JOHN CARLIN. Living with Death – the Coronavirus Paradox

May 7, 2020

The coronavirus presents us with a paradox: none of us want to catch it, but all of us wish we had recovered from it. It is only a matter of time before those who have had it will be given more freedoms than the rest.

The last will be the first and the first the last, says Jesus Christ, perhaps anticipating one of his Father’s most curious creations, the coronavirus. Today we all strive to avoid the spread of the plague. Tomorrow those who have caught it will provoke envy because the vast majority of them will be alive and well.

The former will be immune, the latter will not. The former will not be able to infect anyone, the others still can.

That’s assuming, of course, that once you have had the virus, you can’t catch it again and infect others.

Let’s assume that’s the case.

In that event, it is not completely crazy to imagine that in a few months, those who have had the virus will be given ID cards, permitting them to leave the house, go to bars, restaurants, cinemas and football games. Those without the card would have to be identified with, for example, a yellow bracelet. Only those with the card may go to work. There will be parties where only card carriers will be invited. We will have first and second class citizens.

If that occurs, we will be at a polar opposite situation to the current one. Those who have not been infected will want to be infected. Those without the card will organize parties and invite people who are manifesting the symptoms of the virus. You have a fever? You have a cough? Come in! We will all hug you and ask you for a kiss. You will be the star of the party.

To have written this a couple of months ago would have been science fiction. Now, it may seem like a delusion to some, but it is not inconsistent with the crazy times in which we live, so crazy that we all carry two totally contradictory ideas at the same time. On the one hand, we strive not to catch the virus; on the other, we earnestly wish that we have already caught it.

This morning I had the luxury of leaving home and going to the supermarket. I met a friend there whom I had not seen in several months. Under normal conditions I would have kissed her. This time we greet each other without touching, always keeping the regulatory distance. Under normal conditions we would have gone for a coffee. This time we said goodbye after less than a minute. Perhaps she is one of the lepers, I thought. Perhaps he is one of the lepers, she must have thought.

I go back home, Skype to a friend in London, and we both express the wish we all share. Hopefully we have been lepers. Since the coronavirus may not produce symptoms, we may have had it without even knowing. Or, if we had what seemed like a normal flu in the last two months, we might already have had it.

No, I don’t want to catch it! we say. And at the same time, yes, please, I want to have been infected!

Critics of governments should put themselves in their shoes. The poor things spent years putting on the pantomimes that the old electoral conventions demand before coming to power. And now that they have made it, the issue is not raising or lowering taxes or consummating Brexit before the end of the year. The real issue is to avoid “coronaviruscide” and at the same time avoid the destruction of the economy. There are no maps for either of these two destinations. We are flying blind.

There are people who say that it is immoral to think about the economy when the only thing that matters is saving lives. But the economy is not an abstraction. The economy is the 22 million people who have lost their jobs in the United States, the country with the most ruthless capitalist system in the western world. The economy is a video that a friend just sent me from the centre of the once prosperous city of Barcelona. It shows a 200 metre queue of people waiting to get a coffee and something solid to eat. Today saving lives means not one but two things: that people do not die from the virus and that those who do not die can live without anxiety.

All the governments of the 50 or more quarantined countries are wondering when and how are we going to end the confinement? Surely some will know of some variant on the idea of ​​the card – the license to live – and the other option, the mark of Cain, bracelets.

The question now, and until the happy and still distant day when the vaccine arrives and is available to everyone, is how to live with the coronavirus.

One option would be to look at the Swedish model where the numbers of deaths from the virus are below the European average. In Sweden the bars and restaurants are still open, the shops too. It is recommended that the elderly and those with previous illnesses isolate themselves, and the rest are allowed to leave the house, but they are asked to observe the distances and not to meet in groups of more than 50. The Swedish government’s slogan is “behave as adults”.

Given the growing impatience of many people and the growing fear of the consequences for day-to-day life, perhaps the time has come when other governments have the courage to treat their citizens more like adults, and less than electoral fodder. For example, changing the question from “how to live with the coronavirus?” to “how to live with death?”

The terrible news that some seem not to have noticed is that we all die, and the older we are, the sooner we will lose our lives. As the South African Nobel Prize for Literature, J.M. Coetzee said, “The plague simply gives us a sharper perception of our mortality.”

Fighting death is biologically programmed in humans, as in all other animals. That is where we are now. Well, fine. But perhaps the most important question, the one we should all ask ourselves, is what steps we should take now? Should we be more afraid of dying or of living badly? It will help in finding an answer to recognise that we cannot control the former. To some extent, we can control the latter.

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