From Outside the Cave: a Reflection on Life in the Covid-19 Era

To conclude the GBHI Virtual Convening 2020, Fernando Aguzzoli Peres, Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health, shared a reflection on life in the COVID-19 era. The essay is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

I have been asked to reflect on the positive aspects of a pandemic. This can be a very challenging task. In the last few months I have been sick, I have suffered from fear, I have experienced the anxiety of a possible death. I've experienced the social pain. But I believe that the greatest pain was experiencing an inequitable crisis in many ways. What is hopeful here, I asked myself.

The crisis that threatened the lives of a few in China in January has become a global threat, and what was at the beginning a footnote in the news in America and Europe has become a reality. We underestimated the challenge. The power of the human being has bowed to the vulnerability, and suddenly we find ourselves without the design of "tomorrow".

COVID-19 exposed the human biological vulnerability, showing that what defines a person's strength is not the healing power or the individual resilience. We realized that we are more vulnerable as individuals than we imagine, but even stronger than ever as a society.

In the challenges of COVID-19 we have seen even more unequal societies, poor relations, and failed systems, but beyond the virus that contaminates us infesting power relations and challenging the biological, social, and political sciences, we have gained the chance to start over.

The virus brought a new way of connecting, showing us the importance of collective thinking, of taking care of yourself for the good of the other. An invisible and silent evil in our own skin can be the silence of the other.

We are studying more than just the link between a virus and humans, but a complete analysis of our social structures, our economic relationships, our human connections and our own interaction with time. In 2020 we all stop to analyze what has failed in our society. How many times at a bar table the eyes did not cross. The technology that put us away from who was close, today is building bridges.

Telemedicine became a reality in poor countries and was enhanced in the rich ones. However, while hospitals and universities operated by apps, we were faced by those who did not have access to what unites us today: connection. Elderly people, indigenous groups and deprived communities were exposed and given a voice.

We learned that it is possible to work from home, to gain time that was lost in traffic, to gain quality that was lost in life. We deconstructed vertical cities and reduced geographical sacrifices.

We saw the world's largest economies fighting for small pieces of fabric that are worth pennies.

We decided to organize to consume in small markets, bakeries, neighborhood shops. We saw centenary elderly donating what is most precious to them, time, making masks to donate to front line professionals. We have seen in poor communities masks hanging beside improvised sinks with soap for those without piped water.

We exposed the inequities of a world we saw as normal. Millions of invisible people were given a voice. The hurried steps of major cities were silenced, and so it was possible to see those left behind, on the street. Lying down. It was shown that the lockdown could be more fatal than the virus itself. This voice shouted out the inequities of a society that needs to be reinvented. Even from our homes, we collected more clothes, food and supplies than ever before. A good flow took over the social networks with health professionals offering free advice, in windows to the sound of artists who entertained neighbors, in the streets by those essential to the functioning of the city.

We learned how to smile with the eyes. Our mouth was covered, but not the smile. In ICU units, doctors and nurses put their smiling pictures on their chest, preserving the dignity of those who saw only the color of their eyes. Teams were dedicated to bringing tablets to the beds of those who were dying alone. In some countries, healed patients volunteered to occupy positions of cashiers in the market, of employees in the streets and of caregivers in geriatric clinics.

We learned to say "what I want" and discuss "what I don't want”.

In some countries the applause for professionals has become the time measure. The gratitude that I extend here in my message for all of you.

It wasn't just us who took the time to rethink. While we were at home life was happening in the woods, reproducing in the oceans. The sky took a breath and the curiosity of the animals brought them to empty streets of cities.

The coronavirus turned us into over 7 billion islands, but societies formed continents again.

While waiting for a cure, the creativity has united scientists, writers, artists, leaders and communities in one voice.

We are no longer muted by the "normal". The year when many masks fell down while others became urgent.

We have more seats in modern stadiums than ICU beds in entire countries, and yet today they are all empty.

We lived squeezed into the normal we knew, but among various griefs, we changed our clothes. That normal no longer fits us.

Evoking the philosophy of Plato, the human kind finally came out of a cave that imprisoned us for centuries. We stopped seeing the world through the shadow of a twisted flame on a cold stone wall. We are finally exposed to the light. If there is a hope here, I trully hope we don't go back to this cave anymore.