When Others Become Hell
Although one might think it happened too late and too slowly, and that more lives could have been saved had it gone faster, I am nevertheless surprised that it took such little time to shut down borders and restrict human movements—in respect to international travel, likely for quite a long time. How quickly has the planet locked down and physical circulation been reduced! Every day, the silent, empty Paris in which I walk for a short daily outing reminds me of the slowdown we are all experiencing: almost no cars, few people walking along the streets, closed shops, bars, and restaurants, no planes in the sky… Slowing everything down—except in the health and food sectors—has been very swiftly possible.
It is remarkable, but in fact less so than the rapidity with which we started feeling threatened by others. As in Sartre’s play No Exit: “Hell is other people.” The threat is not coming from foreigners, not from those living beyond our borders—as it can be in the minds of some of my compatriots who deny migrants the right to be part of our national community—but from the people you cross on the street by your house, the supermarket customers waiting to be allowed to enter the store to go shopping, but whom you think are standing too close to you and could contaminate you. It is such a curious period of missing everyday contact with your family, friends, and colleagues, but at the same time hoping that you will be the only customer at your favorite grocery store, will not bump into another walker when you turn the corner of the street, no longer trusting the sanitary condition of the supermarket employees, and cleaning everything you buy when you get back home, not touching the button of the elevator in your own building like you always used to do. Everybody becomes your enemy and you are the enemy of everybody else… You can feel it when people cross the road in order not to be on the same side of the street as you, or walk closer to one side of the sidewalk in order to increase the distance from you when you cross paths…
Increasing exchanges again and ending the slowdown of transportation will probably be rather quick. But how long will it take to use the subway or the bus again without feeling afraid of the crowd? After the terrorist attacks in Paris, I remember feeling unsafe for a while, thinking how an attack could happen just as I was entering the subway station. But this apprehension dissipated rather quickly, and after a few days I jumped into train cars without a second thought. Will it be the same this time, when we are allowed to commute again? Can it be the same when the danger isn’t a small group of fanatics but everyone and everything around you—the pole that you need to hold onto in the subway, the handle you have to touch to open a door? What will happen when someone sneezes or coughs in the bus, and how long will it take to no longer listen to it, as was the case not so long ago? How long will it take to go to a concert, see a movie or a play, attend a conference, without feeling exposed and potentially in danger? Will this perception of danger disappear once a medicine—or better yet a vaccine—is available? Or will we remain reluctant to share a hug, to give a kiss, to shake hands, to sit near one another… in case a new virus might spread?
These are questions that often come to my mind these days. Small questions compared to many of the big discussions and projections into the future that I listen to and read by people telling us that everything will be different after this pandemic. But I do not trust what they say about the transformation of the economy, the redefinition of work relationships, or the increased consideration and recognition that will be given to those who are at this moment healing us and saving our lives, as well as those who are feeding us, collecting the garbage, cleaning the hospitals, taking care of those who have died. Former crises—remember the 2008 breakdown—show that things quickly return to business as usual, and the big transformations that were expected in their wakes did not occur. I may be wrong, but I prefer to believe that it unfortunately will not make a real impact on the way our societies are run, and to be pleasantly surprised if it were to make one, rather than being disappointed again by our inability to learn. Rather, I bet that what will change and probably be impacted for quite a long time will be at the micro level: our personal relationships to others, physical proximity to others, accepting to be part of a crowd. Like AIDS affected sexual behaviors, like terrorism modified the lives of those living in big cities or traveling by making security measures present in our everyday routine, COVID-19 will probably first of all impact our personal interactions and activities.
Christine Musselin (SASE President 2016-2017)