-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — The big difference between today's pandemic and history's previous great plagues — Justinian's plague, the Black Death or the Spanish flu — is that before, we had not yet so drastically altered the balance of nature. We were not living through a heightened process of climate change with its proliferation of extinct species, destruction of the vast biosphere, our insane dietary changes and the genetic alterations we are forcing onto the world, and with unforeseeable consequences.

There's lots of talk about how we've survived pandemics in the past by eventually developing immunity. This one, they say, will be no different, and normality will return. Because after all, we wouldn't have survived as a species if not for our extraordinary ability to fight off viral and bacterial attacks. Without antibodies we wouldn't be here.

And that's true. Right now we're not really placing our hopes on medicine, which doesn't do much against COVID-19, or on science, which could take ages to come up with an effective vaccine. We can't expect our overwhelmed governments to save us either. No, all we can really count on is nature, and our organism's ability to resist the assault and emerge strengthened at the other end.

We know, obviously, that species go extinct. And we understand that a million-year experiment does not assure us eternal life. We know species can be as mortal as an individual. But if we expect so much of nature and effectively depend on it, we should not consider ourselves so distinct from it, nor meddle with nature so recklessly.

All we can really count on is nature, and our organism's ability to emerge strengthened at the other end.

A species that needs to breathe 13 times a minute, as one song says, should not poison the air this way, nor fell the jungles, nor desiccate marshlands to feed its greed. In our crass ignorance, we should not be degrading the state of a planet so amenable to our happy existence.

What if our present experience were to become a permanent situation, and we became a continuous danger to one another? I myself am convinced this will not happen, and believe we shall overcome this crisis and current moment of alarm. But we would do well to ask what would happen if this planet — the source of all our joyfulness, the thing that made possible Renoir's paintings and Walt Whitman poetry — were to become, once and for all, a toxic hole.

What if its climate were to become unbearable, and itself a cradle of increasingly mutating viruses, eaten away by our greed, buried under trash, defiled by plastic and poisoned by pesticides? Imagine if the sun burned and blinded us, and water were no longer a blessing, with our bodies and its fibers barely able to react or willing to live on.

Pre-COVID-19: Renoir's "Bal du moulin de la Galette" (1876) — Source: Musée d'Orsay/CC

I sincerely believe and hope that we shall quietly return to our streets, to our familiar embraces, celebrations, loves and cordial dinner parties. We shall talk again to strangers on the street, learn to trust again, and be carefree and joyous. The litany of deaths and infections will stop, and we shall stop disinfecting everything we touch. We'll dare once again to lie on grass again to look at the sky. Indeed, we shall learn the forgotten art of appreciating the most elementary things: the body's wisdom; and the only real wealth, which is a simple life, real affection and a civilization for which it is fit to live and die.

We needed something to remind us that the body is a miracle, that trust is a treasure, and that we all deserve the same. And we needed reminding of the real danger of the powers we have aroused, the changes we have wrought on the world and the destruction our time is causing with our eager, collective participation. Let us remember that the harm we do may become irreparable.

We needed something to remind us that the body is a miracle.

This is much more than a four-month health crisis. The virus we initially deemed to be a low-level threat has managed to have a most disconcerting, and meticulous effect on our lives, and we have yet to see all its results. It has revealed the web of contradictions, injustices and paradoxes we used to call normality.

It is showing us, for better or worse, that anything can change overnight. The states and firms that could never find a way of paying people well to work must now pay them to stay at home. Airplanes are suddenly banned from the air. The oil prices that ruled our lives and controlled our mobility have plummeted to nonsensical depths. The vainest, most legalistic democracies, like the United States, are now seeing their campaigning president signing checks to be paid to the people. Venice is deserted suddenly, as are Times Square and the Champs Elysées. One is uncomfortably reminded of imperial Rome, whose universal pax collapsed to usher in the Dark and Middle ages, with their isolated lives and village ghouls.

The world that saw the pandemic arrive was not the safe and untouched world of history. "Raining birds" and the death of bees were its ominous signs. I do not think anyone is punishing us. Even so, we must consider the universal unease that pervades the planet like an omen.


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