Lost Lightness

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

The beginning of autumn in the Czech Republic was marked by a resurgence of the pandemic. After the strict lockdown in spring, when face masks were mandatory everywhere, even when driving or going for a walk in the woods, when public life was almost paralysed and borders were closed, this came rather unexpected. Some will counter that they saw it coming, but most people hoped that life would go back to some kind of normal.

Summer had brought relaxation. Shops and restaurants opened, masks were no longer mandatory, people wanted to breathe again, have a beer with friends or go on vacation to Croatia. Some warned: this is too early! But I don’t blame them, I also went abroad, albeit not to the seaside.

In September, children went back to school and their parents returned to the workplace. After a controversy within the government, it was decided that children should not be obliged to wear face masks in school, or at least not during class. School started as usual. But in times of Covid, nothing is usual. It was clear that the number of daily infections would rise.

The numbers rose dramatically and the Czech Republic’s position in the Worldometer Coronavirus Statistics moved up. The State of emergency was declared again, face masks are back, schools, cinemas, theaters and stadiums are closed. Last night, further measures were imposed: bars and restaurants are closed, social gatherings limited to six.

In contrast to what is claimed, the situation is similar in other countries and Europe has many so-called hot spots. I have given up following developments and restrictions everywhere, things are changing fast and the measures adopted are constantly evolving. Countries or regions that were put on a risk list ten days ago could be taken off the list next week and considered safe, and vice versa.

But what does “safe” mean? Is it more dangerous to walk in the streets of Prague than in the streets of Vienna, Luxembourg or Warsaw?

I walked in the streets of Prague yesterday and I don’t think they are more dangerous than the streets of Luxembourg or Vienna. Yet people looked tired, preoccupied and evasive. Maybe it was the autumn mood and the cooler weather, but their eyes avoided contact, and many lowered their heads. Sometimes I tried to smile at someone under my face mask, but it was impossible to tell whether my smile went down well with the other person.

It is true that something had to be done to curb the steep rise of infection levels. It could well be that we will have to live with some kind of medium-term state of emergency and hygiene principles and social distancing will become an integral part of our daily routine. Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been worried about something else: its psychological consequences.

I am worried about two things: the hysterisation of discussions and a climate of constant fear.

Some people refuse to wear face masks or are tired of wearing them, others think the virus is manmade and the whole thing is a huge conspiracy set up to bring us to heel. At the other end of the spectrum, fear of infection is massive and anxiety-related depression is spreading. Curiously enough, fear could underlie both positions.

I have always found it wrong to have a binary discussion: either we protect human lives, or the economy. Things don’t work like that, there are no black-and-white solutions. Restrictions can save lives but destroy other lives. While government has to step in with compensation and rescue schemes, a long-term sustainable model should be found.

In social media, people accuse each other, either of panic-mongering, or of recklessness. The virus may not be a threat to an agile, well-trained seventy-year-old heart surgeon, but it may well be a threat to a fifty-year-old diabetic or our fragile grandma. It is normal to be afraid, but mutual accusations are destructive. Looking for culprits means outsourcing fear. Whose fault is the resurgence, who is to blame? The Czech government with its chaotic policy of action, vacationers who insisted on going abroad, wedding parties, insouciant young people partying in bars? It’s easy to be wise in hindsight. Surely, the government should learn from mistakes.

In my family, we have had endless controversies about the pandemic and the different responses. My husband has become allergic to the subject and doesn’t want to hear about it anymore. My sons follow the news and argue passionately, without ever agreeing on anything. I try to mediate, mostly without success.

Clearly, it is important to lower the basic reproduction number, protect risk groups and slow down the spread of the virus to avoid overburdening of hospitals. What more can we do? Coronavirus may never go away and fear is not a good adviser.

When the pandemic started, some predicted that it would soon end, whereupon a giant party would be held to celebrate. I don’t think this will happen. The pandemic will have changed our way of living.

Latent fear of infection will continue to be present in people’s minds and avoiding personal contact has become the safest thing to avoid infection, safer than face masks. This could lead to an even stronger tendency of withdrawing into individualism and the private sphere, which is considered safe. (Wrong, of course, since most infections occur among family and friends).

Remote work and home office will be the generalized form of work and the screen will be our privileged partner round the clock. How much time will we want to spend face-to-face with strangers? How much openness and trust will be left for close personal contact? Will people be looking askance at those who cough or blow their nose? Will we be reluctant to touch or hug other people?

Will we neglect a much bigger challenge in the wake of the pandemic – climate change? Covid-19 has not made it less of a problem, on the contrary: reduction in emissions during lockdown has proved to be temporary. Will we go back to sitting behind the wheel of our cars, even in cities with efficient public transport?

Will it be considered a luxury, or even irresponsible, to travel to exotic or “unsafe” destinations? Will tourists from certain countries be unwelcome even if they are not infectious? Will the adverse economic consequences of pandemic response lead to renewed protectionism?

I realised that the possibility to travel and see the world with my own eyes, especially its culturally different spheres, is not a given. All the more grateful I am for the phantastic, eye-opening journeys that have taken me to countries like India or Iran in recent years. Neither is free movement in Europe a given! A sobering finding for an idealistic advocate of the European idea.

The pandemic has taught me to become a fatalist, to some extent. There is little I can do to escape its consequences or the restrictions imposed to halt its spread. I will never become a humble fatalist though, because I wasn’t born that way, and what I certainly don’t want to become is a person chronically suspicious of others and living in constant fear. It could be argued that the lightness of being in the Western world, should there ever have been such a thing, was lost on September 11th. I believe it was lost in this pandemic.

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