I would like to preface this by reminding everybody that I am not a doctor or in any way part of the medical system. So this is purely an opinion piece from one EU citizen living in a country starting to be affected by this virus, with close relatives in other countries where the situation is worse.
I wouldn’t write about this, I initially told myself; I would follow my “no politics, no religion etc.” rule, as I always intended my blog to be a feel-good place, an escape. Even when I do broach more controversial topics, I try to do it delicately, which doesn’t come easily, because I am an opinionated person. But since this is an unusual situation, I’m suspending that rule.
Europe suddenly seems very small these days… The whole world doesn’t feel much bigger and we are painfully reminded of the downside of travelling. We’re also reminded how ugly we often tend to become when faced with a crisis. I’d like to believe that’s only the worst in us, surfacing under extreme pressure. But the cynic in me whispers, that’s our true nature, dormant, waiting for an excuse to awaken; and I fear this possibility a lot more than the current health threat.
We watched the news earlier this year, we saw what China was going through, but let’s be honest, how many of us really believed our countries were at risk? We were watching from afar, outsiders affording to feel empathy, but more often than not, feeling condescendingly untouchable. Then our perspective started to change… and in many cases, empathy turned into something else.
Technically, my mother has dual citizenship, but for all intents and purposes she’s been an Italian citizen for over twenty years. She lives in one of the northern regions with her Italian husband, they socialize with their Italian relatives and friends and she rarely leaves the country. I love Italy and for a long time I’ve perceived it as a second home, I was visiting so often. But as any other place, beautiful as it may be, it does conceal some unpleasant sides and I did get more than one chance to interact with them.
Still, I was more than unpleasantly surprised this February, when my mother told me how some Asian stores have been vandalized in their small town and how many of the locals felt Asians should no longer be welcomed. After all, there was a Coronavirus outbreak, and they were to be blamed for it, she tells me.
Blame – why do we feel compelled to cast it on someone, even unfairly? I must have had a pretty strong reaction, because she added she didn’t feel that way, of course… but so many other people are ignorant… she doesn’t really blame them, she just avoids them. My stomach turned with disgust; nevertheless, I tried to calm her, to reason with her, to point out the dangers of overreacting. But it was like tilting at windmills, by that point paranoia had taken over and her hypochondria had reached new peaks.
It was surreal. It was outrageous. Suddenly there was an “us” and a “them”. (It was about that time that I had to fight the temptation to write about it.) “Easy for you to say,” she adds, “but wait ‘till it hits your country.” I couldn’t expect her to take my word for it when saying I didn’t believe that sort of reaction was either appropriate or healthy.
Not long after that infamous conversation the situation became exponentially worse in Italy and several other European countries were starting to impose new travel regulations for those arriving from those parts. “They’re treating us the way we used to treat the Asians,” she tells me, outraged by other countries’ travel restrictions and border checks. Really? So it was ok for you to discriminate, but not for others to be careful, I point out. The conversation takes a nasty unreasonable turn, of course, because her husband and I won’t take her side, etc. Funny side note here (because we can’t afford to forget how to smile): in an attempt to keep their household disinfected, she soaked the doormat in chlorine. Let’s just say that did not work wonders on her husband’s suede loafers, and he is one of those Italian men who care about their shoes.
Anyway, here we are, not even a month after that initial conversation, and we have to deal with the same threat in my neck of the woods as well. As of yet, no one died because of it, and less than 50 persons have been diagnosed; but the numbers are changing fast and this might no longer be true by the time I hit “publish”. The schools are now closed and some public institutions have reduced their activity to the bare minimum. All sorts of health warnings have been issued, informing people about preventative measures. But…
Isn’t there always at least one huge “but”? Not unexpectedly, paranoia – the blind, maddening, selfish kind – seems to have hit full force… Society seems to have split in two large antithetical groups, the one under the influence of the afore mentioned force and the one still in denial/ignorance/indifference. The rest of us, because I desperately hold on to the idea that there is a significant “rest of us” feel trampled in the stampede.
We should stay at least one metre away from each other, a disembodied voice warns us every few minutes in the supermarket. Certainly not something I’m used to… but then again, I’m not used to that many shoppers, this time of the day, this time of the week, this time of the year either, so this isn’t the first surprise. I curse myself for not doing my shopping on Monday, the way I normally do, and leaving it ‘till Wednesday for lack of time, until my fridge was completely empty. But I’m also frustrated. Frustrated at myself for feeling so powerless. Frustrated at us as a nation for reacting the way we apparently are. Frustrated at us as a species for not being better, for not being more humane. Frustrated and angry.
So today, when I see more of yesterday’s behaviour, only worse, I take to writing.
The same people who apparently fear this damn virus have no problem climbing on top of each other to get the last product on the shelf. The same people who wear masks to protect themselves have no problem pulling them down so they can curse whoever snagged that desired item right before they could. The same people complaining about their employers not letting them work from home invade overcrowded shopping malls. The same people afraid to catch “it” will through a violent tantrum at the slightest suggestion that they might in fact be sick and infect others. It doesn’t matter who you infect, it only matters who infects you…
Matt Taggart, a fellow blogger and writer, was asking what it was like in our various corners of the world and how we were dealing with it. Well, Matt, this is what is going on over here, I can only hope others are better prepared, more civilized and less selfish. Every action seems to come in contradiction to another action. For instance, many of our compatriots who work in Italy have fled the country for fear of the Coronavirus, but they are outraged at the mere idea of having to be quarantined when they reach the border. After all, they’re perfectly healthy, they know better, and they just want to go home.
I can understand the need to run home for shelter and I can agree that the authorities haven’t optimally handled the situation. But how about the unwillingness to listen to reason, to follow and understand simple rules and the appeal to basic common sense? How about all those waiting for them at home, relatives, friends and neighbours, especially the elderly? Do they no longer count? Does the community become irrelevant as long as we get to feed our individual fear? The entire social organization should cater to one’s individual needs, that appears to be a strangely generalized attitude.
Then there’s all the conspiracy theories… Conspiracy or not, that’s the reality we have to face, as the civilized human beings we claim to be. I keep hearing/reading, why exactly now? I wonder, what point would have been a good one, what point would not have been a “why exactly now” one? I also wonder, what’s the point in disseminating all sorts of rubbish coming from unreliable sources?… We have greater freedom of expression than ever before, and countless accessible channels. But with that freedom comes responsibility too!
The virus doesn’t scare me that much, it’s the way we seem to deal with the challenge that terrifies me. It’s this insight into human nature at its worse that frightens me the most. It’s only human, my mother tries to justify the reaction. But is it really? If so, why does it look like a regression to the animal that can only listen to a blind, wild survival instinct, disregarding anyone else’s needs?
Medical face masks cost ten times more than normal, that is if you can still find them in stock, my dentist informs me today. If I were a cynic, I’d say some entities out there are making a fortune off peoples’ fear. Oh, wait, I am a cynic… She has a break in her schedule and we both stare out the window at the nearby neighbourhood market, besieged by a maddened crowd in search of any supply they can purchase, necessary or not. We are acquaintances for a long time, we can talk openly. And I feel slightly reassured, there still are people out there who see a middle ground between mindless panic and ignoring the danger. But our voices are drowned by so many other screams, perhaps we too should be louder…. I don’t know… Perhaps this is also why I’m writing now.
I called my German stepmother – given her age, I worry about her. For the second time today, I feel reassured. She’s level-headed, calm, realistic, and she’s being cautious. So there’s still hope… not because I know her, but because there surely must be others like her out there.
My behaviour is not ladylike, my Italian stepfather jokingly informs me, because I myself try to be level-headed too. Yes, we joke, but not because it’s a laughing matter or because we disregard the threat or because we disrespect the pain of those who lost loved ones. It’s a coping mechanism, a private one, between the two of us.
Like I said I went from frustrated to angry in a rather short time. It’s time we all look deep inside for that evolved, humane side, and allow it to overcome the animal within. Reason is our strength. So let’s not make a bad situation worse. Let’s put our travel plans on hold for now. We can do with a lot less than what we try to amass and stock up, there’s enough for all of us if we apply some moderation. Yes, lots of forces out there want to play on our fear and survival instinct, and resisting them is anything but easy, but come on people, we can at least put up a fight. Before acting and reacting out of instinct, perhaps we should think twice, thrice, ten times, of the consequences. If we cannot consider what we might be doing to others, could we at least stop and think, “what if someone I love was endangered by a person displaying the same kind of behaviour that I am?” Does it still seam harmless to ignore symptoms or quarantine rules? We might also want to think of all the doctors and medical staff… if we don’t appreciate their efforts or the risks they’re undertaking, we might at least care about having them around in case we or our loved ones need them.
This is where my lengthy rant comes to an end. All of you out there, take care of yourselves and of others as well. If need be, let’s not perceive isolation as a punishment, but as a prevention tool. Don’t forget we’re all part of society, for better or worse, so we do have responsibilities too, not only rights. Let’s live up to the degree of civilization we claim to have reached!