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Gringo View: The Bright Side of 2020

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – (Opinion) The good news about the year just about to end is that even if it has been an ‘annus horribilis’ in the US and here, it has at least given us an incentive to ponder things we may have missed before … and perhaps even to change our perspectives for the better. Despite the chaos and disasters which have fueled the headlines, I have been searching for some hopeful rays of light and promise for the new year.

This gringo thinks of the pandemic as something of a strong if uncomfortable laxative. I’ve discovered that when we are in ‘lock-down’, generally isolated and left to our own devices, our perceived value of things changes dramatically. That is no bad thing.

The good news about the year just about to end is that even if it has been an ‘annus horribilis’ in the US and here, it has at least given us an incentive to ponder things we may have missed before and perhaps even to change our perspectives for the better.
The good news about the year just about to end is that it has given us an incentive to change our perspectives for the better. (Photo internet reproduction)

While we have always valued medical staff, social workers and even the unseen teams that support them, until now we may not have understood their sense of duty and the solidarity driven by the pandemic. But who would have labeled postal carriers and delivery men as ‘essential’ before now?

Think about public transportation: drivers and maintenance providers are increasingly in danger from the virus. We tended not to notice them when life was progressing normally… but now we do. And when our kids are without schooling, our estimation of the importance of their dedicated teachers is greatly enhanced. Like so many others, despite the dangers to themselves, they are unselfishly taking care of us, demonstrating their generosity.

Perhaps the brightest side of this terrible pandemic is that it has stripped away lots of artificiality that has long been covering up serious weaknesses in our societies – weaknesses and imbalances we had all too conveniently overlooked. Or, even if we had taken notice of them, our tendency had been to metaphorically ‘kick the can down the road’, leaving the responsibility for their repair to someone else in the future.

The pandemic has brought that future front and center.

Societal and political issues are demanding resolution now. If Black Lives Matter; if ever-greater segments of the US and Brazilian populations are falling into poverty while more and more riches accrue to a smaller and smaller segment of our populations; if we are seeing our institutions of government under attack and our environment in increasing danger; isn’t it more than about time we not only take notice, but action?

Just as businesses today often depend upon complex supply chains which are, to use the old saw, only as strong as the weakest link, our everyday lives face the same dangers. When that ‘weakest link’ breaks, it means that the whole system on which we routinely depend is disrupted.

Imagine the effect on the supermarket not receiving certain foods. The appeal of the individual in the street, offering fresh and tasty farm-to-table produce, takes on a whole new meaning. It suggests that a future, more agrarian and rustic than our current dominantly urban lifestyles, may be on the horizon. People would once again take precedence over plastic-wrapped systems and apps.

The good news is that the pandemic has focused our attention on what really is important. We are, at last, seeing a push-back against the triumph of our worst instincts. In both countries, governments have provided financial support to the society’s weakest members, putting food on dangerously empty tables, helping pay rent to avoid foreclosures. It may not be enough, but it is a giant step in the right direction.

As a wise friend wrote: “Maybe this is the moment to face what we always were aware of but have preferred to ignore. All these physical and psychological restrictions and limitations are perhaps teaching us how to be humbler.”

Greater humility would certainly be a positive step out from the darkness of the pandemic; let us consider what that might actually mean in practice.

If we have been regularly using two cars, partly to circumvent the municipal “rodízio” restrictions, not having a daily commute means we can almost certainly make do with only one car. The last place we may wish to live is a giant house with power bills and property taxes we cannot easily afford. If we have been working from home – as so many of us have – the fashion demands for office environments that we once blithely accepted have now been largely discarded or replaced by comfortable clothing.

A very positive aspect of the forced isolation is that lots of people have discovered their ability to start new virtual activities using ZOOM or other platforms and reaching people all over Brazil and abroad, something previously impossible in person and providing great personal fulfillment.

And if, before the pandemic, we have been too ‘busy’ to spend time with our families and close friends, recognizing who and what is really important or peripheral, might have come as a positive shock but, at least in my case, it has refocused my priorities on them.

If our faith in electoral politics and the institutions of democratic government have been severely shaken, there are optimistic signs that these institutions, although threatened, have survived and can be revived.

We can at last say good riddance to the US president who will be gone in just a few weeks, fairly turned out of office by voters. Despite Bolsonaro’s mirroring of Trumps pandemic denials and his vaccine skepticism, Brazil’s Supreme Court has granted permission for local governments to introduce measures for compulsory vaccination, including sanctions for failure to vaccinate, although they will not be able to force citizens to take the vaccine. Will Bolsanaro follow his idol out the door by losing the 2022 election?

The pandemic has given us the incentive to re-direct our energies to other kind of activities (economic, social, political) and decide what we really need, leaving more space for  introspective exercises and more focus on emotional intelligence. That’s an important gift.

I remember a recent occasion, two days after a vicious wild brush fire had burned the hillside right up to the edge of my holiday home. The formerly verdant landscape now resembled the surface of the moon. And then, as I surveyed the blackened terrain, I noticed the first green shoots, already pushing their way up through the ashes.

It was a very hopeful sign.

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