ONE YEAR OF COVID-19: WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED? WHAT HAVE WE LOST?- A CONTRIBUTION BY ISABEL FERNANDES, CECILIA BEECHER MARTINS, MARTA SOARES AND TERESA CASAL (PROJECT IN MEDICAL HUMANITIES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF LISBON)

Isabel Fernandes, University of Lisbon (Portugal)

Maybe a bit surprisingly, we have been led to recognise the limits of our scientific knowledge when faced with an unknown virus, but also that scientists, when acting together on a global scale and on an interdisciplinary way, can be decisive in saving lives.

But even though science can play such a crucial role, we have also learned that, in view of the power of policy decision-makers, its potential widening range and crucial findings may be ignored, neglected and even disastrously put at risk, by national administrations such as, for instance, the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations.

Facing the unknown, rife with contradictions and uncertainties, has unfortunately revealed people’s tendency to believe what they want to believe rather than what is real, reminding us of T.S. Eliot’s words: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” The COVID-19 pandemic has most certainly highlighted the need for effective health communication, based on a synergy between politics, healthcare, and science. 

Meanwhile, we have lost confidence in global and national Healthcare Institutions, for their contradictory, sometimes totally unjustified and politically biased, information and advice. But we have gained increased respect for healthcare professionals’ ceaseless and unfailing efforts in caring for COVID-19 patients. 

And even though areas such as Narrative Medicine and Medical Humanities are unable to produce vaccines and treatment, we came to realize they can be of great help in times of lockdown, uncertainty and anxiety by providing healthcare professionals, patients and the general public with platforms for much-needed moments of interruption, online inter-action, self-awareness and context awareness.

We have learned that industry, instead of slowing down and giving in to emerging market limitations and even crisis, can creatively reconvert itself into new modes of production and newly sought-out products.

That there are other modes of human interconnection besides live contact and that these can be advantageous in reaching larger and out-of-the-way audiences. But we have also found out that none of these advantages makes up for the loss of physical proximity and near-by interconnection.

We have lost opportunities of socialization, and missed all sorts of gestures of affection and proximity. Hugs and kisses became surprisingly lethal! But, even so, we have learned to find new ways for not losing contact with our loved ones.

As fear and anxiety took over our daily lives, we realized that this is a time to build bridges rather than walls.

We have ceased taking for granted a lot of things: plans for the near future or mid-term plans – the group trip to the mountains or the seaside we’d like to make in Spring or Summer; the visit to an old and ageing friend; the celebration of a wedding or a special birthday. 

A more accurate understanding of time, of how it is differently experienced and manifested, was also gained, especially by those who live alone, as they saw themselves deprived of truly participating in the lives of their loved ones. Much can happen in one year: a child’s first steps and words, a relative’s slowly decaying health, a friend’s difficult navigation of life’s tempests.

Some have been born into a world inhabited by creatures smiling with their eyes only; others have been locked away from their loved ones, and surrounded by creatures hiding behind strange outfits; many have died, cared for by strangers turned witnesses of their mutual humanity. 

Some have been locked in crowded homes turned into offices and schools; others have been locked in lonesome homes, celebrating Easter and Christmas and again Easter all by themselves. Some were deprived of privacy; others were submerged in it.

Many of us, or those close to us, have unexpectedly lost their jobs and incomes, and seen themselves ashamedly destitute…! But we have been able to help them in more than one way…

In some cases, the shifts in family structures were redefined as the concept of home was quickly transformed from a single unit to separate and distinct bubbles.  But once this seismic shift was overcome, the ground was laid for long-lasting and hopefully permanent adult relationships. 

Moreover, the lack of outside distractions has made it more difficult to ignore inner demons, and they had to be faced and silenced.  But, while this is positive, it also expands solitary traits, and makes the return to normal social contact difficult even if greatly desired.

We have lost confidence and self-assuredness. Our future is on hold! But we have learned where our priorities are: the value of close connections, of family and solidarity.  

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