The present pandemic has led to a period of prolonged immobility. But in the beginning, we were allowed, if we chose, to play a lightning round of hide-and-seek. Before we were grounded, we were briefly free to seek a new hiding place.
That is how my personal journey through the pandemic began.
I was spending the academic year in New York City on a Fulbright scholarship at The New School. After living in the city all fall and winter, my wife and I were planning to leave at the end of April. The sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in New York in March forced an abrupt change of plans. We were afraid — quite justifiably, it now appears — that the pandemic might hold us in New York for longer than we could possibly stay there, leaving us without necessary funds, health insurance, or valid visas.
It was not easy to organize a flight back home, but we got lucky. A few hours before the departure of the last plane evacuating Polish citizens from New York, someone gave up their seats and so we managed to leave at the very last minute.
Immediately after our arrival in Poland, we were obliged to go through a fourteen-day quarantine. Unsure whether we had brought the virus with us, we decided to spend this time in our family’s summer cabin in the woods near Warsaw.
In less than twenty-four hours, we had transferred our whole lives and work from a small room in Brooklyn to a wooden house in the middle of the Masovian forest.
Each day of the quarantine that followed, a local police patrol came to check on us around noon. As the days passed, I gathered the impression that the policemen liked visiting us. For a moment they could get out of the police car, in the middle of the forest, to stretch their legs and smoke a cigarette. Apart from the routine questions — such as whether we had a fever, or enough food for the remaining days of our quarantine — the police regularly extended their visits by discussing other topics. And so, separated by a demarcation line in the shape of a wire fence, we talked.
We talked about what the sunlight is like in New York during the winter, and we talked about the global changes that the end of the pandemic might bring. I enjoyed these conversations about distant places and important issues held in the middle of the forest. Our interactions were short but rich. Every time we spoke, I felt as if we were part of some peculiar, temporary community. Despite the seemingly formal nature of our interactions, reinforced by our different costumes — the policemen always arrived in their neat uniforms, whereas I, due to jet lag, most often greeted them in rumpled pajamas — we all seemed to feel a strong urge to share a bit about our current thoughts and feelings.
The cabin, which had become almost like a second home to us in the years before our time in New York, unexpectedly transformed itself into a lifeboat. It not only provided us with a safe space, but also protected others from us. Despite the feeling of an invisible threat looming outside, I was impatiently waiting for the end of the quarantine so that I could finally get out and go for a short walk in the woods.
Sadly, on the last day of our mandatory isolation, Polish authorities issued a ban on entering forests to keep people from leaving their homes and to further reduce the spread of the virus. For the foreseeable future, my wife and I were frozen in place. The forest I can see through the cabin’s windows reminds me of a fake photography studio backdrop. We might as well still be in New York.
A few days after the end of the quarantine, and the start of our forced isolation in our cabin, the health authorities informed us that one of our fellow flight passengers had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and that we would also have to undergo a coronavirus test.
Late one evening, an unusual vehicle arrived in the forest. This time, an ambulance emerged from the darkness of the woods. The paramedics quickly took samples from us, wearing protective suits which made them look like astronauts on a dangerous mission. As I write these words, my wife and I still await our test results. Until then, we remain in strict self-isolation. Our lifeboat is now stuck in place in the middle of an ocean of trees.
I am writing about the experience of coming back to Poland in such detail because I have the impression that despite leaving the United States three weeks ago — and despite being confined in our cabin in the woods — I nevertheless feel that I am still somehow in motion. I haven’t reached my destination yet. I’m in transit, waiting for the next stage of the journey to begin.
“Transit station” is an accurate description not only of the place where I am temporarily living but also of my current emotional state. Moreover, I think that this feeling of being stuck in transit, awaiting the next chance to move, is common among many people. A lot of us feel that when the pandemic began, something else started as well.
We have departed on a voyage with no return tickets. It is difficult to say where this journey leads, or when it might end. Despite having access to various projections of the development of the pandemic, economic and political analyses, reports from various anti-corona battlefields, I feel that we are still covered in a thick fog that makes it impossible to see what lies ahead. The unprecedented range of the pandemic — covering almost the entire planet — deepens our inability to anticipate the future, both on an international and local level.
Traveling into the unknown is usually associated with moving in a specific emotional register. Each of its extremes is marked with a different feeling. On the one hand, there’s the excitement of the possibility of discovering new, better perspectives. On the other, there is the fear that this new reality may turn out to be worse for us than the one we just left.
For the last few weeks, I have been following different debates online and on the radio, and I feel that they have focused (understandably) on the second extreme: our fears and anxieties about the future. These emotions have surfaced in connection with the losses already suffered, the appeals unanswered, the alarms ignored.
The crisis we are experiencing reveals with added clarity the weakness and injustice of the existing ways of organizing our social life. However, sooner or later we will notice that the pandemic can be seen as an opportunity to organize it in a new, fairer way — one that will reduce the precarity of life, as well as its environmental costs.
After the shock of what has happened subsides, I am sure our communities will start again to discuss the meaning of a good life and a just society, trying to make sense of this experience, and propose new visions for a better future. The temptation to revisit the past and self-isolate in communities whose borders are determined by the power of prejudice preached by populist con men will be stronger than before. We can only hope that our exposure to the coronavirus will not make us yearn for the imaginary safety of a closed society, but open the path to the kind of indispensable and deep changes that we can no longer put off if we want to make the world a better place for everyone.
Despite the fact that it may seem that we are at a standstill, the pandemic is actually taking us on a journey, both as individuals and as communities.
When thinking about this paradox, my eyes are constantly drawn to a postcard hanging next to my desk. It is one of the few souvenirs we brought back from New York. It features a color photograph by Allan Sekula, entitled “Shipwreck and worker, Istanbul.” The postcard promoted a retrospective exhibition of the artist at the Marian Goodman Gallery.
The photo depicts a man shoveling debris in a port quay. In the background, we can see a huge overturned wreck of a ship. This ambiguous picture accompanied us throughout our stay in the United States. Every time I confront this image it seems to tell me a different story about the modern world. The industrially exploited landscape in the background of this tiny human figure reveals a discrepancy between the enormity of the task set before him and his limited abilities, showing the inhuman scale of his work and the overwhelming injustice of his position.
From the perspective of our forest cabin, however, the port quay on which this man is working transforms itself into a new symbol: that of the world afflicted by the pandemic, completely paralyzed, impoverished, and in need of radical change. The direction of this change seems to be hidden in the mysterious pose of the worker. What is the aim of his actions? Is he simply removing the debris so that his surroundings can return to their previous shape? Or, are we rather witnessing the groundbreaking ceremony to lay foundations for a new order?
It can be difficult for us to summon enthusiasm for this brave new project when faced with this post-apocalyptic landscape. But even in these dire circumstances, we can at least find hope in our will to live, which we definitely share with the protagonist in Sekula’s picture. One positive outcome of this pandemic might be to remind us of how powerful and common that desire can be.
Pawel Knut is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar from Poland, appointed to the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies of the New School for Social Research.