When I left the United States seven weeks ago to teach in Brazil, it was a different country. Testy and divided, angry and partisan, sure, but still identifying as Americans, whether or not they think the nation was great before the 2016 election. Mostly, we were agreeing to disagree.
That was then. Now, we are agreeing to look over our shoulder to see who just sneezed. Blue and red mean less than a sterile wipe. An uncanny foreboding has shrunk the public sphere to a marble.
Gazing across the empty spaces at the Sunport, I wondered if we are paying attention to long-range concerns. What happens when we get used to working and socializing only via internet? Are we facing a stark choice, as Yuval Harari suggests, between citizen empowerment and totalitarian surveillance? Will more governments decide to track all their citizens electronically, as Israel and China did?
A different country: Everything cancelled. Faces in masks, hurriedly, cross the airport. Masks so very far from those I just danced with in Carnaval. When I am done with quarantine, I will return to a country profoundly changed by poverty and massive unemployment. All this makes it critical to understand the fear, sorrow and humanity behind those masks. Yes, there will be vaccines and plenty to hope for. Self-isolation does not mean you are alone; community awaits.
As I traveled the nearly empty freeway home, I kept wondering how it took a virus to reduce our emissions when nations did not live up to their promises. The virus that condemns and sickens many of the world’s inhabitants has slowed climate change to give us time for the major transformation to green transportation and industry and to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. COVID-19 could teach us to hoard or to share; to shun or to find new ways of connecting. It could turn us suspicious or hostile, or finally compassionate. It is almost as if the virus was sent from above to allow us to become the more humane society we could be.
David Dunaway is a visiting professor at the University of Sao Paulo.