As the dawn arrives

Por José Antonio Michelena

Covid Notes of the Year

The first cases of SARS-CoV-2 were detected in the Cuban archipelago four months ago. Much more than an annoying noise, an unpleasant hum, entered our consciousness, altered our pace of life, movements, way of relating, of driving in the public space and even in our home.

Since the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS entered the scene, a health event, specifically a virus, did not cause such a disorder. But if AIDS impacted sexual behavior and discouraged promiscuity, Covid-19 takes us away from our social being. The more isolated, the less exposed we are to get infected. The farther away from the others, the safer.

An avalanche of publications have occurred around the coronavirus and its effects, it is a moving state, a drama in development, every day there are high numbers of deaths and contagions. It’s a scary risk because there are no effective therapies and vaccines, and until then the curtain won’t fall.

One of the annoying things about SARS-CoV-2 is the language used to refer to it. There military metaphors predominate: it is an enemy that health systems, governments, states must fight. In Cuba there is talk of “the confrontation with the Covid-19”.

Forty-three years ago, the prestigious American writer Susan Sontag, having been dealing with cancer, dedicated a book to the inadequate naming of diseases with metaphors: The Disease and its metaphors. Ten years later he follow up on the subject and wrote AIDS and its metaphors. Sontag died in 2004, but if she had been alive she would have now written La Covid-19 and her metaphors.

Although Susan Sontag turns her gaze to how language has expressed stigmas and prejudices around diseases such as syphilis, leprosy, cancer, or AIDS, her study is very comprehensive, with many examples taken from literature. According to her: “There is nothing more punitive than giving meaning to a disease – meaning that is invariably moralistic.”

When it comes to a disease caused by a virus whose origin is unknown or unclear, controversies are unleashed, both in the field of science and between states and nations. This was the case with HIV and has happened with SARS-CoV-2. But in the case of the covid-19 virus, the controversy has been more overt because it has involved more institutions and countries.

The recriminations addressed to the People’s Republic of China have been as colorful as possible, from reproaches to the eating habits of the Chinese people to accusations of initially hiding information from the first cases and, worse, for (allegedly) having manufactured the virus in a laboratory.

Of course the Chinese have hired and defended themselves against all the accusations. Their strongest response has been to stop the spread of the virus, the way they have handled the crisis.

It is precisely crisis management that is the highest and most controversial point around Covid-19 because achievements or failures by states and governments have impacted human lives, salvation or death.

There is a very different account of the crisis management of health systems and the states of the 186 nations that there are – to this day – in this history, in which, among many other things, the low figures reported by a group of countries are attracting attention. The lack of transparency in information creates mirages that, in the long run, can be very harmful.

The Covid-19 crisis has tested not only the health systems of the affected countries, but also the different societies and states in the face of the two major problems posed: the health and functioning of the economy. Prioritizing the second over the former has deepened the crisis in some nations.

In the case of Cuba, it has been favored by an effective health system articulated with the decisions of the government and the state, which have been clear that health is the most important thing, even if the economy is battered and suffers the onslating of border closures with its consequences for the entry of tourists, which is one of the few columns of that economy.

The cuban government’s strategy, the isolation of suspects as contacts of positive cases – a difficult practice to perform in other societies – has paid off because it has cut off the possible transmission of the virus of these carrier candidates in time. Its effectiveness is reinforced by the fact that a high percentage of positive cases remain asymptomatic.

More difficult in this time has been, for Cubans, to bring food to the table every day. Difficulties in buying food and toiletries have boosted an army of coleros and resellers that have further complicated the gap landscape that already existed.

Accessing shops to buy the most in-demand products, in cities like Havana, is a torture of many hours that can begin the day before and carry the bidding with an organized mafia that swarms, not only in the big markets, but also in the shops of the neighborhoods.

That mafia that controls and hoards, first, shifts in the queues, and then the most demanded products and then resells their purchases at very high prices, has become a serious social problem and has triggered the underground market.

Rising prices also manifest in agricultural products as a result of high consumer demand for poor supply. To put it with a baseball metaphor: there’s nowhere to turn.

Economic stabilization, or at least the exit from the crisis, will depend, everywhere, on returning to a health normality, which in turn is conditioned by the arrival of effective healing therapies and vaccines. There’s news that they’re both close. I hope it’s true. When that happens globally, each country will be able to return to its path, even if the new normal is hardly as normal as one would like. And there will always be countries “more normal than others.”

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