On Vulnerability and Resistance in times of the COVID-19 Crisis

Peter Angustine dropped by this week.

Oh, no, he did not breach lockdown directives, and neither have I. Peter is a fictive persona. Well, sort of.

"One day, Peter Angustine lost his shadow. He recalls exactly when, or maybe not. Anyway, one day he noticed that his shadow was not following him. Peter Angustine was a man without a shadow".

The story of Peter was handwritten by me almost thirty years ago, in a hardcover notebook given to me by a dear friend so that I could write. It is a disturbing story, sort of an endless horror film in black and white. It was not a worthy piece of literature, but then again, that was not its purpose. The story of Peter Angustine was my attempt to capture and make sense of the breakdown of my marriage as I was living through it.

Three decades have passed, and suddenly Peter decided to show his face again. He broke his way through my emotional immune system, which is working overtime in the days of the coronavirus. He came to share my small study and remind me what vulnerability feels like, when your life is completely sideswiped off course.

In times of crisis, the memories we stored at the very back of our mind re-emerge. The pandemic did not invent vulnerability, yet it exposes both our individual and societal ones with a vengeance, as it does the injustices that exist in our world.  With every passing day it draws the thin line between those who are keeping their heads above water and those who grew tired of struggling and gave up. It puts us to the test with every passing day, it marks the fragile borders between resilience and collapse, between staying focused and being overwhelmed by stress.

When the pandemic just broke and social distancing was merely a recommendation, I refused to keep my distance, blow kisses in the air or rub elbows. I was not going to get all suspicious about the people sitting next to me on the train that they were infected with the virus. I was determined to keep going to the open market downtown to pick fruits and vegetables. However, at some point, I didn't really have a choice. The fear of exposing myself and hence my loved ones to this terror overpowered my initial spirit of resistance.

I gave in and practiced obedience. Resistance has gone digital; attending demonstrations and rallies on Zoom and signing online petitions. Work has gone cyber as well; storytelling consulting by Zoom and phone, feminist conferences on Zoom, women, peace and security workshops on Zoom, strategic planning sessions on Zoom. Well, you get the picture. I have never seen my face staring back at me for so many hours.

I find it absurd that as we are ordered to stay confined to the privacy of our home, we have lost our right to privacy, under the emergency regulations in Israel that give the Shin Bet Security Service the authority to monitor us and collect data on our whereabouts, who we met with, and G-d knows what else.

The Tyranny of Mathematical Models and Military Thinking

The management of the COVID-19 crisis is based on mathematical models and algorithms that calculate the pace and rate of the virus' spread. These models – and some politicians – first predicted that hundreds of millions around the world will be infected and die. We, the mortals who do not speak the language of algorithms, accept this as truth handed down from the mountain/Mount Sinai and obey the lockdown directives, knowing that our life and health are at stake. We stayed glued to – or tried to avoid – the daily news on TV, where everyone from elected officials to soft drink commercials told us to stay home and show our affection to our loved ones from afar. "Only by adhering to social distancing orders," they said, "can we vanquish the virus". People tried to get their hands on sanitizers and masks, toilet paper and canned goods, because at least that gave us a sense of control over a situation that was out of our hands. We kept our distance from elderly parents and friends, because there is no algorithm that calculates the long-term implications of loneliness. Nor is there one for assessing the nightmarish experiences of being locked indoors with a violent partner.

In Israel, dealing with the pandemic was framed as a war. When you wage war, you let the armed forces lead it. That leaves us with a bunch of mostly white Jewish men with a military background, equipped with charts and graphs, to manage a public health crisis that has far reaching social and economic implications. In the process, many strains of knowledge and wisdom were pushed aside, deemed irrelevant in times of war.

"Hold on! So you are suggesting that they have women – regardless of their experience or training – on the committee, just because they are women? Unbelievable!" This reply was posted on my Twitter page by an unknown fellow in response to my post calling for the government to include women experts in the public committee assigned with developing Israel's exit strategy from the lockdown.

Years of feminist activism taught me that it takes seconds for such a response to rear its ugly head. COVID-19 did not invent misogyny. And yet, it appears that it was not only me who travelled back in time; my country has also gone back 30 years or more, to a reality where men dominate the public sphere while woman are confined to the private one, caring for children and doing the house chores.

Feminism taught me that we are only powerful when all women are empowered. Therefore, we must resist – with our bodies, minds and hearts – the "collateral damage" concept characteristic of wartime thinking that accepts devastation as a price we simply must pay. But elderly people, women and children, victims of violence and abuse, people in poverty and the unemployed, people with special needs and their families, people coping with depression and post trauma are not "collateral damage". They are loved and valued members of our communities and we simply cannot ignore their plight. We must resist the neo-liberal school of thought that prioritizes the resilience and riches of the few over the well being and prosperity of everybody else.

From Memory to Story

So Peter Angustine dropped by. I let him in. There was no other way about it. My painful memories are a part of who I am, even if I keep them stored away in the deep drawers of my mind. They will eventually be joined by more recent memories from the era of the coronavirus. But where will we lead these memories? Will we create a new story of hope and compassion, of meaning and ethics of care?

The best way to escape the tyranny of fear, the language of war and the dystopian stories of mental lockdown, is to remember that we have the knowledge, the wisdom and heart to create a world where justice rules.

אודות Hamutal Gouri

מייסדת ומנהלת consult4good, חוקרת תרבות, מרצה ומנחה ומספרת סיפורים לשינוי חברתי. Founding Director, Consult4good & Impact Storytelling. Believes that change begins when silence is broken
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