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Diary of a coronavirus shut-in

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropology professor | June 22, 2020

April 29, 2020: As I write this today I am doing my best at “sheltering-in-place” on Walnut Street in Berkeley, California. Has it been six weeks that we are in house arrest? Time and space are so transmogrified that it feels like living on a spaceship or a lifeboat. I don’t grasp the rules. Am I a potential threat or a potential victim of the current global plague? Or both?

The last dream of mobility was in March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day. Our suitcases were packed with clothes, books, games, and various delicacies ready to drive 470 miles south to Riverside, California to visit our eldest daughter, Jennifer (a UC Riverside University professor of colonial history and the genocide of indigenous peoples in Mexico), her husband, Santos, completing his PhD dissertation on the Boer War and its role in the creation of “races” in South Africa, and our grandsons, two young teenagers, Salvador, Dito, and our eldest grandson, Santiago, along with his graduating classmates had to bail out of Oberlin College for his end of his final semester that would have ended in a glorious graduation ceremony.

It was Santiago who called us to stay put in Berkeley: “Don’t you and Grandpa take the risk. Don’t get in trouble with the highway police who will stop you for breaking the order to stay at home.” So we turned around and obeyed the surrealist reality and its rules. But I grieve for the 2020 graduating students, including Santiago, whose real time lives have been upended. During spring break, Oberlin College, like many other colleges and universities, told their students to stay at home for the rest of the semester. Rather than the pomp and circumstance of graduation, zooms with relatives and friends took its place.

“Don’t worry,”I said, the graduates of 2020 will be remembered for decades as the 2020 Zoomers.

How does an active anthropologist/ethnographer deal with immobility? Not very well. Claustrophobia and attacks of cabin fever: “Get me out of here!” As we hunkered down during our forced hibernation our complaints were pitiful: our favorite bistros and bars shunt down in the “gourmet ghetto” of North Berkeley, no access to in the flesh books stores or daily swims at the YMCA.

Soon we were talking about “food” itself. We scrabbled for groceries. “I got a large can of pinto beans and a box of oatmeal,” my husband said on one return from shopping during a brief period of empty shelves. “I had two cans of beans, but I gave one to the woman behind me with three little children.” I sneaked out to the same grocery store mask-on-face, 6-foot separation between the chalked lines, but not for groceries, just to be next to people for a few minutes. Pulled by social gravity, I take my time sauntering home like an urban flâneur except that there is almost no one out on the streets and little to see as so many shops have emptied out and the signs that announced, “Closed Until April 7” have been replaced by signs reading just “Closed.”

The news from near and far was mixed. Friends in Spain, Sweden, Netherlands, and Brazil were infected with the virus; others were grieving the deaths in their communities. The first week of June I was to have been a key note speaker at a large international conference on qualitative methods in Bergamo, Lombardy that turned out to be the global epicenters of Covid-19. One of the organizers, Marco Marzano, and I have since been communicating on a daily level on the struggles of the region and of the doctors dilemmas during and after the pandemic there. Their Herculean struggles make it difficult to make peace with the passive shut-in role.

What prevents medical anthropologists in the U.S. from being essential workers during the pandemic? Fieldwork at a distance is not satisfying. It’s difficult to write fieldnotes at home in semi-isolation. I feel useless, and caged. But one thinks of Nelson Mandela who managed during his twenty-seven years of confinement and solitary confinement in prison to define a model for the coming democratic South Africa. Or Anne Frank, writing her diary in an attic.

Gradually, we have to accept our more modest selves. The epidemic tells us who we are. Putting on those annoying masks before leaving the house is a little but urgent act of care: I am doing this for you just as you are doing this for me. We abide the “house arrest” in the hope that fewer bodies will be dead by the cruel virus the next morning. We learn to live with uncertainty but we still wonder how long this will last. Will I have the patience? Will I lose my mind?

Social distancing is a lifesaver, but it feels like apartheid. We’d love to hug our dearest neighbors, but we can only mimic our desires with body gestures. We bow, we open our arms, we try to put a twinkle in our eyes, and carry an invisible smile under our masks. The animal world is also shaken: squirrels are skinny and nervous and the birds are quieter during this silent spring except for the “crow conferences” along the telephone wires in front of my window. The latest crow conference took place a few weeks ago. On that day the crows were more raucous than usual and their screeching seemed on the verge of mental breakdown. What was the hysteria about? The lack of pizza crumbs and other tidbits on the empty sidewalks? So, I wasn’t surprised when the crows disappeared the next day not to return the next day or all the days since.

Earth is Sleeping

While sitting on a stone in Berkeley’s former junk site now the restored César Chávez Park the sky opened to a brilliant blue sky amidst a few fluffy white clouds so close one could almost touch them. The air was so clean I could taste its sweetness. Something was wrong: no pollution. With cars and trucks off the roads for a while the lungs of the air were recovering. My long-term friend Bernadette Track from Taos, New Mexico told me about the “special period” between late winter and early spring when the Pueblo is in lockdown “while the earth is sleeping.”

Bernadette calls often to remind me of what I should be doing: “Go outside tonight when the moon is new.” She tells me that all will be well because the men of Taos Pueblo had gone deep into the kivas where they are fasting, sweating, and praying to the earth. There is a lot to amend for the heedless Americans who trample the ground not knowing that the earth is alive, that it breathes, that it needs to rest and to sleep. During this sacred time the men descend into the kiva, as many as forty of them together. “Should they be so close to each other?” I ask. Bernadette replies: “They are like monks in the kivas. They are still and silent. They cannot argue, they cannot have sex, they cannot work with an ax, and they cannot kill anything. When they come out of the kiva they will be dressed like black bees coming out of a hole.” They will keep their monkish life, she tells me, until next fall when they will walk to the top of Taos mountain in gratitude.

Bernadette’s stories remind me of Jon Sobrino, a Basque Jesuit priest who posed three challenges to the Americas: to fix the unbearable and untenable situation of women; to value the cultural legacy of Native Americans; and to love Mother Earth.

When the crows return, I will take a deep breath.

Maybe then, God willing, it will be over.

Comments to “Diary of a coronavirus shut-in

  1. The crows have not disappeared -they are making their rounds here in the poorer southside and west Berkeley neighborhoods where those of us service workers are doing our sheltering in place. The higher density here provides better pickings.

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