14. 5. 2020

English version | Be solidarity? It's indifferent!

by Nuno Miguel Dias


There is nothing like a good and lasting pandemic to carry out an exhaustive sociological study. In the beginning it was the verb. And how nice it was. Motivational sentences by the windows and notes in the halls of the buildings offering help. Then came isolation. And the recognition of a real threat - which quickly went from being an invisible virus to becoming someone who could be infected. And Man, that social animal, can sometimes be the most territorial of wolves.

© Ilenia Tesoro

Thomas Hobbes is a very old-fashioned boy, some will think. And rightly so, because he died in 1679. But not before he wrote his magnum opus, Leviathan, where he says that “Man is the Wolf of Man.” At that time that same phrase was already archaic, having been first formulated by Plauto, the Roman playwright with more than twenty plays written, but in the form "homo homini lupus", which is at it should be because he wrote in Latin. Briefly, what Hobbes intends to demonstrate is that Man, at the top of the food chain, is the only enemy of himself and, therefore, the most dangerous. The English philosopher believed that we have a natural tendency to rise above our peers, to preserve our individual well-being above everyone else's. He wanted to justify that we need to live in a society governed by rules and norms (social contracts), because without those we would reach a situation of pure barbarism, given our exploratory and usurper nature, in addition to the capacity to kill those of our own kind. It is a very hard thought. Plausible, if we think of extreme situations like war, but still very hard. The problem is that our generation has, unfortunately, always lived side by side with war and, fortunately, distant from it. Now, we are faced with another extreme situation, which was completely unknown to us... The plague! Thomas Hobbes was a contemporary of one of the ten Black Death pandemics that occurred between the 14th and 18th centuries. More precisely, the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), which only ended with the Great Fire, of such proportions that decimated the population of black rats of the species Rattus-rattus (hence the name of the disease). These animals were brought from China. Yes, the Bubonic Plague (so called because it caused buboes - swollen lymph nodes) also originated in China. It caused the first outbreak in October 1347, when a fleet of Genoese ships arrived in Messina, with all their crew members infected or dead (in June 1348, it was already in France, Spain, Portugal and England and would end up killing 102 million people). In Marseille and Venice, Europe's main ports, all crews should wait 40 days on board. Only after those 40 days, and if no individual showed symptoms, the commander would raise a white flag, indicating that the landing was safe and giving rise to the term “quarantine”.

When Hobbes was alive, the disease was no longer considered a divine punishment. It was only suspected that it was transmitted by rodents and nobody knew that it were, after all, the mice’s fleas that passed the bacillus Yersinia pestis when they “bit” humans. Those were the times of the very modern “miasmatic ideology” (miasma is the technical name for the odor coming from putrefying animals), the belief that diseases were fetid beings that hovered and thus infected people through the air. As a treatment, doctors smoked tobacco and blew smoke at the patient. Then they would lance buboes with knives that could measure up to two meters, to keep their distance. If the patient died, the gravediggers smoked a pipe to avoid contagion. That’s when the first doctor's uniform was invented, at a time when they were dividing their “services” between medicine and barber shop, through expertise with blades. Something like a cloak with a pointed mask, at the end of which would be aromatic substances, to "protect" from miasma, that is, from disease. Now let's think about all the classic novels we read and all the period films we've seen. Plus, the history books that we eagerly explored. It is no coincidence that the Middle Ages are also called Dark Ages. Thus, it will be easy to imagine everything that Thomas Hobbes faced in order to have come up with his line of thought. But is it that different after all, when a so-called “evolved” society faces a pandemic? Or is fear something capable of accentuating the worst that we have, whatever the time in history? Have we evolved? Or are we still the wolf of our fellows?

I’m not here trying to scare anyone, but it’s bad. We are warned pretty much every day that, even if we are lucky enough not to have a second wave of the virus (which is doubtful), what is perhaps the biggest crisis since post-World War II is coming. Or even before that. Because all things considered, the Allies had, in 1946, a Marshall Plan that raised their countries in order to become economic powers again and there were even other availabilities that made the creation of Israel possible. Now let's do a very simple exercise. How many movies about pandemics that forced humans to seek refuge have we seen (films and television series about zombies are included, metaphorically), trying to mitigate shock with thoughts like "Oh, this will never happen, it's just a movie"? And how many post-apocalyptic scenarios were presented to us - the desperate search for food and shelter from other humans who, in equal desperation, despise life and are capable of the worst? Is it now more plausible? In fact, when Man, the most adjustable being on the planet, is faced with extreme situations, namely his own survival or that of his descendants, his true nature arises. But let us soften this speech with the same certainty that we have practically since we were born or, at least, since we understand the concept of living in society: there is evil, but there is also, without any doubts, good. It depends on the nature. Solidarity initiatives have multiplied and continue to multiply, far beyond the usual institutions. 

Let us step back a little. First, we were forced to social distance. Then to confinement. With each one of us indoors, we had every chance of going crazy. In our modest home, everything should have been more protected. But social networks... Yeah. Social networks. All of a sudden, our friends became full cooks, serving and garnishing like El Bulli. And gym rats with impossible burpees and Rocky-Balboa-like push-ups. And bakers who apparently held the deepest secrets passed on by their grandparents. There was even a lack of yeast in supermarkets. And toilet paper, which I kept for last for obvious reasons. Then we romanticized. We clapped by the windows at given times. We performed in the balconies, until the police forbade José Malhoa to do so, even if he boosted things with his daughter. We shared pictures of our video calls with friends and family. It soon became obvious that we are capable of the most romantic altruism, with solidarity boxes distributed everywhere, messages in the buildings’ atriums (“If anyone needs anything from the supermarket or pharmacy I volunteer to pick them up”) and motivational sentences about rainbows glued to the windows. But we also discovered TikTok and thought that our “friends” on social media really wanted to see our ridicule, which was not completely positive. Personal enrichment was more beneficial, like reading those 34 books that were on the shelf for more than ten years, or seeing that series that we were never able to because there was no time. And now we have plenty.

That’s when optimism gives way to skepticism and hope for an auspicious future slowly becomes discourage, melancholy and defeatism, even for those who are not forced to work from home while their children transform the house in a very uninhabitable chaos. Loneliness becomes evident. Impending depression, lurking at the smallest move. Even politics set a bad example. Opposition parties move from arguments such as "Now is the time for unity and not opposition" to allegations that recall the fact that we can't go to our loved one’s funerals. Meanwhile, we are keeping our eyes on the news, who bombard us with percentages of dead, recovered, infected and cured. There’s that and then there’s the possible dates for new States of Emergency or Calamity. Here and there, the worst of human beings is revealed. A 33-year-old woman who lives in Volta Redonda, a city in the state of Rio, Brazil, comes home to the phrase “House contaminated by Coronavirus” painted on the façade, as if it wasn’t enough to lose half the family to the disease. Further north, an elderly woman walks down the street while whoever is filming shouts "Go home, old woman". This is a reality common to Portugal. There were countless publications on social media reporting that when it came to those who skipped social isolation, “The old people are the worst”. And no, let us not be hypocritical, “complaints” about the elderly, often without anyone helping them and with the same needs to acquire essential goods (especially at the pharmacy), do not express concern for their well-being. They attest to prejudice, which already existed.

“Old people” in supermarkets counting black coins, causing endless lines at the ATM, taking priority on buses, even “blocking the way” on the sidewalk. Prejudice against the elderly is a reality. COVID-19 is just an excuse. They are seen as potential disease agents - which is atrocious ignorance. And how do we fight ignorance? With culture. Many people share excerpts from the book Essay on Blindness to establish a parallel between Saramago's novel and the days of the pandemic that we live. It is quite patriotic. But incomplete. In Adolfo Bioy Casares's Diary of the war of the pig, a fictional Buenos Aires is portrayed, where the elderly are chased and beaten by gangs of young people. The Argentine writer intended to discuss the problematic posed by capitalism (“What are the elderly for?”) and which specifically jeopardizes the status quo of the welfare state, but which also poses a much more complex moral problem. Something that may be surfacing these days, alongside thousands of other conspiracy theories. 

Those who should be praised above all (and actually were praised, in the first weeks, but then we got tired, right?) for their effort and dedication, that is, the medical staff, or everyone who works in a hospital, from cleaning to surgery, is also, surprisingly, the target of prejudice. In mid-April French and Spanish nurses and doctors reported requests from neighbors to move. These “messages” left in their cars or glued to their doorstep were frighteningly threatening. Silvana Bonino, a nurse from Barcelona, ​​found her car vandalized, with “Contagious Rat” written with spray tint. Sophie, a nursing assistant from Toulouse, France, had an A4 sheet under her door where it could be read, in handwriting intended not to be recognized: “Knowing your occupation, would it be possible, to guarantee our safety, for you to not touch the doors of the common areas or, in the next few days, move to another place? Don't take it the wrong way, but me and the other neighbors would feel safer”. Miriam Armero, employed in a supermarket in Murcia, Spain, was at home on a Sunday. It was her ten-year-old son who passed through the entrance hall, saw a note under the door and read it to his mother, before he started to cry copiously: “We are your neighbors and we want to ask you, for the sake of everyone, to look for another house while this lasts; we noticed that you work in a supermarket, and there’s a lot of people living here, we don’t want to take any more risks". Some people from around Paris have found notes in their car: “could you please not park your car next to ours”. In the USA, where people are known to always be the most excessive in these situations, and even before its president suggested ingesting bleach to prevent contagion, Theresa Greene, a doctor at a Miami hospital, lost custody of her four-year-old daughter because she was working to fight the new coronavirus. 

In Portugal, and at the time of this article, no similar cases were known. As early as January, when very little was known about the disease, young Chinese from Macau studying in our country complained to Plataforma (electronic social media directed at the PALOP countries) of discrimination. Conversely, some Portuguese living in China complained to the Lusa agency of discrimination by the Chinese. This is, moreover, a common reality to all foreign citizens, now considered the main disease agents and repeatedly ignored by Beijing, a situation Human Rights Watch has already referenced. Still in the far east, almost at the antipodes, in Timor-Leste, a teacher wrote a letter to FenProf complaining of an unbearable situation for the Portuguese residents there since the arrival of COVID-19. Repatriation really had to be done and it was, curiously, on an airplane chartered by the cruise company that docked a ship in Lisbon between the State of Emergency and that was, therefore, the target of prejudice from many Portuguese - who expressed their serious criticism on social media concerning that “source of contagion” moored in the capital. All of this may well not be the worst of humanity, always latent, until fear makes it soar. But it always depends on the concept we have of cowardice.