We enter the eighth month of the year dealing with Covid-19. We would have wanted to live all this time in a capsule, in a hyperbaric chamber, in hibernation, and go outside only when it all happened. But so many things have happened in the global village in these seven months… And what is life without the experience of everyday life, of what happens and happens to us.
No matter how isolated we were, we couldn’t be without hearing the beating of the world, the multiple stories, from the origin and spread of the new coronavirus and the follow-up to the health crisis, to the social effects of an African-American suffocation by a cop in Minneapolis. Isn’t that quite one story?
On the island we have not been oblivious to the events outside, but also inside things have happened. And for everything there are criteria and positions that cause dissequents and shocks when intolerance emerges, the voices that scream louder because they want to be the only ones heard, the ones who believe themselves to be bearers of the truth.
Word New wanted to share the expressions of a group of diverse voices to offer to its readers as a sample of the personal and collective experiences that have been lived in this peculiar and amazing leap year, this twenty-twenty turned quarent(en)a.
We have asked these people to tell us about their experiences in these seven months, how their days have passed, how they have faced the challenges, and what reading they make of what happened, what their ideas are about it.
I want to think that life will be back to the way it was
By Lazarus Zamora Jo
In December 2019, for most Cubans, the new coronavirus in China was still too distant to worry about, one of many viruses that occur often without altering life on this side of the planet. I, however, was beginning to worry, to fear that on this occasion it might happen differently. Pure hunch. Maybe my Chinese grandfather would be alerting me from heaven.
Every night, after everyone at home went to bed, I would go online for news about the spread in Wuhan, write down the number of new contagions and deaths, compare the figures with those of the previous day, followed the forecasts of the experts. My wife would wake up sometimes and, when I was glued to the computer, connected to the subject, I was reproached by my obsession. For her there was no need to be alarmed: China was far away.
For a few weeks, having reached the peak, the epidemic in Wuhan gave way and the time came when it seemed to be under control, so I stopped getting restless. But that’s when the real nightmare began: in a few days the virus crossed Chinese borders and reached several Asian cities and then began its dizzying spread throughout the orb. Suddenly we saw ourselves on a stage very similar to that of certain Hollywood cadastrephistic films, with a bit of Outbreak (Wolfgang Petersen) and The day after tomorrow (Roland Emmerich).
I confess that when the first cases were made known in Cuba—three Italian tourists, one of whom would die soon after—I felt somewhat close to panic. I saw the havoc the virus wreaked on Europe and feared that the same could happen here. It made sense to think about it, as the country’s authorities had not yet decided to close borders and tourism continued to arrive en masse. Only when the wise decision was made to interrupt flights and social isolation was announced did I breathe more calmly.
I believe that at first people were acceptable to comply with the isolation measures. But Cubans don’t resist confinement—many have spent most of their lives sitting on portals and sidewalks or wandering around the neighborhood—so, uns presumably, over the course of days they ended up relaxing and returning to their routine. At least, that’s what happened in Havana. Even in areas with movement restrictions due to its epidemiological situation. Several weeks ago, I had to cross Key West, the well-known neighborhood of Centro Habana, then quarantined, and I was surprised to see that the streets were as busy as ever.
It is a phenomenon that continues to be repeated in other areas with pockets of contagion or events. In reality, it not only affects the Cuban’s idiosyncrasies, but also his living conditions: it is impossible to stay night and day in those interior dwellings, small, paupérrimas, poorly ventilated, which predominate in many neighborhoods of the city.
There is also the urgent need to obtain food, which is complicated by the desupply of markets. Sometimes I see people crowded in the queues and I get the impression that they are much more worried about food than about getting coronavirus. Of course, the need should not be blamed. There is also quite indolence, an indifference in many people that one does not explain.
When the long-awaited flexibility of measures in the capital finally arrived days ago—after the other provinces had moved to phase 3—and the resumption of public transport and the reopening of beaches and bars were allowed, the repressed cravings of young people—and not so young—sprouted with impetus and coronavirus passed into the background. The consequences did not take long to manifest: the virus, which seemed already about to kill, is rapidly recovering the lost ground and with conditions more conducive than before for its expansion.
Every time I leave the house, before I put on the nasobuco, I try to prepare psychologically, internalize the risk that is currently taking place in the street. And I do it thinking more about family than myself. The fact that our loved ones can fall into an isolation center, with the discomfort this entails and the uncertainty it creates, is already stressful.
Some writers may have not done badly for the isolation period. They may have counted on the time they had not been able to devote to their work under normal conditions. As far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t been quite like this. The epidemic imposed on my life a dynamic that is not conducive to literary work. Like most ordinary people, I’ve had to deal with survival, take on the monster in the queues, and lose in that endeavor the best hours of the day.
I usually write in the mornings—all attempts to do so on another schedule have failed—and when I let that moment go, the muses leave too. To this we must add the time that hygiene now requires, the disinfection of each personal object used in the street, a ritual that I repeat thoroughly when returning home and often more than once a day.
Despite everything, I have been able to find a few hours for my literary projects. I have managed to advance the revision of my new novel and write a story whose story takes place in this time of coronavirus. Crises often bring out the best in the human being; but sometimes, the worst. That’s what the story is all about.
I’ve read a little too. In my quest to learn more about the work of cuban diaspora writers, I was able to read several novels by Antonio Alvarez Gil, an author with a solid and interesting narrative production that is unfortunately unknown in Cuba. I have also engaged in the rereading of some books in my library: The Magic Mountain, Doctor Zhivago, The Steppary Wolf, If a Winter Night a Traveler, Fake Name, Essay on Blindness.
Why these books and not others? I couldn’t say. In each case I think I have chosen at random; but sometimes I suspect that chance here is illusory, that behind each election there has been a certain reason. This suspicion became more evident in Saramago’s novel, a story that, ignoring its symbolic background, speaks of the struggle for survival in the midst of an epidemic. The funny thing is that at the time I decided to reread it—I had read it for the first time in 2004, in the Art and Literature edition—I wasn’t aware of the obvious similarities between that story and the drama that the world is living in today.
Of course, my readings and my days of literary work no longer go through with the usual tranquility. At intervals, the startle that causes the uncontrolled expansion of the epidemic reappears. It’s not the only thing that shakes the world, all right. In these months we have seen the dantesque images of the catastrophe in Beirut, the mass protests against police violence in the United States, the trade tensions between the great powers, religious and ethnic conflicts in Africa and the Middle East; however, all this is less disturbing to me than the possibility of being faced with a pandemic of devastating consequences for the human species. It is not only about the dead it directly causes, but also the collapse of the world economy that brings rigging and the impact that the latter can have on all spheres of life.
I wake up every day thinking about it and wondering when the pandemic will start to give way, if it will ever disappear. But so far I can’t find answers. I don’t think scientists either.
Still, I want to be optimistic, to think that finally this nightmare will pass and life will be back to the way it was.
Lázaro Zamora Jo (Punta Alegre, Ciego de Avila, 1959). Narrator. Alejo Carpentier Cuento Award for his book Luna Poo y el paraíso (Cuban Letters, 2004). The novel Oficio impropio (Editorial Guantanamera, Sevilla, 2017) is his last published book.