COVID and the ditch

COVID-19 has pushed all of humanity into a ditch. Rarely have so many millions of people been in the same pit, threatened and beaten from all four sides. It is not only the disease, but the paralysis of the economy, mass unemployment, disconnection from social relations, uncertainty, physical and psychological trauma, the deaths of thousands, much more visible than the silent deaths of other injustices.

But what hurts the most, from this fall into the void, are the deaths of so many… The pain hurts. We cannot be indifferent. The images are atrocious. We have never seen so many coffins at one time. The virus has broken the back of many families. It is not the statistics; it is the goodbyes, the last call, the doctor who from the threshold of death gives instructions to her patient in less serious condition than herself. It is the young man already departing, telling his sweetheart that he loves her very much, as if it were the first time. The grandparents who did not return home. The deaths in so many intimate, unknown stories hurt. Has the world ever heard the last breath of so many in unison? There is pain for all those who have died in my country, in Brazil, the United States, Spain, Italy, Indonesia… why bother to make the list if it is easier to cite the few places where the pandemic has not arrived.

The death of another always hurts, be it in a war or a tsunami, but this time I cannot imagine anything more strange. It is as if death reveals the fragility of opposites, the inevitable end of the cycle of life. At the same time, man rebels against misery and sings, and extends a hand to another in danger. I have no poem, no song, no long walk through the words. Only silence to honor the dead, and the living.

In connection with this humanitarian disaster, a brief text came to mind, written by the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, on June 27, 1932, to a friend named Lulka, in which he reminds her of a short novel by the little-known French author, Lucien Jean. The work was entitled The Man in the Pit. This is the story Gramsci recalls: One night a man had been having a great time: perhaps he had too much to drink… Upon leaving the premises, after having zigzagged down the street, he ended up at the bottom of a ditch. It was very dark, his body was stuck between the rocks and the undergrowth; he was a little scared and did not move, for fear of sinking even deeper. The vegetation buried him, slugs crawled over him, covering him with silver threads…

Hours passed; morning was approaching and with the first glimpse of dawn, people began to walk by. The man shouted for help. A man wearing glasses approached him; he was a scientist returning home. “What’s wrong,” he asked. “I want to get out of this ditch,” the man replied. “Ah, you would like to get out of the ditch! … You know something, you were standing in accordance with the laws of statics and you fell by the laws of kinematics. What ignorance, what ignorance!” And he walked away shaking his head, completely offended.

Other steps were heard. More indications of human presence. A peasant was approaching, pulling a pig he intended to sell on a rope, and smoking a pipe: “Ah, you fell into the pit,” he said, “You got drunk, had some fun, and fell into the ditch. And why didn’t you just go to sleep like I did? And he walked away to the rhythm of the pig’s grunts. Next an artist came by and expressed his opinion of the man who wanted to get out of the ditch: He looked so beautiful, all silvered by slugs, with a crown of herbs and wildflowers on his head, he looked so pathetic! Finally, a minister of God passed by, only to lash out at the depravity of the city folk, who were enjoying themselves or sleeping while a brother was lying in a ditch. He became frantic and ran off to prepare a thundering sermon for his next mass.

So the man remained in the ditch, until he looked around, saw exactly where he had fallen, loosened himself, turned over, leaned on his arms and legs, stood up and left the ditch, on his own.

True enough, getting out of most ditches requires individual effort, to extract “the bitter sorrows of the heart,” as Gramsci stated. But this time, before a pandemic that hits us all at once, we need the help of the scientist, the farmer, the artist, the minister of God, of all countries, hands and voices, to confront even the slightest expression of selfishness, which delivers blows to those who, because they are poor, cannot reach the one floating board that could save them in the ditch or the worst of shipwrecks.

With love, humanity can recover. Other disasters await that will not negate life.

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