What Did We Learn From 7 Weeks Of Lockdown?

With the world on staggered lockdown timelines tuned to a central coronavirus meridian, we must interrupt patterns on track to become even more desperate.

Lockdown Milan Station
DracoRoboter / CC BY-SA

With the world on staggered lockdown timelines tuned to a central coronavirus meridian, we must interrupt patterns on track to become even more desperate

Entering our seventh week under stay-at-home orders in northern Italy, news headlines have become larger than life in their ability to pile sensational stories into a neat stack of the everyday. Over our morning coffee, we read: Turkmenistan criminalizes ‘utterances of coronavirus’, Israel tracks coronavirus patients with systems designed for terrorists, in the Philippines you can be shot by police for defying the lockdown, Boris Johnson and his optimism have been hospitalized, and a British man runs a full marathon by crossing his backyard 7,000 times. It wasn’t too long ago when the world was reeling from the disastrous consequences of fake news flying around undetected. Come April 2020, headlines that seem ‘too fake to be true’ are just another blip on our rapid scroll-through of what’s new in the age of COVID-19.

Perhaps one of the statistics that would have given a former-me great pause is the Pew Research Center’s estimate that 9/10 of the world’s population live in countries with travel restrictions in place against non-citizens and non-residents. No longer crossing borders, we as a global society are being conditioned to turn inwards, to cancel our engagements abroad, to postpone hopes and holidays, and assume our fate is nationally-influenced and domestically-bound. Local news has reclaimed a certain prosody as our mobility is demarcated by city limits. 

In this insular moment, it becomes ever more valuable to draw lines of connection between parallels that reflect what we could be. The exodus of northern Italians to the south in anticipation of the March 9 lockdown has haunted the country since. Headlines warning of a ‘tsunami’ of cases to hit the south and northerners fleeing the provinces most limited by restrictions were accompanied by unfortunate photos of packed train stations, one image worth a thousand reassurances of what’s to come.

A world of locked-down islands

Back in my native New York, I read articles of city-dwellers shipping out to their Long Island summer homes, and urbanites of other locales moving ahead of season into their rural residences. This NYT title captures the local sentiment: “Islands in the U.S. Are Barring All Outsiders to Keep Coronavirus at Bay.”

These early-stage pleas, whether targeting north-south or mainland-island migrations, are about not overwhelming capacity — institutions — infrastructure. The Italian story cites less-equipped healthcare systems as a primary driver for stay-at-home/city/province/region concerns — do not return to your hometown, do not move according to your prerogative, do not collect $200. “X not welcome,” signs against Chinese first popped up in South Korea and Singapore, but have since transformed into “Northerners not welcome” in southern Italy, and “New Yorkers” in various US states. In the dearth of clear mandates on what was and was not permissible in each country’s ‘early days’, individual business owners and storefronts took the initiative to decorate their cityscapes with homegrown “Keep Out” signage.

Social sickness ravages the south

Yet the Italian tale will take a fateful turn as the foreshadowed tsunami approaches. CNN reminds us of what happens when a power vacuum opens up — someone or something fills the void, and often, at greater expense. As local officials of southern provinces report incidents at supermarkets of customers refusing to pay, hijacking of food delivery trucks, and increased traffic on Facebook pages that incite raiding easy-to-rob businesses, we can see these voids are already being preyed upon.

In states not governed by a ‘strongman’, it may be a local or individual imperative to identify the gaps to be filled, what people are asking for, and more importantly, who is responding. To much publicity, Russia and China have come to the aid of Italy — in the future, Italy will be hesitant to bite the diplomatic hand that fed us.

Freedom is most costly when already won

So in a postwar world where many of us have not had the experience of fighting for freedom, in a time when the citizens of these free societies are called upon to personally interpret such freedoms responsibly, we are probably being invited to reimagine civic privilege for the very first time — and the burden that ought to accompany it. The generation nominated as the most selfish has asked a confused polity to invoke mass altruism and social distance, both novel terms in the sense that the former we’ve heard of but don’t understand, and the latter was promoted to be a ‘guiding line’ yet was never defined. 

It’s as if the entire world, princes and paupers, prime ministers, celebrities, average Joes and Giuseppes, have been ushered into a global classroom to finally enroll in a selection of courses we hadn’t thought were necessary. For some of us, it’s an environmental studies field seminar, for others a macroeconomics tutorial with that liberal professor; for all of us, it may be Civics 101.

In February 2020 Italy learned to not despise its Chinese neighbor, as patient zero never manifested regardless of how many profiling fingers were pointed. In March, we learned that shelter-in-home cannot mean the home of our relatives miles and provinces away. In April, I think we’re learning to disassociate pride from need, and to reach into our abundance to cover the lack of another.

In May, maybe we’ll learn to keep singing.

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