the sense of drift that we all find ourselves in now. Because this confinement has somehow made all the rules governing the current development of the days more flexible. Nobody gives a shit anymore.

“At least we are distracted and entertained by the incessant search for information,” says Pedro, “and the appearance of announcements and things that once again raise hopes, even more than those related to the end of the coronavirus. Perhaps, we have suffered so much from the other virus that this new one affects us little. Perhaps we have lived through history so much that we are once again spectators of the same thing. In the end, this quarantine reminds us that we are already an infected country. We are a sick country.”

Humberto Calderón Berti, writer, and Venezuela’s foremost oil expert, now lives in Madrid, one of the cities hardest hit by the global crisis. His testimony is an account of the sort of limbo in which we all find ourselves. “Because of the time difference with America, I go to bed late. Similarly, I wake up late. I read the messages I have and answer them all. I eat breakfast and read the news. Late lunch. I talk on the phone with family and friends. Then I read a book. I watch the news. After ten o’clock at night, I watch TV. I spend a lot of time during the day thinking. I write and record messages. You have to spend time talking to yourself.”

The pandemic has taken away from us —for what we hope will be a short time— that sacred moment that allows us to nobly conclude our lives. It has taken us away from so many. But also, as the philosopher Erik Del Bufalo told me, it has forced us to reconnect with those we see every day. He, for example, has become a primary school teacher: “I have been touched, above all, by fatherhood. I have two small daughters who are sent kilos and kilos of homework every day. Their mother and I start doing homework with them. My new, more radical experience is being a teacher for my daughters.”

It is easy to conclude, as Kissinger and Harari do, that the world will never be the same again. An outing to buy what you need is now constricted by a stifling atmosphere, which can be attributed to any dystopian film. Fear and paranoia are at work, and they come from the constant and unbearable memory of the fragility of our lives. Talking about what will happen is, for the moment, mere speculation. However, we are committed to one exercise, perhaps the only one that will save humanity in the future: remembering.

“If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories. Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of COVID-19, let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations,” the writer Yan Lianke told his students at the University of Hong Kong.

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