In the future, everyone will wear masks and walk two meters apart from each other. It was not quite how we idealized the prophecy but, all things considered, it was not exactly how we idealized the first months of this 2020. And here we are.
It is a simple exercise that any of us can do. Let us imagine, for a moment, back to December 31st 2019, just minutes from midnight. In an instant we will be toasting with champagne and swallowing 12 raisins, corresponding to 12 wishes for a new year, and suddenly we are interrupted by the genie of the lamp, which happens to be also the genie of raisins, which warns us of something important: “Bear in mind that, in a few months, you may not have the life you have now. You may be forced to distance yourself from your loved ones, such will be the fear of contaminating them. You may not be in traffic queues for work for hours, because there will be no traffic queues for months. You may have no way to go out on the street without first disinfecting yourself, from head to toe, with alcohol gel. You may not have access to your favorite distractions - the corner restaurant, the usual cinema, the Thursday afternoon kiosk. If all of this happens, as I predict it will happen, what wishes will you ask for? What will be your purposes for 2020?” Back to that night, and in the presence of this imposing figure, the most likely thing would be to launch a cynical laugh, accompanied by a shrug. “I already drank too much. Now I even have visions of figures that show me the way to the apocalypse.” Let us not blame ourselves for that thought. Who, in their right mind, could believe that the world would be suspended for weeks on end, like a zombie movie? Who, after being used to the hustle and bustle of everyday life, to cities with thousands of inhabitants who live in a more than perfect disharmony, could foresee the main avenues of the main metropolis dominated by a noisy silence? Nobody. Closed schools, closed parks and gardens, closed shopping centers, closed hotels, closed airports, closed borders. Millions of unemployed people. Stock markets from small and big countries with historical breaks. Unthinkable prices, so low, for the barrel of oil, that black gold that is rarely affected by fluctuations in other sectors. And countless numbers of patients who live between the threshold of life and death at the expense of an invisible virus of which little, almost nothing is known, only which is transmitted from what we have most human: touch, breathing, what we call “being together.”
Normality has much to be said about. Charles Addams, the cartoonist behind the famous Addams Family, is the author of one of the best phrases on the topic: “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” In other words, what is normal for me, for you, who are reading to me, may be, or seem, the most complete absurdity. Wikipedia suggests that normality is “a standard, normal state, which is considered correct, from some point of view. It is the opposite of abnormality.” So far everything... normal. And it adds: “Normality is often due to a common majority, the one who opposes this majority being abnormal. Normality also gives a standard result when performing an operation with a high probability of repeating.” It is precisely here that recent events - the uncontrolled spread of an unknown virus, a high number of deaths, the imposition of measures of social distance, confinement, declaration of a state of emergency - come into play. None of this was supposed to happen, let alone repeat. It is as if we were prepared for everything, except for something like that. Is it possible to go back? Will it be possible to recover the “old normal”? Or are we facing a new normality? “It depends on what we discover about this virus. Little is known about it. I can't say if the old normal will return. There will be a normal. There will be a reality that we will recognize as being normal. I don't know if it will be the same or different from the one we had before - or the one we have now. There will be a moment when we go out into the street without thinking about the risk, regardless of the risk. But we are going to get used to that risk and its existence. It will happen, I am absolutely sure. Even if this implies differences in our daily lives, we will assume them to be something normal. It is in this sense that we are experiencing a crisis now: what somebody told us should happen is not happening.” Tiago Correia is an Associate Professor at the International Public Health and Biostatistics Unit and a Senior Researcher at Global Health and Tropical Medicine, both at the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - NOVA University of Lisbon (IHMT-UNL), so he is used to think about such phenomena. For him, this epidemic symbolizes, above all, a moment of disruption. That’s why we cannot help wondering what will happen next. “We are forced to think because we are living in a moment of crisis, of rupture, of disruption. But from the moment that this crisis, this rupture, this disruption, ceased to be perceived this way and start to be perceived as something normal, what will happen is that we will stop thinking about it. It is the special moments, the good and the bad, that often make us stop and think about our life. [...] When we stop living in this interruption, no matter how different the routine, it will take us again to more automated behaviors, less reflected, and therefore we will enter a chain again... let’s call it 'normal', in which we wake up in a certain way, we go to work in a certain way, we work in a certain way, we have leisure activities in a certain way... When we are free to do what we usually do, no matter how different, we will stop thinking about it. Right now we are aware of this, because this is interfering with what we take for granted. When we learn to live with new routines, I believe that this state of hyperconsciousness will be lessened.”
João Luís Lisboa is Full Professor of History and Theory of Ideas at the Philosophy Department of the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. His position on the old, and the current, normality, is more pragmatic. “I don't know if normality seemed semi-perfect. I don't even think it's fair to talk about a wrong normality. The problem with the idea of normal life is that there is no model around which there can be a peaceful settlement. The daily routine of work and leisure? The struggle for survival? The life of soap operas and television contests? The sequences of foodies on social media? O stress of sports shows? The normal of diseases and the violence that now has no media space? All of this represents small normalities, so many routines, some lighter than others. Returning to normality can mean only the absence (the end? the pause?) of the health emergency, as peace can be the absence of war or health can be the interval between moments of distress for an unbalanced body. This ‘normal’ that is announced, but barely guessed, will, for many reasons, be different from the previous normal. Differences, still to be defined, will result from shock waves from this 'abnormal' period, for a long time to come. And also, the tension and strength between different ways of understanding what needs to be reformed and corrected.” Interpersonal relationships, he believes, will be largely affected by the outbreak of the new coronavirus. “The fear of approaching will be heavy and the loneliness that will drag on has consequences that cannot be ignored. How long will grandparents go on being defended against themselves and their grandchildren? One year is an eternity for someone over 80. The Portuguese will not become ‘Nordic’ and distant, but personal relationships will maintain some strangeness. Some will say that it is the result of self-imposed discipline, others that it is the inertia of fears. [...] The desire for a hug still contained will accompany the care with some hygiene rules, hands, shoes, sneezing ... Work relations will prolong precautionary protocols and, in some cases, attempts will be made to continue forms of remote work and maintain digital procedures as acquired. But this is in the order of behavior. The most important will be what is removed from the burden of cooperation and what public goods will be cultivated.”
In the last days of March, the English newspaper The Guardian published an extensive article which questioned the return to normal after the current pandemic. Titled “We Can’t Go Back To Normal: How Will Coronavirus Change The World?” the text brought together the opinions of several experts, or experts, on crises, and deconstructed the idea that it would be possible to return to something similar to what we had three months ago, when we lived from side to side without thinking about the consequences of taking a step bigger than the leg - because we didn't have to maintain any safety distance from whoever walked in front of us. “In a totally rational world, you might assume that an international pandemic would lead to greater internationalism”, said American historian Mike Davis, a chronicler used to study the disasters caused by globalization. Davis, who wrote a book on bird flu in 2005, considered pandemics to be a perfect example of the type of catastrophes to which global capitalism is particularly vulnerable - but that the capitalist mindset, in its inability to think in terms beyond what profit, fails to achieve. “In a rational world, we would be ramping up production of basic essential supplies – test kits, masks, respirators – not only for our own use, but for poorer countries, too. Because it’s all one battle. But it’s not necessarily a rational world. […] Which will mean more deaths and more suffering worldwide.” More than a month after this article was published, Davis' prophecy is confirmed. The isolationist attitudes of many countries contradict the idea that this new coronavirus, of which we still know little, did not transform the planet into a gigantic solidary stage, nor did it sow in the capitalist minds the need for unity. For this reason, Peter C. Baker, author of the text, would conclude that “the task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster.”
A disaster that was more or less written in the cards, and that potentiates certain extremisms that, in recent years, have tried to sabotage the life of democratic societies. Like the radicalization of the other, xenophobia, racism. “It was something that already existed. We are dealing with something that is unknown, and the unknown causes fear. Just think about what happened in the 1980s with HIV. It took many decades to combat all forms of discrimination and abuse. But this virus did not create this need, it only reinforced this need to pay close attention to all forms of exploitation, humiliation, denial of the other”, defends Tiago Correia. João Luís Lisboa agrees. “This risk exists because it is easy to grow a mean eye on the neighbors and there are those who try to ride this wave. The strangers would be the Asian communities, but also Spanish and Italian, as was heard when the first contagion cases at the beginning of March.” Or the control of our freedom. “There is clearly a risk. More than institutional surveillance, there may be something else, which is that institutional surveillance is legitimized by people. People think this must happen for 'collective protection'. I think this already happens in certain realities. This is an issue that new technologies, associated with fear, and the unknown, bring along - that need for almost absolute control. The technologies on which we depend can be tools for controlling every moment of our life. That is why I say that the more we know about this disease, and the sooner we eventually have a cure, the faster we can combat, and delegitimize, all these tools that certain sectors of society will want to legitimize”, explains the researcher from Global Health and Tropical Medicine. The fear. Is it the biggest side effect of this pandemic? According to Tiago Correia, yes. “In any pandemic, it is. I use the AIDS analogy again. Fear, misinformation. In the past it was argued that it was due to a lack of education or a lack of social media, today we realize that it is not only that. The media can be a vehicle for disinformation. Associated with fear we must have increased quality in the type of information we have, there are a series of new risks that associate fear for negative effects. These are very real risks.”
In 2008, precisely at a time of collapse of the world economy, a phrase made by Barack Obama's chief of staff, shortly after he was elected, became famous: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Are there no lessons to be learned from this crisis? Some, according to João Luís Lisboa. “There will be lessons for different tastes. Some will say that the planet cannot be so interdependent. Others, on the contrary, will strengthen prospects for cooperation. Thinking of a crisis as an opportunity begins as a survival strategy. The problem is that this crisis can provide contradictory, conflicting opportunities in order to reinforce situations of arbitrary power or to counter them. The changes will be those that have social force to impose. It will be possible to change priorities, stop the orthodoxy of dismantling public services, reverse the logic that reproduces and exacerbates imbalances and inequalities, logic that constitutes a fertile ground for the spread of calamities of this type. Let us remember that the 2008 crisis led to the orientation of encouraging public investment, so that immediately afterwards, on the contrary, violent austerity measures were imposed on a global scale.” And if austerity is a ghost of the past that seems more and more palpable, there are those who lend themselves to doing futurology with more prosaic questions: the internet is full of sites that offer practical solutions for the “new normal”: glass cubicles in restaurants, beaches and public spaces, a bet on bicycles to the detriment of public transport, implantation of light signs on the floor, which delimit the safety distance between people (a reality in Singapore), the extinction of high heels (a measure whose urgency we were unable to unveil while closing this edition). But what about the concerts? And the trips to the theater and the opera? And dancing shows? And exhibitions? What will become of culture and art? Will they continue to be the privileged escape from everyday life? We asked the Full Professor the question: “Neither escape nor superfluous, but an imperative need for expression. In a concrete situation, a person can think whether, with the few coins in his pocket, he buys bread or a newspaper. But at the global social level, the question does not arise in the same way. The balanced development of this affliction calls for various dimensions of our humanity and not a mutilated existence. It implies time to live a heritage under construction, the word that makes you think like food that exalts flavors, laughter as affection.”
By this time, it is already known, none of us could have imagined the script of these first months. Even if we changed desires, it would be impossible to change the course that was set for the world. Or was there a magic trick, which gave access to a “happier ending” - and that we did, in fact, miss? Tiago Correia says it clearly: “This will happen again. It is good that people prepare. An epidemic associated with respiratory syndromes was well described in the literature. None of this is a surprise.” That’s a fact. In the last few weeks, a series of books have been shared relentlessly. Apparently, everyone read them, but nobody took them too seriously, because what is going to be done in the face of apocalyptic scenarios like those featured in Albert Camus' The Plague (1947), Stephen King's The Stand (1978) or José Saramago's Blindness (1998), call the FBI? The researcher continues: “That is why I say that epidemics do not have a biological origin. Epidemics have a political origin. And economical. Nowadays, with the degree of knowledge we have, an epidemic only arises because something was not done when it should have been done. And it is not after contagion is so widespread - and our lives depend so much on mobility, goods, people - it is not after there is a certain degree of contagion that we can stop this. It's like a high-speed train, and we try to stop it with our hands. It doesn't stop. Epidemics are not managed, epidemics are avoided. They are prevented.” Here we are, back to ground zero of normality, of which we need to take a step forward towards a new normality. We only know that we know nothing. From here, hopefully, everything will go better. We have found the thirteenth raisin. This is the day after tomorrow.