(Illustration by Leandros and Antonis V., from an upcoming publication).
There are these snippets in history, when time takes something of a peculiar form: dense as a thick, slowly running ink, and swift as the most agile of animals—a ferocious time that demands your attention, that grabs you out of whatever small and, in hindsight, unimportant task you had preoccupied yourself with previously, thinking of this to be oh-so-important. Pre-occupied, pre-viously: this is precisely the rupturing moment that comes to define, through its sheer existence, what stood before and what comes after. It comes to define, in other words, the order of things.
Day after day and hour after hour, it has become evident that we now live inside a historical snippet of this very kind. This COVID-19 moment, let’s call it that, found those of us who woke up in the Greek territory in the morning of March 23, 2020, under a total and totally strange curfew. A curfew that has been endorsed and applauded by virtually every single party, every single voice coming from the right all the way to the left of the political spectrum, an unquestionable need if the country is to contain itself, we are told, and overcome this invisible yet existential threat to its existence.
Our generation has by this point built something of a bizarre immunity to the use of the exceptional and the urgent to ram through with measures and decrees that shape and reshape our everyday. Our normality, after all, really has been shaped by the exception. But there are voices, new voices, voices understandably trembling with fear at the scale and the size of the unknown, that chime in to say: this might very well be it. The end. But the end of what? Of what we had known to pass as normalcy, the end of western civilisation, the end of the social contract as it had been drawn (and redrawn, and breached, and breached again) so far? What is it that is ending?
Yes, the above might all very well be true. All of these things may very well be coming to a thunderous end. But this is also the end of social antagonism as we had known it. Buried in the uproar of the virtual crowd of the many “I’s” calling for whatever measures might possibly be able to halt the threat to this collective “we” but ironically, a “we” that has long been hollowed out by the force of these very same “I’s”. Never say that history does not have a sense of irony. And say what you will about the virus, read whatever brand of analysis suits your previous conceptualisation of the world in which it was born, but we can all surely agree that its outbreak could not be more timely.
First of all, it hit in the year 2020, a painful lesson for anyone who hadn’t treated sci-fi nerds with the seriousness they deserved. Second, it comes on the cusp of our individualised times, when a zombie collective body is dragged around by the will of the I’s. And what an irony for the preachers of normalcy to demand that these I’s, the very same I’s they painstakingly promoted and pushed for, should now fall in line in order to protective this zombie “we”. Third, it strikes at a moment when the vortex of social media has become strong enough to swamp inside it truths, half-baked lies, measured responses and freaked out reactions into a mash that renders not only discussion, but even any effort to discern what is actually going on next to meaningless. This is, in more ways, a virus fit for its time. And it has by this point managed to make real a series of orders, decrees, decisions and behaviours that would have seemed unworldly last week. A total curfew in Athens? In 2020? Nah, not possible.
And yet, it is exactly what is happening. This morning, I woke up in a curfew. And no, I wasn’t in a Bob Marley song. I was in the heart of our city, in Exarcheia, surrounded by empty buildings, empty streets, the occasional sound of the helicopter up above, and the strange sight of the few that seemed to defy the orders and walk around, still. I was surrounded by around four million I’s, minus those who escaped the capital in the hours and days before the curfew, glued to screens of all sizes, waiting for the next body count, skimming between analyses of how to flatten the curve and downloading the “Confirmation of Exceptional Movement of Citizens”, this handily available pdf that allows one to still drag their body from point A to point B in the city—but only so long as there is a predefined purpose to the exercise.
I have no sense of when this utterly bizarre moment might abate. But I get, more and more, the feeling that it will not end. We will not be looking back at the spring of 2020 as this bizarre blip in history. When, after all, has history worked in blips? But we will be looking at it for this seminal opener in an era of digitally managed curfews, geofencing that actually physically fences off populations, geotracking the sick and the unruly. An era that opened not with a bang, but with a whisper: “better safe than sorry”.