By Benjamín Fernández Bogado
When I was in prison under the Stroessner dictatorship (1988), I developed the capacity to survive under dramatic conditions, breaking up my memories into fragments to distract myself and to spark my creative energy. I got used to living in isolation.
I am not alone. We Paraguayans have a long tradition of isolation. Our geographic characteristics without a pathway to the sea forged our character. Roa Bastos defined the country as “an island surrounded by land.”
One of Paraguay’s first governments, that of Dr. Rodriguez de Francia (1814-1840), shut off the country under lock and key, banning the arrival and departure of everyone and everything. So strong was the prohibition that when one of the three wisest men in Europe at the time arrived in Paraguay—Aimé Bonpland (1821)—he was confined more than a hundred miles from Asunción for a decade.. “to teach him a lesson," read the decree.
Because of this, we can consider ourselves the first country that quarantined itself in the face of Covid-19. When the March 10 lockdown was announced, the news did not catch us by surprise. The plague that originated in China was very far away and, moreover, as a radio listener said, “We do not have diplomatic relations with the Asian giant, but with its ‘rebel province,’ Taiwan.”
We are indeed though a culture that is constantly touching one another: we share the gourd with tereré and mate tea, and like all other Latin Americans, we are constantly getting together and greeting each other with hugs and kisses. But we are so used to isolating ourselves from the outside that when the airport was shut down, it seemed absolutely normal because the majority of flights left late at night; it was a relief not to have to make the sacrifice of accompanying travelers to the airport.
It is certain that life became more monotonous, but for Paraguay’s seven million inhabitants, of which four out of every five live in cities—the vast majority of whom are migrants from small villages, where living apart on a small ranch is part of the modus vivendi, the isolation from the virus did not provoke a great change in habits.
We have the lowest population density in Latin America in a territory the size of California. We live in ample houses that are most often 1,150 square feet. Few of us live in apartments. We’re a very hot country, and the population is the youngest in Latin America: 60% are under 35 years old. All this plays in favor of this quarantine that is now more than thirty days old. Fortunately, the virus does not like our profile. We have the fewest number of deaths on the continent due to coronavirus, a few people hospitalized and several who have recuperated. Being an undiscovered country has operated in our favor...until now.
Outings have been limited to the most essential: trips to the market. Families have returned to lingering over dessert. In my own life, as a family, we are survivors of the N1H1, another novel influenza. which in 2009 began in Mexico where we were living at the time. The experience inspired my wife, the singer Lizza Bogado, to write the song "Un solo canto" that became a hit in Paraguay.
We’d lived ten years outside in Paraguay, in Spain, England, Ecuador, Mexico and the United States so we are always concerned about what is happening outside our country. I am startled by the lack of leadership in those countries in the face of the pandemia, playing it down and paying the consequences.
In my professional life, with the two newspapers I direct (5diasand El Independiente), I have dispatched news using new technlogies and the studio of Radio Libre 1200am for my morning programs. The studio is fifty steps away, crossing through the patio of my house, and it’s been that way for 23 years.
It’s certain that I am privileged during this crisis, and I’ve had the opportunity to reread my favorite authors, to dedicate more time to my garden—so much so that sometimes I think the plants are talking to me. Perhaps that’s the cost of the quarantine or the creativity to survive.
In keeping with this creativity, I am about to begin to embark on another literary work, The World Seen Through the Pandemic.
I can only hope the pandemic is finished before my book.
Benjamín Fernández Bogado is a Harvard Nieman Fellow ‘00, DRCLAS Visiting Scholar ‘08. He is a journalist, lawyer and a “provoker for a new age.”