Covid-19: when the world loses track of control

A contribution by Susana Magalhães, Research Integrity Officer at Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde – i3S (University of Porto). 

Mass media had been waiting for the first case of Corvid-19 in Portugal for a while. On 2nd March the first two cases were reported, which did not make anyone happy, of course, but it surely brought relief to those who were wondering why this virus had not struck our country yet. Suddenly faced with the reality of an unknown disease, with various illness experiences and different societal views on those afflicted by the virus, the Portuguese people now have to face ethical, cultural and political issues.

Since it is highly contagious, the threat requires us to protect ourselves as much as possible from social contact, escaping into our homes, where supermarket items can be stored, which might be very useful in case WHO declares that the world is actually facing a pandemic. Refraining from human touch and socialization is totally contrary to Portuguese habits and values, which explains the uncanny reality this virus is building around us.

The invisible threat now made visible is also unveiling the fragility that medicine, science and western societies, hand in hand, have been managing to cover, to mask, to transfigure. Aging, illness, errors and mistakes and the final flaw –death—have been steadily translated as persistent youth, expected life-long healthy bodies, error-free actions and death-less lives.  Corvid-19 reminds us now that not only are we still vulnerable, but also that it is precisely this vulnerability that makes us human. Human enough to be caregivers, to risk our health to take care of those who fall sick and not to let panic rule our lives (this is a hard mission in a globalized world, where information flows every minute, drawing false images together with real ones, delivering fake news side by side with true stories).

The main individual ideal to be pursued in our days – freedom – is now presented with the limitations it has always had but few people were and still are willing to accept: the limits imposed by the common good and by the Invisible Other. The duty to care and community-wide quarantines are ethical and political issues that our country will have to deal with, if the scenario gets more serious in the near future.

In Blindness, one of the novels by the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, we step into a city struck by an epidemic of blindness, which exposes all the human traces affected by it— love, loyalty, fear, heroism, cowardice, violence, happiness, delusion. The disaster brings out the strengths and the weaknesses of people during community-wide quarantine, disclosing the worst blindness, which is not the disease in itself but what human beings were not able to see, even before they fell sick. Covid-19 is not nature’s punishment for what we have been doing to the environment, nor is it a plague that came to make us see ourselves in the mirror. However, it surely is an opportunity to step aside from the global frenzy world and revisit ourselves inside.

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