I am at home. Or to be more precise, in my country home. Staying in the countryside, I see no one. In the city, I’ve met many friends in the streets who I haven’t seen in ages. Everyone has returned to their quarter at the same time. Georg Simmel upside down. It was a very upbeat feeling of neighborhood. In the countryside, I could go out into the garden, but it is too cold. My fingers begin to freeze in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Instead, I read short texts from the New York Review of Books’ Pandemic Journal, singling out those from the Global South. My choices consist of the dispatches from San Juan, Busan, Cairo, Lalibela, Beirut, Amman and Berlin: so, rather, Global South-plus cities I can relate to. I add a few from Brooklyn as well, but it feels like there are too many selections from there. I find all texts quite good; most are very dark. “Any historian will tell you,” writes Madeleine Schwartz, “after the plague, the pogrom.”
I call a friend in New York. Her brother runs a funeral home in Connecticut. He has already received one old lady for burial who committed suicide and left a note saying she did not want to be a burden to anyone. His friend told him weapons were sold out, so he called his store to double-check: It was true. On 30 March 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres collects 500,000 signatures for his petition for a Global Ceasefire.
In the Pandemic Journal,the Puerto Rican poet Raquel Salas Rivera tells us that they lost three members close to their chosen family this month, but not to Corona. They write about not being able to gather and grieve. Having lost a close friend in the first week things suddenly escalated in Germany, I can well relate. Somehow it feels different if one has already lost a friend in hospital to some virus. In contrast to Rivera, we were still allowed to burry the dead, albeit with a maximum of ten people. Hectic phoning around the day before the funeral to reduce the number of mourners now from 50 to 10. We cried over Ahmed, buried at the Luisenfriedhof III, with a two-meter distance between us. A living-in-exile-Islamic/non-Islamic-Berliner-Corona-livestreamed-to-Cairo funeral on day 1 of Kontaktsperre. It was the sunniest day of 2020. Somewhere in this cemetery lies the German Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch, interred beneath a tombstone, that was once the cover of a coffin taken from Saqqara, the necropolis of Memphis, Egypt’s ancient capital—not at all far from where Ahmed was born and raised. While still a teenager Brugsch deciphered the Demiotic language on the Rosetta stone, became famous and was later on given the title of Pasha. “Brugsch-Pasha”: Ahmed would have laughed heartily.
Some colleagues far away kindly invite on facebook to browse their 60,000 epub and PDFs by googledocsheet. The XXX—insert name of your algometric news outlet—is providing free, unlimited access to all coronavirus articles. “JSTOR makes database accessible for the public.” I have not downloaded a single book; too much “full access”. It’s the ‘Mars-theory’: People are ready to pay the same amount for a third of the chocolate, because it is of an eatable size. Instead, I am watching theatre plays online by one Berlin director and his troupe—Ibsen, Gorki, Brecht, Strauss, Shakespeare. It’s quite funny to see the same people in different roles through the centuries from one evening to the other. Yesterday Aslaksen in An Enemy of the People, today Voicu in Kebab.
University professors are fast separating into two camps: the new dig techs (those that were not into digitalization before) and the refusers (have experience). What else have I been doing? I stopped taking my tinnitus pills on day 1 of Ausgangssperre. This is no sissy stuff. I call my 80-year old father, a pharmacist. He is happy. As he has practically not been going out for more than a year, he can voice this now for the first time and talk about his isolation confidently: Suddenly it makes a lot of sense—this is a positive quarantine. In Egypt, a friend struggles with an extremely bad lung condition for a long time; now is a bad time for a deterioration. We fear for her life. Everybody asks whether it is Corona? A tour to more than one hospital turns out to be dreadful. In front of the hospitals hundreds of people are waiting. Via Messenger we try to find a pneumologist downtown who finally advises over the phone.
I see one DJ-friend online dancing alone to his Ukrainian disco watch-party.A neighbor organizes a live watch-party with FC St. Pauli vs. SV Werder Bremen from 2006. Overcoming his timidity, the guy in the tobacco store tells me I smell of vanilla (lots of baking these days 🙂 even for the ungifted!).I listen to a great reading by Hasnain Kazim. I like the dual in his first name (Hasnain is not denoting “two Hassans” here, but Hassan and Hussein, the grandsons of prophet Mohammed). Kazim sits in Vienna and reads from his book, that I can loosely translate as “Post from Karlheinz. Irate Mails from real Germans—and what I answered them.” His is the only one that made me laugh these days. I try to look into the far once in a while to relax my eyes. In June, I invited Igor Levit to talk to my students at the Barenboim-Said Akademie about the rise of the far right and the artist in society. Now he is giving an online concert every night from home. I have not watched it yet. Nor have I heard the podcast by Christian Drosten. I have not been regulating my media intake and sense the same tempo of events in the virtual now. This is the sole responsibility of the author, which makes the feeling even worse. I guess guilt is the second voice of my days.
I have been clashing with a good friend about videos widely regarded as fake news within the German mainstream: Prof. Bhakdi, Drs Schiffmann and Wodarg. Fierce discussions are springing up left and right and I want to have an informed position. This is a l u n g i n f e c t i o n , not the flu! Again, some unhealthily obsessive night-time media consumption.
I am sitting in the countryside calculating numbers. How many dead is 0.1 percent of those infected, how many is five percent? How are infections counted? What is an excess-estimation? This time I will damn well learn how to calculate percentages, I swear. I chanced upon a fact-check by the Bavarian Broadcasting that quotes its own Corona expert, Ulrike Protzer, Director of the Institute of Virology at TU München, citing an impossible mortality rate for influenza. Fine. I am expected to teach public trust in media and science in the twenty-first century this semester. At the same time, the friend with whom I am quarreling made me reconsider the broader debate. People are starting to starve in the country where she lives. Who has put this into the equation of care? She would like to start a campaign with the slogan: No le tenemos miedo al Corona Virus. Preferimos morir en el 2020 (!) de un virus con una baja probabilidad, que de hambre.* Day laborers are broke: today.
By Sonja Hegasy
* In case you want to donate to a local food bank for the indigenous people in the village of Las Lajas, Panama, through the NGO lo’tuyo, please have a look at: https://www.betterplace.org/de/projects/78533-unterstutzung-fur-indigene-familien-in-panama
Sonja Hegasy is a Professor for Postcolonial Studies at the Barenboim-Said Akademie and Vice Director of the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, both in Berlin.