Shifting perspectives on Covid-19: the apocalypse has already happened

People around the world are starting to reckon with the reality of coronavirus, its disruptive and lethal force, and the fact that a vaccine or a cure might not be available for some time. Coping with the situation then becomes increasingly about getting used to things, to the fact that Covid-19 is here to stay – at least for some time.

This is not the first time I go through this. As a Mexican, I have heard it all before.

They’ve said to me “I could never get used to that”. What I’ve never said back is “You don’t really get to choose”, because turning a conversation from the anecdotal to the palpable grim, is generally frowned upon. Right now, I think, this palpable grim breathes down all our necks anyway. I might as well get frowned upon now.

I refer, and with a great level of humility, to living through and getting used to the violence that has swept through Mexico over the past two decades: the Mexican government’s so-called “war on drugs” which has turned the country into a de facto war zone, albeit an undeclared one.

I mention humility knowing that, throughout the world, far worse has happened and continues to happen, and also because, all in all, I have lived through it in the same way Northern nations experience the world, far from the trenches and in peace.

However, through distance and privilege, catastrophes – when looked at in the eye – still have the capacity of being great equalisers, and to touch all of our lives.

In the case of Mexico, the initial virus was fear. It was a fear that crept slowly. It was a fear with many faces. A paralysing fear. And then a vengeful one. It was a fear that drained all empathy. And then it was a compassionate fear. It was a fear that lived at night when the house went silent. It was a fear so all-encompassing that sometimes, I thought, we might as well all drop dead now, if only to spare us from the horrors of the daily news.

It was a fear that might begin to sound familiar to some of you who are living through the Covid-19 pandemic.

I could never get used to that. Or that’s what I thought.

I can’t blame well intentioned friends who ask me “How’s the violence going? Is it getting any better?” I understand some things are not to be talked about explicitly in passing conversation, and I can grant them this: I could have never imagined getting used to the situation back home either.

This is what matters right now. Friends in the global North, in the pockets of middle-class privilege – you can get used to anything.

What happened first was that the Mexican government decided to declare a “war on drugs”. What happened later were piecemeal bits of violence that began their advance towards their ultimate goal: impregnating everything with their logic.

The cartels and the Mexican army went up in arms, and hell was unleashed. The government managed the capture and assassination of some of the most powerful men leading the different gangs that controlled the drug trade.

What followed was the awakening of the Hydra, the many-headed serpent of Greek and Roman mythology. From one head, spawned three. And if the army severed those three, another nine would appear. Unfortunately for all of us, politicians are not quick to see metaphors of any kind, and it took them too long to realise that this monster could not be decapitated.

Violence spread like wildfire, from the rural hinterlands into urban areas. Crossfires began taking place, not only in faraway roads but inside city centres, and a tempest of violence spiralled. The words kill, murder, assassinate, became part of our everyday vocabulary.

But – I had also said about distant places – I could never get used to that.

All-encompassing fear is useless in the face of things we cannot change. So, we must become callous, indifferent. We must get used to that. Violence, in its unbridled spread, touched us all, either directly or in very close proximity.

The news became unbearable, and we became numb. But, take heed, being numb is not the same as being heartless. Rather, it was as if our hearts had shrunk back, in fear, yes, but mostly in resignation. Each bullet shot, each possibility of a hell we could not escape, served as a reminder. This is how things are. This is the world you belong to.

Adapting meant getting used to a life reduced, fragile and threatened.

Back to the pandemic. One of the most noteworthy aspects of this crisis, as expressed by Western media, is the underlying tone of bewilderment that followed the initial panic. Us? The bafflement is undeniable. That kind of thing most certainly does not happen here. That much is true. Not here, no, that sort of thing happens elsewhere.

Covid-19 suddenly showed its special talent for turning the world upside down. Elsewhere is suddenly here. Panic is running high.

I try to see with your eyes, to stand in your shoes. To understand the panic. In the US, a couple killed themselves after merely suspecting having contracted the virus. I feel the sharp edges of their fear in my stomach. My first reaction is to feel sorry: you didn't have the time to adapt the way we did to the violence in Mexico. If you had more time, would that have made it better?

They too can see with your eyes, they too can stand in your shoes. They will look at you, the Empires, the way you never looked at them, the Colonies. They know how you feel.

And now that this world – the world before the pandemic as we know it – seems to be coming to an end, it would be wise to pay close attention to a valuable piece of advice by anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: now is a good time to go and ask the indigenous people of the Americas, those whose world ended 500 years ago with the brutal conquests of Empire, and has ended again many times since.

Eurocentrism is also ending, when we realise our world ending does not mean the world ending. We can get used to everything.

However, as told by mainstream media, in the end, things either go to hell or get unquestionably resolved. Apocalypses, as told by western mythology, are not clear cut endings, but Revelations. The seal is broken. The portal opens. A new world begins. And I hear the other, brighter side of the internet raising its voice. “What if the virus will cure the world of all its evils?” Our Judeo-Christian legacy inevitably leads us towards ideas of salvation.

“The Beginning Is Near”, they say, and I desperately want to believe so. But I’ve learned that dodging an apocalypse does not necessarily bring redemption. Rather, it can result in having to get used to life reduced, threatened, and fragile.

This Apocalypse might come to show that humans can get used to anything, and that includes – for the first time in a long time – humans in the global North.

The situation is far too serious for us to sink into despair, but it would be just as dangerous to take refuge in any kind of optimism. Now is also a good time to cool our heads, and to think seriously about what it is exactly we will be willing to adapt to.

Susana Fabre is a Mexican artist and anthropologist. She has worked with indigenous and migrant communities in Mexico, and, for the past eight years, has been living in the metamorphic city of Doha, Qatar, where she seeks possibilities for peaceful human interaction with the environment. She works as creative director and social impact consultant in one of Qatar’s pioneering environmental NGOs, AYCM Qatar.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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