The third of April, 2020, marked twenty-eight years since the start of the Bosnian war. ‘After the war’ and ‘Before the war’ are two phrases us Bosnians and Hercegovinians use to denote time. Like AD and BC, there is a line clearly drawn in the minds of all of us who lived through the war.
The way we tell time is often shaped by cultural events that take on an iconic value for those who have shared that experience, becoming a subcategory of ‘official time’. Any collective event that shapes our sense of existence, our sense of reality, draws a line in time and space more significant than formal, linear temporality. The first gunshots and barricades and the first dead in Bosnia are seen the way the first three stars that appear in the sky point to the beginning of night. For us, these events marked the start of a new – dark – world order, and denoted the start of our new era.
The third of April, 2020, was also the start of week four of the coronavirus lockdown in Madrid. I find myself, once again, measuring time differently, together with my immediate community. And I wonder if we will be referring to life as ‘before COVID-19’ and ‘after COVID-19’ when this is over?
Since the lockdown started in Madrid, and across Europe and the US (as opposed to China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore) I have heard comparisons of these new life conditions with those of people living in war. During one of the many phone calls I have had while in quarantine, someone said, ‘This is how they live in Palestine; this is what being in Syria feels like;’ – and I found myself facing the familiar wall of the privileged Western (un)consciousness that has not experienced extreme life circumstances since World War Two. War and virus are not the same, I protested. This is mild, we are at home, we are bored, we are full, we are doing yoga, we are making pizza, we are reading, drinking, we have water coming out of our taps, we are shopping online, there is heating, you are not at risk of being raped or murdered.
I can, however, see significant parallels between the current utter panic of the public and the incompetence of authorities throughout the world and the 1980 surrealist comedy Airplane!, starring Leslie Nielsen, in which a plane, whose entire crew and passengers are struck with a deadly virus, can only be landed by a traumatised war pilot who is terrified of flying. Just like in the film, our private dramas are contrasted with the big-picture drama. We are going mad because we are stuck at home with our families – in the movie, a man self-immolates because he is stuck in a seat next to the protagonist, who keeps going off into endless reminiscences about his life. The contagion of fear in current life is reflected by friends and neighbours who want you to stop panicking in order to assuage their own fear (their fear being triggered by your fear) – in Airplane! a panicking woman is shaken and slapped by a co-passenger who is trying to get her to calm down, followed by another passenger, until we see a line of passengers forming, each waiting their turn to slap/calm the panicking woman. Boredom is contrasted by the drama of death, pathos is punctuated by a sense of righteousness against the invisible enemy (the virus), and the individual desire to control is in direct correlation to the volume of fear held by each of us. In the meantime, most governments look like they have – in the words of Airplane! – ‘chosen the wrong week to stop smoking.’ And our societies, like the plane, are being landed by people who are as mortified as we are.
But while wartime and a pandemic are different in that most of the fortunate, healthy public have the privilege of self-isolation, both war and a pandemic significantly disrupt our lives. Our current disruption carries echoes of war in the form of panic, the role of the media, and, mostly, in the daily death count. One’s attitude to death changes significantly when two-, three-, four-, five-digit numbers are thrown up every day, pronouncing the dead. But unlike in wartime, where death is a physical, loud, blood-soaked, violent presence, death in the time of the pandemic is a silent menace, a shadow of sickness, lurking and omnipresent. There is a feeling that death is right here, on our hands, our metal surfaces, inside the buses and the metro trains, and on the cherry lips of our lovers and our children.
The collective fear that swept across cities, countries and continents when coronavirus started to spread reminded me of war, or its early days in particular – the gathering of things (aka panic buying), the empty shelves in the shops, neighbours tipping each other off, the catastrophising (imagining the worst possible outcome) vs outright denial – ‘I won’t get hit by a bullet’, or ‘it’s just like the flu’. War memories washed over me periodically, sometimes in the form of palpable images – being fifteen-years-old and queuing for hours to buy a loaf of bread from a kiosk, for flour was running out everywhere; the empty streets and the toxic air of fear that permeated everything, except, as now, for the beautiful green leaves that came out along tree branches, teasing, like precious stones. The old anxiety pools at the pit of my gut – What will become of us? How is this going to end? What if something happens to my mother? I can’t go to help her.
But most of all I have flashbacks of the terror unleashed by the media machine, and the language it conjured up to shape our thoughts and feelings. Back in the early 1990s we had bias, outright false reporting, shifting viewpoints, mass manipulation by misinformation. This existed in World War Two, in Cold War times, during the interminable ‘war on terror’, as well as today – there is always a war on, inside the world of politics, and by its extension, in the media. Nothing – but the volume of information sources – has changed. Propaganda, fake news, misinformation, it has always been around. And it is here now.
The language deployed in coronavirus coverage uses expressions such as ‘the fight against the virus, the front lines, the enemy, the devastation of COVID-19’. There is advice on how to make your own face masks (as opposed to your own Molotov cocktails), and the recent Guardian headline ‘Coronavirus doesn’t respect barbed wire’ portrays the virus affecting refugees in Greece as if the virus were human, personifies it, gives it a human consciousness, a consciousness that it does not have. A virus cannot invent, or fail to ‘respect’ barbed wire or refugee camps, a virus cannot lack a universal respect for life – this is the work of human beings. In fact, rather than focusing on personifying the virus, our media should attempt to humanise refugees by asking why we have people in need behind barbed wire in the first place. Employing an equivalence between natural occurrences, such as a virus, with man-made acts results in the act of cruelty – or sheer indifference – being assigned to the wrong actor. It rids us of responsibility, while simultaneously affording us a perverse voyeurism of human suffering.
Our language now reveals our almost medieval attitude towards disease, where virtue, vice and morality are endowed upon the virus by naming it ‘the enemy’ or ‘the invader’. In our grapple with uncertainty and fear, we seek to visualise and name our foe in order to feel we can properly respond and resist, but we also fan the sentimental, the patriotic, the survivalist in the process. Madrid regularly sees the playing of the national anthem before the 8 p.m. clapping session for health workers, followed by the Spanish version of the heartbreak hit, ‘I Will Survive’ (‘Resistiré’). These reactions are borne out of fear, and while fear is an understandable emotion at times like these, it is our one true enemy. Wars are simmered up on the low fire of fear, guns are seized out of fear, people are shunned, shut out and shot because of fear; most of all, we are blinded by fear.
Our attitudes to disease syphon off our moral imperatives, our inherent terror of the unknown, and they shape the way we use language, and how we protect ourselves, and one another. We talk about solidarity with medical staff (the public claps for them), and the importance of care of others, but the way we (and our governments) have turned our attention away from existing, pressing humanitarian crises in the world is disastrous. Just before the major lockdown in Europe and the US, Erdogan, the Turkish leader, had opened up the country’s borders to Greece, and there were reports of the Greek army shooting migrants down with water cannons. What has happened to what Simone Weil called ‘the eternal obligations towards the human being’?
War sows long term destruction of social infrastructure – bridges are bombed; land is planted with mines and soaked with chemical toxins; houses, buildings and any other objects are decimated. War also destroys interpersonal and intergroup trust – though trust can also be nurtured in wars, by people who help and rescue one another despite the risk of death. War is also an opportunity for profit – what Naomi Klein has brilliantly termed ‘disaster capitalism’ – and in the case of Bosnia and Hercegovina, the war provided a wonderful opportunity for weapon, people and drug trafficking, and the post-war years saw the return of the old colonial powers to the region, with the Austrians, Germans and the Turks buying up banks (and firing local workers), natural resources, and even propping up the national currency. None of this would have been possible in the same way without the war – as Klein shows, when there is fear, panic, and genuine devastation, the public generally fails to pay attention to what is going on the political and economic level.
The biggest wave of fear that I have felt since the pandemic was declared was this – what is happening that we don’t know about, what is being implemented, how will the world look when this is over? I spent days in the grip of anxiety about the future, and this is when I understood that one of my greatest war traumas (for there are several) was inflicted by the chaos of the post-war years, of returning to a country so ravaged by fighting, so dispossessed by corruption and so crushed spiritually that it has not even begun to make its way forward almost three decades later.
There is a great lesson now to be learned from countries afflicted by war, where the public is mostly too crushed and distracted by suffering to demand that its governments be held accountable in the destruction’s wake. Wars, national disasters and pandemics do not cause social disintegration – they reveal it, and deepen it. This is why poor countries, communities and individuals fare worse in times of crises; this is partly why Italy and Spain’s health systems, whose infrastructures were decimated by the years of austerity, are suffering as they are under the wave of the pandemic. It is important to note where the cracks are showing because now, unlike in times of war, we are in a privileged position of being able to think, decide and act on what we want for our societies.
We are globally affected by climate change – a condition that we cannot recover from if we do not take immediate, systematic steps – and we are affected by how we take care of one another – through our health systems, our employment laws, our housing laws, our attitudes towards race, class, gender, towards the weaker. Will Germany, Austria and Holland help Italy, France and Spain? Will they help Greece? Will we adopt a different, helpful attitude towards the thousands of migrants, the homeless, the unemployed? Will we insist on solid national infrastructures and welfare systems that can withstand the simultaneous needs of the many?
In war, one cannot talk of privilege in any real way. Right now, being able to self-isolate is in itself a privilege, for it means we have a home, a place to be. It is a privilege when we can work from home, when we have enough to eat. Many of the lowest-paid, key workers, the homeless, illegal migrants, do not have this privilege. We should use this time to consider our social justice systems, our governments’ relationships to the environment, the ‘eternal obligations to the human being’ and what it really means to ‘stay safe’. Let’s ensure that once the plane is landed safely, our governments will listen.
The cover image is a detail of Abstraktes Bild (Nº 635) by Gerhard Richter. Photograph © Pedro Ribeiro Simões.