Gabriel Garcia Marquez characters’ Fermina and Florentino, incarnate in the novel “Love in the Time of Cholera”, the resilient and enduring power of human love. The late love of these septuagenarians blossoms amid a landscape made desolate by the dreaded cholera epidemics, and all kinds of unpredictable cataclysms that had been ravaging their country for fifty years. The rivers’ once-forested shores were decimated, the water receded, and the riparian wildlife dwindled or disappeared. Yet amid the ruins of nature they find happiness and succeed in keeping alive, undamaged and intact, the desire and aspiration to live and love. Time has proved both enemy and friend. This is a novel about people who choose hope over despair, self-knowledge over self-dramatization, alliances against isolation, cultural and religious contamination against ideological and paranoid moral purity. They believe that love can transform age and time. This is a tale which wants to prove that love is not an illusion. That love encapsulates life's best possibilities, particularly in times of crisis and despair. When we are challenged the most and all our certainties – political, economic or religious – fail, stories such as this can illuminate, not only as records of what happened in the past, but rather as testimonies of what happens in the present and could happen tomorrow. Contrasted with religious apocalyptic prophecies of the worst, human and secular tales like this are implicit and discrete messianic prophecies of a resilient, sympathetic and collaborative life that God has freely engraved, not just in believers, but in every human being.
This fear-of-devastation scenario unfortunately is now unfolding throughout the world. This is certainly the case in Europe. Italy’s sweeping lockdown of its north reverberated through Europe last Sunday, fueling fears of similarly draconian measures from London to Berlin, as officials grappled with how to slow the rapid-fire spread of the coronavirus in several of the world’s most open and democratic societies. All this uncertainty provoked, together with the ongoing oil crisis between Russia and Saudi Arabia, this week’s “Black Monday” effect, bringing panic into the major world stock markets. The main financial indexes in the US closed down by more than 7%, while London's index of top shares ended the day nearly 8% lower. Similar drops took place across Europe and Asia.
Just in 5 days since last Sunday, things have drastically turned worse. Main European countries like France, Germany and Spain, are today reporting similar numbers: around 2,000 cases of Covid-19 infections with increasing numbers of deaths. No other European country has yet gone as far as hard-hit Italy. Over 10,000 cases of infections and 800 deaths up until now. This rapid deterioration pushed prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, in a message to the Italian nation yesterday evening, to declare that the whole of Italy is locked down until April 3, to slow the spread of coronavirus. The government-imposed restrictions are the most draconian yet seen in a democracy.
U.S. President Donald Trump, in an address to the nation, suspended all travel from Europe to the United States for 30 days, while more than 1,000 people in the United States have been declared infected and 36 persons have been killed. The NBA put an indefinite hold on its season – following Wednesday night's games – after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for coronavirus. Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, and his fellow actress and wife Rita Wilson, posted on social media Wednesday night that they have been diagnosed with coronavirus. "Bottom line, it's going to get worse." Those were the words of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci, MD, today during a House Oversight Committee hearing discussing the coronavirus response. In the same tone but with a larger and more dramatic impact, World Health Organization General director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said yesterday during a news conference in Geneva: "We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a Pandemic."
But COVID-19 is not only provoking huge medical, political, social and economic effects. There will be a “before and after” to this 2020 Pandemic. Our life will not be the same, can’t be the same. The existential, psychological and anthropological effects are designing a changed human profile. Will we be able to catch the human message this event leaves behind? Will the distractions, the indifference, the superficiality of our duties, or even our religious obsessions, push us to overlook this message? And essentially this implicit and unspoken message has to do with some forgotten words: 1) humility, 2) slowness, 3) vulnerability and 4) solidarity. These are the essence of Love. We have become too mechanistic, individualistic, fast and proud. And religions, Adventism included, have not corrected these cultural involutions. They have increased them instead by giving them an ecclesiological, a biblical and an ethical endorsement.
But life has its own ways of balancing events and situations when normality has been turned upside down. The moment we are experiencing, full of unprogrammed anomalies and paradoxes, makes us think. It pushes us to think. At a time when climate change caused by environmental disasters has reached worrying levels, China and many (European) countries are forced to blockade. All this unexpected industrial slowdown pushes the economy to a risk of collapse, but pollution drops considerably. In China NO2 (Nitrogen dioxide) levels have dropped down to 30 %. The air improves. We use masks to protect us against the COVID-19 but we breathe better. Let’s consider the benefits these overlooked words could bring by the paradoxical and unpredictable action of a virus.
Europe has always been proud of its cultural, scientific and political achievements. There are good historical reasons for this. But lately a diffuse sense of identity-hardening is travelling throughout the whole continent. And it’s paradoxical that in this precise moment, when certain discriminatory ideologies and policies, with strong references to a nasty and petty past, are being reactivated on this territory, a virus arrives. And it makes us experience, in a mere moment, that we Europeans can become the discriminated, the segregated, those stuck at the border, those pariahs who carry disease. Even if we are not to blame. Even if we are white, Western, sophisticated and we travel in business-class. Suddenly we become the suspected ones.
In an accelerated society based on productivity and consumption, in which we all run 16 hours a day, we surprisingly discover that we have unlearned how to rest, and how to peacefully just stay home, do “nothing” and be with our family. The automatisms of our extremely programmed and mechanic existence, that whirl down our lives in the diabolic rhythm of efficiency and results, can suddenly be stopped. At any moment our idolatrous schedules can actually be broken. The stop comes. It has come. At home, for days and days. All Italy is now compelled by law to stay home until next April. How will we deal with a time which for us is only measurable in money and productivity? Do we still know what to do with it in other terms?
In today’s civil society we have only learned to take care of our own “garden”, without bothering about our neighbor. The virus is sending us a clear and different message. The only way out is reciprocity, a sense of community, and the feeling of being part of something greater. Something greater to take care of and that can take care of us. The shared responsibility, the feeling that fate depends, not only on ourselves, but also on everyone around us, and that we depend on them. So, if we stop hunting witches, wondering who is to blame or why all this has happened, but rather wonder what we can learn from this, we’ll discover that we all have a lot to think about and commit to. We’ll find that the lesson we urgently need to learn is that we are in deep debt with life and with others. And the virus is explaining it to us, albeit at a very high price.
In a historical period in which the growth of our children is, necessarily, often delegated to other figures and institutions, the virus closes schools and forces us to find alternative solutions. But it puts moms and dads together with their children. It forces us to rebuild family. We discover that we are vulnerable and we fear this vulnerability because we don’t know what to do with it. We have lost familiarity with being near to people and just being there for them, and with them. In a world in which relationships, communication and sociality are played mainly in the "non-space" of the virtual, the social network, giving us only the illusion of closeness, the virus takes away those who are close to us, the real ones. Nobody can touch each other, no kisses, no hugs. All must remain at a distance, in cold non-contact. Proximity has become medically prohibited. How much have we taken these gestures and their meaning for granted?
Finally, what should Adventism and Adventists say in this crisis? Nothing. The less we say the better. Our end-time zeal and prophetic sense of mission, which pushes us compulsively to pronounce what we believe to be timely pearls of wisdom, ought to be restrained. This could be a sign of true-human-recovered wisdom. This virus is teaching us that we are like others, no less, no more. We Adventists are certainly special to God. But we are special to him no more than every other human being – who worships on Sunday and eats pork or drinks – is precious in his eyes. Don’t say, don’t do, just be. The less we say, the less we do, miraculously makes us appear better than what we really are. And what are we Adventists really? In our being, in our attitudes, in our anthropological structure? It’s not easy to know when we are covered and hidden behind our numberless works, initiatives, prophecies and knowledge.
For a pragmatic South American like me, for whom everything (life, world, message) is clear, transparent, feasible, reachable and certain, all this sounded like heresy. But this is the essence of the Italian Adventism I laboriously learned to know, expressed in the vision of my dear friend and colleague – Ethicist Vittorio Fanton – here in our welcoming and beautiful Adventist campus of “Villa Aurora”, in Florence, where he passed away a few days ago.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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