As the journalist Josep Ramoneda has pointed out in a recent column in the Spanish newspaper El País, the fight against Covid-19 is not a war. Yet, political leaders appeal in their public speeches to metaphors of war, as if we were in an armed conflict.
In Spain, allusions "to the fight of all against the war" continue unabatedly, humanising a virus that has no mind, and therefore cannot by itself be responsible for disastrous effects on people – the responsibilities are elsewhere, with humans and institutions, not viruses.
As Ramoneda notes, coronavirus follows the laws of nature, not those of history. We are dealing with an intangible and invisible enemy. We only "touch" it, or feel it when those people infected by Covid-19 develop symptoms, or worse, become critically ill and die. In Spain alone, more than 20,000 died with Covid-19 in less than a month.
In the last three weeks, Spanish journalists, analysts, and politicians have been debating who might be responsible for the suffering and the loss of lives caused by Covid-19. They ask for those who delayed the preventive measures and made mistakes in the containment phase, to be held accountable.
But even as politicians embark in much needed self-scrutiny to establish responsibilities, the truth is that no one could have predicted the real effects of the virus. Yet, we could have learnt from Italy, a country with which we share many ties, hit by the virus before Spain. More decisive preventive action could have been taken on that basis, but many dismissed the Italian experience, guided by scepticism and a misguided optimism.
Could we have prevented the deaths of thousands of people, made worse by the need for infection control? The deceased cannot be mourned at funerals, not even by their close families. People die alone and are cremated, rather than interred as is customary for most Spaniards.
Conventional wars can be and often are more deadly than Covid-19, and yet, the victims are buried with the appropriate rituals, and friends and family have a chance to say goodbye. Despite the artillery and the bombings, children born in war times are still greeted with gatherings and celebrations. Covid-19 does not allow for that.
In war zones, the health system is not the main topic of discussion: the focus is on whether the warring sides can achieve peace, so that civilians will stop dying. That's how I experienced it when I lived in Libya and in Mali.
In a real war, death is classist. Powerful people do not usually die, but ordinary people die easily. With this pandemic, socio-economic differences are, at least partially, dissolved because the shadow of death stalks everyone equally.
But what makes the difference is access to masks, ventilators and available testing. In March, as politicians tweeted about their Covid-19 status after testing, people were disappointed to find that tests for ordinary citizens with symptoms were not available. Reports indicate that private labs also offered testing for hundreds of euros, in a country where salaries are quite low by European standards, and there has been an explosion in short-term temporary contracts.
This is what people talk about today in Spain: that a privileged few continue to accumulate wealth, while a stretched public health system – which underwent major austerity cuts in recent years – is now unable to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. In the most affected areas, such as Madrid and Barcelona, doctors have had to make choices about who to save and who to let die due to a shortage of intensive care beds.
While Madrid was screaming in viral pain, other neighboring autonomous communities breathed a little more easily, and still had empty spaces in intensive care. What made the difference here was not only how the virus spread geographically, but also the unequal distribution of health resources across the regions, a product of the decentralisation of the health system implemented in the 1990s.
But Covid-19 is also not a war in a more hopeful sense. Wars leave a legacy of deep traumas and divisions that are hard, if often impossible, to reconcile. The corona crisis is forging new solidarities among citizens.
Sons and daughters call their parents every day, and help them to stay isolated with all they need. The elderly, increasingly living in large anonymous blocks of flats, now receive surprise calls from their neighbours, with gifts of food or other basic necessities. And the gratitude that Spaniards have shown with religious zeal as every day, at 8pm, they clap and cheer for the real heroes of this crisis, the health workers on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19.
After decades of social fragmentation brought about by what Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity”, these are all positive signs that, despite and in the midst of tragedy, a more humane society built on solidarity, rather than money, on empathy, rather than greed, is possible. Whether these are just temporary trends or not, only time will tell.
For now, as plans to gradually reopen the Spanish economy are being put into place, we must hope that politicians and public officials will not repeat past mistakes and that they will prioritise people over profits, public health over private interests. Politicians should support the real economy run by essential workers for the benefit of all, and avoid a trade-off between people’s biological lives and their economic livelihoods.
Beatriz Mesa Garcia is a professor at the International University of Rabat (UIR), Morocco. She is an Africanist specialising in the Sahel area.
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.