By Armando Chaguaceda
HAVANA TIMES – “Come back – now!” mi esposa ordered over the phone with that mixture of reason and imperial authority, so much her own and so irresistible. I had just finished my conference in Manhattan, in that same college where last year they suspended another lecture for a vague bomb threat.
Now, the faces of the students, equally attentive to my words and their smartphone screens, were frightened. I didn’t know if it was because of what I was telling them, or because of what they were reading. In the end, between Nicolas Maduro and the Covid-19, the contest for the title of villain is becoming difficult.
Changing a ticket was never so easy. Pleasant, efficient, without added fees, the airline executive managed it all in 15 minutes, and my stress was reduced to counting each hour that I would remain on US soil. The rumors of new cases inundated social media.
The universities were switching to online operation. My friends, hysterical, were messaging me as if I were in Aleppo on the eve of a Russian offensive. So, I decided to go take a walk in Central Park with a friend’s dog. Later, we planned to end the evening with her and her mother in a Chinese restaurant. I was more hungry than afraid. And there weren’t any bats…
Just as we got there, everything began in quick succession: a series of events which – if the public health statistics don’t lie regarding the profile of the survivors – would soon become part of the chronicle of the pandemic. Trump was speaking.
His speech, as predictable as it was familiar, reminded me of Fidel when hurricanes were imminent. He insisted on the foreign origin of the virus. It was someone else’s fault, and the USA and he, its leader, are the greatest. Alternately flattering and scolding, before the millions of spectators who – I want to believe – were astonished.
Trump abruptly cut off the paths of mobility and trust in the heart of the Western world that the Kaiser, the Fuhrer and Khrushchev had never managed to interrupt. We ate quickly, boxed up our leftovers, and returned home, trying out some jokes in very poor taste.
The next day in the airport, something was different. The word “pandemic”, suddenly in vogue thanks to the WHO, was on everyone’s lips and screens. An early riser, mi esposa monitored me from a distance – I’ve become a sort of human drone with my clumsy steps: the trip in an Uber, the security line, the search for a wake-up coffee. A search which – between the paranoia that led me to look for places without a lot of people, and my usual distractedness – almost made me miss my plane.
Once on board, I ended up between two nervous passengers. They were worse off than me. Asking permission to use the bathroom was like transferring radioactive material. We looked at each other as if we were carrying within us, “The Thing from Another World”. We didn’t talk during the whole trip. To calm myself, I looked for an action film. I selected “The Joker”. Good enough.
Disembarking in Mexico, the loud fiesta substituted for the paranoia as a collective sentiment. The human throng disaggregated, crowded each other, hawked their wares, formed lines – as always. There was no visible control. No atmosphere of fear. Barely a billboard, while passing Immigration, alluding to the dangers of the Coronavirus. The permissiveness of a society that was upset about other things, as daily as they are terrible, was astonishing.
Could they be right? If, in the end as Angela Merkel, the serious leader of a serious nation, says – even in Germany, some 70% of her compatriots will get the virus, does it make any sense to anguish? Could I have become more paranoiac than usual?
I thought about all that during the trip home. Upon arrival, I insisted in quarantining both myself and my belongings. I showered with water that was near boiling, put my suitcase on the terrace, sealed my clothes into a closed bag. I went to sleep on the sofa, not without noticing that my eyes burned and the nasal congestion that I’d acquired in cold Chicago the week before had returned, with a flush around the neck and head. “It’s a cold”, I consoled myself, numbed by fatigue and the ibuprofen.