Quarantine is something tough and beautiful

Nune Hakhverdyan

Art critic, journalist

The panic evoked by the news about the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) led to intense fears and global changes in lifestyle and mindset.

Unlike these days, epidemics have never required such complicated decisions on people’s isolation, even taking into consideration the deadly plague of the 16th century and other disasters.

During the plague in the medieval period, Europe lost half of its population, whereas the percentage of Coronavirus cases is so low that it can be hardly compared to the number of people infected with plague. However, in the time of Internet and social media, any infection can obtain existential significance, turning into a matter of life and death.

Inevitably, the infection also turns into a weapon for financial and political groups. For example, in Armenia, the fear of epidemics goes hand in hand with promoting the idea of not participating in the referendum (surely, some political stakeholders will try to benefit from that.)

The Coronavirus outbreak has been labelled a pandemic. There are four confirmed cases in Armenia, and we have every reason to believe that it’s just the beginning.

Various countries announce national quarantines, lock their borders, switch to an extreme self-defense mode, declare state of emergency, cancel flights, etc. There is already a travel ban on Italy, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and the number of such countries will definitely increase.

Currently quarantine methods (cordon sanitaire, lockdown, voluntary isolation) become matters of life and death both for government elites and ordinary citizens. Isolate yourself if you want to live…

This is a very interesting situation because being open, caring and tolerant has always been considered to be the best way of “self-preservation.” And now, it’s just the contrary – you should cut off all communication and build up walls. You think, is it really worth approaching potentially infected persons in the street, at workplace, in public transport if they need help? You are kind of being tested for humanism.

Discipline becomes essential, although it’s hard to tell how it can be maintained in the insanely insanitary and inhuman conditions of the Armenian public transport.

Humbly obeying the rules becomes important, otherwise, the virus break-in is inevitable. It means that we need to totally trust government bodies, whereas we don’t have all that experience of trusting yet.

The number of banned public spaces has also expanded.

Among the closed institutions are museums (even the Louvre), restaurants (the once-crowded Venice squares are empty), theaters (even the great La Scala couldn’t handle it); concerts, conferences and business trips are being canceled (or moved to safer online platforms.)

Live communication becomes dangerous, and we have to count only on virtual communication that can provide you with mental and emotional contacts only when you are physically isolated. Or, at least, it you are ready to become isolated.

The authorities and the public get together around the idea that we need control and isolation.

Our salvation is about being together – first, within the borders of the state (good bye, EU; hello, nation state), then – within the borders of a community (a district), then – within the borders of a family (for example, Italy declared a massive quarantine – family ties are strong but visits to relatives should be restricted.) As a result, people become reclusive, relying only on social media.

Surely, social media and the virtual world in general have been playing a big role in our life. Nowadays they also provide us with an opportunity to stop the usual series of our everyday actions (for example, we can try to optimize our work and education) and to think about our “ritualistic moves”, such as the shopping practices, the dreams of becoming a part of the “touristic fuss”, the entertaining group activities, etc.)

A virus could become an excuse for fearfully admitting that not everything in this world depends on us – stopping for a while and changing the lifestyle is not only an issue of flexibility and progress but also an issue of simply surviving. Solitude is something beautiful and effective. And quarantine has been reminding us of that.

People often compare Coronavirus with medieval plague. We recall that plainly-written and picturesque Decameron was created to entertain isolated people. The main characters of Giovanni Boccaccio leave the infected city and start telling stories to each other, entertaining themselves in emptiness. And it becomes a preventive measure because joyful, erotic and bright narratives are exactly what people need during epidemics.

People should not see deaths, losses, anger, lamentation and other ugly things – they should look and find alternatives to them, such as joy, arts, high-quality stories, songs. Social isolation can be healthy if you manage to cope with bad things with the help of good things. If you cope with fear with the help of pleasant things.

And if you find those good things in social media (not lamentation, anger, curses and panic), the quarantine will turn into a lifebelt.

Perhaps, the best tips are not the ones related to preventing virus infections (everybody knows them already) but the ones related to spending time alone if you get that splendid opportunity.

For example, you can declare a “media lockdown”, since newsfeed scrolling can become too boring if it takes most of the time of the person that has voluntarily isolated himself. It can be boring if that’s your only entertainment.

You can replace the epidemic of fear and isolation with shared joys.

Book clubs, for example, became very popular in China when people living in one building and one community started sharing their books.

Of course, the fear of the unknown, the fear of elusive microbe-size creatures has been destroying our trust in people surrounding us (we subconsciously run away from coughing and sneezing citizens.) At the same time, we have a good chance to see how futile are pretentious, patriotic speeches, campaign-related promises, pompous declarations, shallow discussions in social media.

The only salvation is the daily domestic hygiene. You wash your hands with soap, and then you clean your thoughts from excessive communication. It’s a tough and beautiful job.

Nune Hakhverdyan

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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