Waiting in the Time of Covid-19

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By Ivan Briz Godino

I am not a hypochondriac. Nor a fatalist. 

No matter what my sister says. 

Yes, I know already, she is a nurse. An excellent nurse whom I have seen in action: efficient, quick and friendly. But she’s wrong. Her opinion, I suspect, is more related to the numerous board games she lost to me as a kid. For sure. Because the reality is that I am not a hypochondriac. Nor a fatalist. I just am not. Although it’s also true that that is the first thing that hypochondriacs and fatalists always declare…. 

Something to ponder.....

However, the reality is that I am sitting in a room at the clinic in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, in Argentina, with a protective mask (does it make any sense that I have to wear this mask if I am the only person in the room?), waiting to hear how everything is going. They tell me the mask is to prevent contagion. I don’t argue. Absolutely everyone here at the clinic is wearing a mask.  But it is bothersome and asphyxiating, even the intention is to protect. And although I have been waiting in this room for only 40 minutes (how many times have I looked my watch in the past 10 minutes?), I could believe I’ve already spent several months here. Be patient, they tell me. You’ll know something soon.  

Ivan Briz Godino at the clinic.

While I wait, the virus SARS-CoV-2—known as Covid-19—is spreading far and wide throughout the planet, setting off a terrible and humanitarian catastrophe. And it expands like the pandemia of the 21st century that it is: part of the globalization that has interconnected all the corners of the world and has subjected biodiversity to unparalleled pressure through climate change, overexploitation of resources and pollution.  It is impossible to understand this pandemic without understanding how our world has been constructed in the past 40 years, in pursuit of economic growth that has sacrificed too many things, from ecology to equity. 

Even my nervous wait in this clinic room (how am I not going to be nervous?) is a product of this globalization: I am from Barcelona, but I have lived for the last six years on an island in the southern tip of South America. People call it “the end of the world,” but here we say it is where everything began. Ushuaia, in the Argentine part of the Great Island of Tierra del Fuego, is one of South America’s greatest tourist destinations of South America, and this tourism—essential for the city’s economy today—has meant that SARS-CoV-2 arrived early and forcefully. I am an archaeologist and historian and I dedicate myself to studying how the hunter-gatherers of the past in the extreme south of the Americas organized their lives, especially, their relationship to the sea and to marine resources. However, in the past 12 years, my interest has revolved around a key element of humanity’s evolution: how we are a species which cooperates, manifesting solidarity and altruism. 

The Beagle Channel close to Ushuaia

Curiously, the quarantine decreed by the Argentine government has isolated us even more, if that can be imagined since we are an island: there are no flights to the rest of the country; the port is closed down except to receive basic goods, and the border with neighboring Chile is closed (the only way, crossing the Magellan Strait, to get by land to the continent). Although this really doesn’t make any difference at all: we can only leave our houses for essential shopping. And, of course, for medical emergencies. Like this one. So here I am at the clinic, waiting, and I am so hot, as if I have a fever. My mask is bothering me, and I cannot leave this room because of preventive isolation.  

The Argentine government has attempted to keep SARS-CoV-2 from collapsing the country’s health system. Everywhere, the problem is not the virus in and of itself, but the saturation of health services, many times already crumbling because of budget cuts, and unprepared to receive an avalanche of patients in critical condition. 

And this emergency has different facets here and in the rest of the planet; in an economy as fragile as that of Argentina, already in full-blown crisis because of external debt, with a marked increased in poverty and precariousness during the last government, the imposition of a strict quarantine meant putting the economy into coma.  But what alternative was there? The measure, with its successes and errors, as there have also been, has been to prioritize health without overlooking the complexity of the moment; government measures also aim to salvage the socio-economic crisis of the population. Argentina, in spite of its connectivity with the rest of the world, is one of the countries in Latin America with the lowest incidence of the pandemic: 1,265 contagions until today, in a country with 44 millions, more or less, of inhabitants. Despite the tragedy, this is a low number of cases in comparison to another South American countries: Chile (18 million inhabitants) has 3,737 cases, and Ecuador (17 millions inhabitants), 14217.

Downtown Ushuaia in quarantine

Sadly, and it is not a small problem, the quarantine has produced police abuse in different parts of the country: this morning, before my departure to the clinic, I read an article in the newspaper Página12 about this problem in different places around the country like the province of Córdoba or the Metropolitan area of Buenos Aires.

In spite of everything one positive thing has come out of this crisis: consciousness. Consciousness that health cannot be just an item line in active public policy. Consciousness of the need to reexamine how we are exploiting resources. And also, consciousness of the importance of science. In classical Latin, conscientia means “with science.” A public science that generated knowledge for the entire society beyond its possible commercial application. A science for the direct cure of this pandemic and, also, in relation to its social causes and consequences: the virus has not emerged from nowhere, but it has reached human beings in a context, and it will be one of the elements that will shape our new context. 

As I pursue these trains of thought, the door suddenly opens. I am not going to deny that my heart started to beat faster and I get up quickly. The great moment has arrived, I suppose. And, say what they might, I am not going to continue all muffled up, so I take off my mask. I think the occasion warrants it. The nurse is matter-of-fact and merely says, “Here she is.” And I  look into a pair of impossibly dark blue eyes, that look at me and still do not see me. They are the eyes of my daughter, Helena, who has just been born in this hot clinic in Ushuaia, on an island that is even more isolated, in the middle of a global pandemic. 

Ivan Briz Godino's newborn daughter Helena

The nurse, in a friendly fashion, tells me that everything has gone perfectly. That my wife is doing very well and will be brought to the room shortly. And the nurse then goes out of the room, leaving this first-time father and a "coronnial" who insisted on being born in the midst of this pandemic. I take her in my arms and we go, she and I, to the seat where I had been nervously waiting. I begin to talk to her, in a hushed tone, about who she is and who I am.  

But at the same time I’m thinking about what I will explain to her in a few years about the moment in which she was born. I suppose it would be good to explain that as a result of the crisis of the coronavirus, we learned to do things better in the world. That we reorganized our priorities. And I can vouch for this because I have spent many years studying and reaffirming that cooperation is an intrinsic human trait, and that those human societies with the highest levels of cooperation, solidarity and altruism have greater capacity to overcome a crisis than those who don’t.  And the arrival of SARS-CoV-2 was a great moment to put those qualities into practice. And she should pay attention to that.

Ah, yes, and that she has an aunt who is an efficient, quick and friendly nurse, and who helped many people in the Covid-19 unit in her hospital, but she is wrong about one thing: I am not a hypochondriac. Nor a fatalist. That I am not: I believe we can always cooperate. 


Ivan Briz Godino (MS, PhD Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) is an archaeologist and historian at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina (CONICET), and associated researcher of the Department of Archaeology of the University of York (UK). Researcher at Centro Austral de Investigaciones Científicas in Ushuaia, Ivan was Peggy Rockefeller Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS to develop his research about cooperative social strategies from the past Fuegian hunter-fisher-gatherers.