Sofia – “The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile,” notes the narrator in Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” These days, we have an acute sense of what he meant. A society in quarantine is literally a “closed society” in which everyone but essential workers puts his or her life on hold. When people are isolated in their homes and haunted by fear, boredom and paranoia, one of the few activities that does not cease is discussion of the virus and how it might transform the world of tomorrow.
In this new world, many governments (benevolent or otherwise) closely follow where we go and whom we meet, out of a determination to protect us from our own recklessness and that of our fellow citizens. Contact with other people has become a threat to one’s existence. In many countries, unsanctioned walks in the park can elicit fines or even jail time, and unsolicited physical contact has become tantamount to a kind of societal betrayal.
As Camus observed, a plague erases the “uniqueness of each man’s life” as it heightens each person’s awareness of his vulnerability and powerlessness to plan for the future. It is as if Death has moved in next door. After an epidemic, everyone living can claim the title of “survivor.”
But for how long will the memory of our own plague last? Could it be that in just a few years we will remember it as a kind of mass hallucination caused by “a shortage of space made up for by a surplus of time,” as the poet Joseph Brodsky once described a prisoner’s existence?
In her marvelous book “Pale Rider,” the science writer Laura Spinney shows that the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic was the most tragic event of the twentieth century, at least in terms of loss of life from a single cause. The death toll surpassed that of both World War I and World War II, and may even have killed as many people as both of them combined. Yet, as Spinney notes, “When asked what was the biggest disaster of the twentieth century, almost nobody answers the Spanish flu.”
More surprisingly, even historians seem to have forgotten the tragedy. In 2017, WorldCat, the world’s largest library catalogue, listed roughly 80,000 books on WWI (in more than 40 languages), but barely 400 on the Spanish flu (in five languages). How can it be that an epidemic that killed at least five times as many people as WWI has resulted in 200 times fewer books? Why do we remember wars and revolutions but forget pandemics, which affect our economies, politics and societies just as fundamentally?
Spinney’s answer is that it is difficult to turn a pandemic into a compelling story between good and evil. Lacking a plot or an overarching moral, epidemics are like Netflix series where the end of one season merely serves as a hiatus before the start of the next. The pandemic experience is one in which everything changes but nothing happens. We are asked to preserve human civilization by staying home and washing our hands. As in a modernist novel, all of the action occurs in the mind of the narrator. In my own account of the COVID-19 era, the only memorable physical objects will be the plane tickets that were never used and the face masks that were used over and over again.
And yet, the moment one goes out into the street, one realizes how much has changed. Like many of my favorite coffee shops in Vienna and Sofia, my favorite bookstore in Washington has closed. Like a neutron bomb, COVID-19 is destroying our way of life without actually damaging our material world. For much of 2020, airports were some of the saddest places on Earth — empty, silent, with only a few passengers roaming the terminals like ghosts. The increased freedom of movement over the last three decades — the ease with which people from different social classes intermingled — had become a powerful symbol of globalization. Now, that freedom has been consigned to history — or at least put on hold indefinitely.
Meanwhile, all of the public messages urging people to stay at home have prompted metaphysical reflection. Home is where one wants to be when confronted with a grave danger. When my family and I realized that we were facing a prolonged period of social distancing, we surprised ourselves by deciding to return to Bulgaria.
This was not exactly a rational decision. We have lived and worked in Vienna for a decade, we love the city, and the Austrian health care system is far more reliable than Bulgaria’s. What brought us back to Bulgaria was the understanding that we should “stay at home.” Home, for us, means Bulgaria. In a time of crisis, we wanted to be closer to the people and places that we have known all our lives. We weren’t alone: 200,000 Bulgarians living abroad did the same thing.
Just as many people have sought shelter in their home countries, so have they found solace in their native languages. In moments of great peril, we almost unconsciously speak in our mother tongue. In my own childhood in Bulgaria, I learned a valuable lesson from watching Soviet films about WWII. One of the most dangerous moments for Soviet female spies in Hitler’s Reich was childbirth, because they would involuntarily cry out in their native Russian. Staying home meant staying in your mother tongue — and staying safe.
It is one of the great optical illusions of 21st-century globalization that only mobile, jet-set people are truly cosmopolitan, and that only those who feel at home in different places can maintain a universalist perspective. After all, the canonical cosmopolitan, Immanuel Kant, never left his hometown of Königsberg, which itself belonged to different empires at different times. Kant embodied the same paradox as COVID-19, which has made the world more global even as it has turned nation-states against globalization.
For example, “self-isolation” and “social distancing” have opened the European mind. Closing the borders between EU member states and locking people in their apartments has made us more cosmopolitan than ever. For those with access to communications technology, the pandemic has ushered in not de-globalization but de-localization. Our geographical neighbors are effectively no closer than our friends and colleagues abroad; we feel closer to the TV announcers than to the people down the street.
For perhaps the first time in history, people have been having the same conversations about the same topics. We have all shared the same fear. By staying at home and spending countless hours in front of screens, people have witnessed the similarities between their own experiences and those of everyone else. It might be a passing historical moment, but we cannot deny that we have come to understand what it feels like to live in one world.
Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. He is the author, most recently, of “Is It Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic.” © Project Syndicate, 2020.
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