COVID-19 in an Island Surrounded by Land

by | Apr 8, 2020

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.

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Prontuario arrest record of author Benjamin Fernandez as a political prisoner.

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.”

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Roast chicken for sale at a shop open for business during the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

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A deserted street in Paraguay during the 2020 pandemic.

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 (5dias and El Independiente), I have dispatched news using new technologies 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.

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President Abdo Benitez and officials look over supplies for tent hospitals.

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.

COVID-19 en una isla rodeada de tierra

Por Benjamín Fernández Bogado

Estuve en prisión bajo la dictadura de Alfredo Stroessner (1988). Allí, como preso político, aprendí a desarrollar la capacidad de sobrevivir en condiciones dramáticas parcelando mi memorias en fragmentos que me distraen y me tornan creativo. Me acostumbré a vivir en aislamiento.

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Prontuario de Benjamin Fernandez, prisionero politico de la dictadura de Stroessner

No soy el único. Los paraguayos tenemos una larga tradición aislacionista. Nuestra caracteristica geográfica, sin salida al mar forjó nuestro carácter. Roa Bastos definió al pais como “una isla rodeada de tierra”. Uno de los primeros gobiernos (1814-1840) el del Dr. Rodriguez de Francia cerró al paìs a cal y canto prohibiendo el ingreso y la salida de nadie ni de nada. Tanto que cuando ingresó de contrabando uno de los tres hombres mas sabios de la Europa de esos tiempos: Aimé Bonpland (1821) fue confinado a mas de 200 kilómetros de Asunción por una década.. “para que aprenda.”. decía el decreto. Hemos sido por todo eso el primer país que se encerró ante la Covid-19. Cuando nos encerramos, un 10 de marzo, la noticia no nos había tomado por sorpresa. La peste que vino de China era muy distante y además como me dijo un oyente: “no tenemos relaciones diplomáticas con el gigante asiático sino con ‘su provincia rebelde’: Taiwan”. Somos si una cultura que se toca mucho, se comparte la bombilla (cánula) de la infusión del tereré y el mate ademas se socializa mucho como todo país latino, abrazando y besando en forma de saludo. Pero estamos tan acostumbrados a aislarnos hacia fuera que cuando cerraron el aeropuerto nos pareció absolutamente normal porque finalmente la mayoría de los vuelos operan incomodamente con nocturnidad y alevosía de ahí que acompañar a algun viajero hasta el aeropuerto implica duros sacrificios.

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Comprador deambulando por calles vacías durante la pandemia

La vida se volvío mas rutinaria es cierto pero para los siete millones de habitantes de los cuales el 80% viven en ciudades pero igual porcentaje son migrantes de pequeños poblados donde el vivir alrededor del rancho es el modus vivendi habitual quizas por eso el virus no generó un gran cambio. Tenemos la densidad poblacional mas baja de America Latina en un territorio del tamaño de California, vivimos en casas cuya extensión normal es de 360 metros cuadrados, pocos viven en departamentos, hace mucho calor y la población es la mas joven de America: 60% menor de 35 años. Todo esto jugó a favor de esta cuarentena y costos que lleva mas de 30 días. Al virus no le gustan felizmente esas características. Tenemos el menor numero de fallecidos del continente, pocos hospitalizados y varios recuperados. El ser un pais ignoto juega a veces a favor.. como ahora.

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Presidente Abdo Benitez utilizando tapabocas, cumpliendo con medidas de precaución

Las salidas se redujeron a lo mas elemental. Compras en el mercado y el retorno a las sobremesas largas tras las comidas. Como familia somos sobrevivientes del N1H1 que en el 2009 se inició en Mexico donde vivíamos y donde Lizza Bogado (mi esposa) compuso el tema “Un solo canto” que se transformó en un hit en Paraguay. Para quien vivió mas de diez años fuera del Paraguay y en sitios muy distintos siempre hay preocupación por lo que pasa afuera. Viví en España, Inglaterra, Ecuador, Mexico y EEUU y me asombran sus lideres polìticos. Son los que peor actuaron ante la pandemia, subestimándola y pagando caro sus consecuencias. En mi vida laboral con los dos diarios que dirijo (5dias y El Independiente) he despachado cosas usando las nuevas tecnologías y el estudio de Radio Libre 1200am para mis programas matutinos queda a 50 pasos cruzando el patio de mi casa desde hace 23 años. Soy un privilegiado es cierto que ha redescubierto antiguos autores a los que he vuelto a leer, dedico mas tiempo a mi jardin tanto que a veces creo que las plantas conversan conmigo. Es talvés el costo de la cuarentena o de la creatividad para sobrevivir.

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Suministros de salud para contener el coronavirus

Estoy por comenzar un nueva obra literaria: “El mundo tras la pandemia”. Solo espero que ella acabe primero antes que… mi libro.

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.”

Benjamín Fernández Bogado fue Nieman Fellow ‘00 y DRCLAS Visiting Scholar ‘08. Es periodista, abogado y provocador de un nuevo tiempo.

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