Amidst the spreading: A chronicle from the (old) continent

By Andrea Pagnes (VestAndPage)


We reinvent ourselves. Self-sustainably, for what we can. Although “our revels now are ended” we still entrust “that we are such stuff as dreams are made on” as Prospero says few moments before the epilogue of The Tempest.

It’s on a global scale. Our countries stuck in a weird cul-de-sac paved by: political in-fights and media hysteria that nurture anger, racism and rage of a systematic stain; widespread, increasing economic complication; the tangible danger of premature death, especially for those whose health is already in precarious condition; the authoritarian exercise of segregationist policies put into practice and said to be for good; and, as Kira O’Reilly made me notice in a recent email of hers: “a weird double bind that combines the airy paranoia of a viral influx being the cloak for the right-wing seizure, and the supposedly benign effects for the environment in turning the volume of emissions downwards.”

Venice, my hometown, in the last 4 weeks has transformed into a picturesque gothic-baroque deserted island, lapped by clear waters as it was in a faraway past. The pollution caused by the cruising ships and motorboats has stopped. The swarms of locust-tourists have disappeared. One can see the bottom of the canals and count the fish again. People are allowed to leave their home only for a short time within a 200-meter range to provide for their necessities and only on their own, without any relative, friend or lover to accompany them. Supermarket volatile liaisons. Fleeting glances among the half-empty shelves of cans, pasta and toilet paper rolls. Law enforcement officers strictly monitor whether people maintain the safety distance of meters from each other. Outdoor, they can request randomly identity documents, updated self-certifications forms to justify movement by necessity within the security areas. The commercial receipts must be kept as a counter-proof of the purchased goods. You enter, you are watched. You exit, you are controlled.

A radical social paradigm shift is underway. Direct human contact between people no longer exists. We can communicate with each other only via phone, email, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, Snapchat, FaceTime, Instagram, Facebook. Social media. Total surveillance. Existences reduced to data. And as long as the internet works, for those who have it, one must also consider oneself lucky.

Germany, where we are, is a bit milder: people can go out two by two, like Noah’s Ark biblical animal couples. Once the situation gets back to the new “normal”, I wonder who will be spared, who un-spared, sane or insane.


First reasonable doubt— salt for knowledge.


Every crisis leaves a story behind and a narrative that points far into the future. In the meanwhile, assumptions and lieu d’habitude are outnumbered: “Nothing will be as before. The world, as we know, is dissolving. There will be irreversible changes in the private and social spheres. After this crisis, there will be a new scenario, the formation of which we can at least imagine. This is one of those typical moments in history when the future changes its direction.” Futurologists, like eminent German Matthias Horx, call these moments “bifurcations”.

However, once again, to overcome the (current) crisis politicians seem only to consider its contingent aspects. They are imposing (almost worldwide although in different degrees) a model, not only economic, which has proved to be subtly authoritarian and that erases the search for meaning as a multiplicity of possible points of view.

The actual crisis is not just because of a new virus. It is at the very core of the contemporary thought, which is crumbling in itself. It is in the radical negation of individual freedom masked in the name of a collective responsibility which legitimates coercive control policies. Stasi-like, but more sophisticated. So, what is at stake is not just people’s health, but the right of free critical thinking, of free movement, encounter and aggregation.

One may wonder what will happen when the first seeds of civil disobedience will blossom.


Second reasonable doubt— oil for the brain.


In the recent weeks, the dramatic situation that humanity is suffering from the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the name of the virus), has highlighted the intrinsic fragility and flaws of an economic-social model based on the priority of corporate profits, the pre-eminence of private initiative and speculation. In several countries, the massive cuts inflicted on the health systems, progressively privatized and, when also public, subject to satisfying budgetary advantages rather than the health of the citizens whose right should be inalienable, has shown how these same systems can quickly implode in an emergency situation, like sandcastles built on mud.

As they are today, health systems are, however, only the tip of an iceberg that is melting rapidly. It is the whole liberal system that is showing all its precariousness, unable to protect the individual and the communities in the face of unexpected difficult situations. Hospitals, beds, medical equipment, medicines, doctors and nurses are not enough almost anywhere. Before long are the dead likely to be counted on street corners? Moreover, continuing to say and write that basically, the elderly and those people who previously had severe pathologies are the most affected by the virus, is in any case miserably discriminatory.

Soon, countless people will have to suffer the impact of disastrous economic repercussions. This should be sufficient to question if the liberal model is still valid. But to examine this model in depth, might bring it to collapse probably irremediably. This would be unacceptable for the political establishment and the elitist group of powers at the helm of command. In recent days we are, witnessing how governments have not wasted time in adopting regime rules. Are democracies under siege?

What is to note is that the current policies of restriction measures in some countries are not only chosen to contain the virus infection rate but to defend, preserve and enforce the maintenance of those same powers at the expense of the inalienable right of freedom of the individual and that have largely taken a decidedly nationalist and populist course in recent years. In the name of control and prevention (of the new pandemic), governments, also among the so-said most progressive and democratic, are stepping back: left on the table their daily political skirmishes on the regulation of migratory flows, they decide to close the borders for self-defence. Now the topics du jour are: preservation, isolation, insulation.

Amidst the current crisis, people have started to be treated as if they had suddenly become a mass of irresponsible individuals unable to manage themselves and take their own precautions in response to the situation. We got to the point that the culprits of the spread of the virus are people themselves, not the governments that knew about the danger of diffusion of the SARS-CoV-2 and signed state of emergency decrees already in January but acted when it was too late.

To support in cahoots the drastic government measures taken at the expense of people’s freedom and their right to work to provide the means of subsistence, are the press organs and media campaigns. The media and their unpunished ability to manipulate public opinion to favour existing policies are consolidating the theory that one of the most effective strategies implemented by political powers in front of a severe emergency consists in “blaming the people” for what is happening. Marco Bersani, among the most brilliant Italian eco-political analysts and writers, in his recent article published in Attack Italia (March 20, 2020) argues with competence that it is a strategy aiming to obtain the internalization of the dominant narrative about what happens to avoid any rebellion against the political establishment. It is a strategy widely implemented in the last decade with public debt shock.

So, it isn’t the governments’ faults and their everyday paradoxical decrees that have contributed to making the situation even more severe than it is. The cause of the worsening of the virus spreading ubiquitous is imputable to “irresponsible” citizens who contravene the new rules and restrictions. Those who do not observe the new impositions literally. Absurdly, in few days, in Italy each of us have become subjects punishable by a new decree-law even for a solitary walk in a park for being a possible infector. If to go out and breath fresh air for half an hour in complete solitude can invalidate the efficiency of a system, it means that the system is on crutches. This modern hunt to the virus-spreader of medieval reminiscence seems to be very useful also today because it is intertwined with the need of giving a name, a face to the anguish of having to fight against an invisible invader. This conduct is unusual, but most of these decrees are desperately needed to plug the holes of governments’ management flaws in addressing the seriousness of the present situation. Thus, it happens that the scapegoats are the citizens themselves that should be blamed for their reckless and immature civil behaviour, making them feel guilty of harming the community even before they may contravene the rules. These allegations of misbehaving are unprecedented. They do not respond to evidence. They are deliberate misrepresentations of reality needed to satisfy new security measures, said to protect and guarantee citizens’ health. Is this the only reason, or are there ulterior motives?

Strengthening the policy of prohibition and tightening punishment for the transgressors responds to the logic of authoritarian regimes. Also, it acts on a psychological level. Sense of guilt and fear of the punishment-sentence are injected into people’s hearts to annihilate their ability to react. At the same time, as Bersani points out, it is a political strategy that provides a way to anaesthetize frustration and anger, which, however, are inevitably destined to strengthen with the increasing or prolonging of restriction measures. It is a well thought out strategy to prevent people to take action against a model that has forced them to compete to exhaustion, exploiting them without no guarantee of protection. In addition, the choir of the media patronizes their garbageutical moral codes— charitable parental mockery.

Hoping in a better future, people are still determined to behave responsibly according to the new rules, but how long will they be able to endure the present state of things? And what will it be after? I think of Albert Camus, for “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”


Third reasonable doubt— fuel for the spirit.


The shovel of the goddess Opinion will dig deep in the darkest meanders of what happened: where, why, how the virus has originated. Some will build their own truth according to a pastiche of theories which they will feel more in tune or assume more plausible. Sweet bats and cute pangolins from the jungle lost in a cityscape, captured, skinned alive and served at a rich’s dinner table. “Exotic” wet markets kept in disastrous hygienic conditions. A general test on the world population growth control. A situation that got out of hand in a Malthusian chemical lab specialized in mutation, located no matter where. The hybrid war between economic superpowers to prevaricate on one another and whose effects are always at the expense of people. Supranational lobbies sided by pharmaceutical companies trying a biological weapon on a global scale. The sneaky action by a new terrorist group of obscure provenances. Mother Nature that has decided to warn humankind before enacting a harsher revenge. The electromagnetic pollution produced by the movement of celestial bodies. The from-time-to-time divine punishments detectable in the quatrains of Nostradamus. Post-new-age astrological premonitions. An ill-managed experiment by a millennial bio-engineer student. A fallen asteroid in the desert that had to remain a military secret. An invasion of evil shape-shifter aliens that however have been here on Earth since aeons. The effects of condemnation curses by representatives of the global ecological movements. Radioactive waste in the ecosystem. The blow of the tail of a decadent civilization that, tired of repeating its failures, is resetting its hard drive out of a spirit of self-preservation. The list can be endless.

Should this virus be identified as a “corrector”? Are we sick because we have sickened our planet almost irredeemably and corrupted our fundamental human values in the name of greed, materialistic habits, hedonistic egoism and excessive narcissism? Is the SARS-CoV-2 designed on purpose and any vaccine that will be developed could infect us with the COVID-19 (the name of the disease), or new diseases?

For instance, over the years, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation studied how epidemics start, how to prevent and respond to them. Recently the foundation has pledged up to $100 million to help with the COVID-19 response around the world. It said to have a record of the COVID-19 curve development since October 2019. Gates has been giving conferences and talks about the arrival of a new pandemic since 2015, showing a lot of interest and knowledge in the matter. His foundation is working closely with the leading international funding and disease control agencies: World Health Organization. World Organization for Animal Health. The European Commission. The Bilderberg gang, whose members know very well how to secretly manoeuvre the destinies of the world, do their business and how to lie. The list can be endless here also. Statements that the virus and the disease that it causes are already “patented and owned” by this or that Pharma Institute are already circulating. Extensions of current decrees, control of people’s movements by monitoring their mobile phones and through the use of drones, ever-higher fines, and also imprisonment for those who violate the rules are scrutinized daily by the authorities.

The world is so amazing, isn’t it?


Fourth reasonable doubt and one certainty— never mind the bollocks.


Life may feel like it’s on hold right now, but our autonomous zones of free thought must resist. Governments may try to use panic around the spread of the virus to hide their human rights violations. They foresee that the virus might kill millions of people if we do not observe their impositions responsibly. Also, they say that the virus makes us all equal, which is false because many people are at higher risk than others, and how to be treated once ill still depends on one’s country’s health system and the access to it. Inmates constrained in overcrowded jail cells. Workers losing their jobs. Migrants forcibly displaced in rotten and dump refugee camps. Kids that cannot study not just online because they have no LAN connection, but because a school doesn’t even exist where they live. I think to all the poor people with nothing to live that I saw in the bustees, the slums, the favelas. Beggars and homeless dragging themselves on a sidewalk, the destitute and all those souls, people, that have no access to whatsoever health system.

People will not be safe until all human beings are safe.

The COVID-19 has indeed increased its gravity with the days passing. Looking at the map of contagions, the situation is getting worse. Alarmed experts and scientists say that because we are facing an unknown virus, regardless of all the efforts to curb it, nobody can predict when its impact will reduce: weeks… months… next year?

Global pandemics have always existed. They have chiselled the history of humanity since its beginning. On the one hand, however negative it may be, they also confirm the indissoluble link between nature and the human being, and how much the former is not very tame even with the most sophisticated means of scientific progress when it decides to act in ways unknown. Busy as we have been increasingly trying to meet our daily material survival needs, most of us have forgotten or have not paid due attention to the incidence of other serious pandemics that have existed for millennia, or that recur cyclically. For example, tuberculosis is among the deadliest global pandemics since the dawn of humanity. It kills 4000 people a day. Key facts (source: World Health Organisation, March 24, 2020): “A total of 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018 (including 251 000 people with HIV). Worldwide, TB is one of the top 10 causes of death and the leading cause from a single infectious agent (above HIV/AIDS).

In 2018, an estimated 10 million people fell ill with tuberculosis (TB) worldwide. 5.7 million men, 3.2 million women and 1.1 million children. There were cases in all countries and age groups.”

In the past few decades, countless have been those who have tested the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on their skin. Take a moment: how many absent friends do each of us count because of it?

Yet, it is also true and worse that the current virus crisis is also evidently used to strengthen the trivial, self-serving, greedy capitalist agenda. It is no surprise that Stocks Markets do not close, serving to favour the mop-ups of shares of companies by financial dominators that cyclically reorganize or enforce their role in the chessboard of system-hierarchies, taking advantage of the sudden rollercoaster fluctuations of stocks and shares. Wild speculation: mors tua vita mea.

As a matter of fact, in the present days, the capitalist agenda and the technological one (with its widespread invasion of privacy) are enjoying great freedom in building their most convenient narrative around the virus situation that everyone must prone-believe in and rely on for the sake of their life.

However, there has probably never been a time for the “outsiders”, artists, intellectuals, and people, in general, to stay in touch while being so physically separate. We are challenged not to give in to fear or to lose hope. We are called to continue to contribute to the fight for human rights, for what we can, by helping others, donate to others, purely because we need each other to survive and sharing and action is essential for survival. We need to act emphatically. Inside and outside our communities, gardens, neighbourhoods. It is not a question of ability. It’s a matter of  simple, small gestures for they constitute the base of humanity. We have few resources with which to continue defending our free thought, communicate our ideas, and act actively in solidarity. We should use these resources to think about alternatives, understanding that the social values of art practices, poetry, philosophy and all humanities are rooted in the exercise of reciprocity and care. Otherwise nothing else will make any more sense, becoming as useless as the illusion that art has its own supposed importance, even when it serves no social purpose, thus vanishing it's dream.

Verena Stenke (b. 1981) and Andrea Pagnes (b. 1962) have been working together since 2006 as VestAndPage and gained international recognition in the fields of performance art, performance-based film, writing, publishing, and with collective performance operas and temporary artistic community projects. Since over a decade, VestAndPage have been exploring performance art as a phenomena through their collaborative creative practice, as well as through theoretical artistic research and curatorial projects. Their works – a celebration of life – have been presented in museums, galleries, theatres, cinemas and a variety of sites worldwide. Their writings have been extensively published and translated for international readers.

Categories: Blog

Date Posted: 01 April 2020