In this essay, Kazakh writer Lilya Kalaus predicts what will happen when the COVID-19 quarantine comes to an end.
“Right, then, after the war, six in the evening!” Vodička shouted.
"Maybe come at 6:30 instead, in case I’m running late,” answered Švejk.
Vodička’s voice came again from far away.
“You can’t make it at six?!”
“Fine, I’ll be there at six!” came the response from Vodička’s comrade, as he too moved away.
And that is how brave soldier Švejk parted with the old sapper Vodička.
—Jaroslav Hasek, Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War
When I was little, I loved the book about the adventures of the good soldier Švejk. I laughed till I cried. Recently I started re-reading it—but somehow it wasn’t funny. Maybe I’m too old, maybe the text has gone flat, I don’t know. But it’s still interesting, of course. I especially liked one phrase: “At six o’clock in the evening after the war.” Ivan Pyryev swiped it for the title of his lyrical war drama in 1944, by the way. But what of it? War is more topical than ever and it would be a sin to forget it.
Now, why am I bringing this up? The grass is getting green, the rain pours down like tears, spring is hustling along, but the quarantine goes on and on. Naturally, people are losing their minds. The Internet is full of different visions of what will happen after the quarantine. How the world will change in terms of geopolitics and economics, how we’ll bury globalization for good, and what kind of pandemonium we’ll all descend into, assuming of course that the cursed corona spares us.
Well, those are completely understandable urges. A person is naturally inclined to prepare for the worst, listening in bravely to see if he’s about to get knocked into the abyss, where he’ll laze about in a silly homemade gauze mask. He’s got ginger root in one hand and an overtaxed COVID test in the other, the weirdo; gloves in one pocket, and a wrinkled application for a welfare payment (REJECTED) in the other. His feet are clad in his grandpa’s old workboots, wrapped in pale blue boot covers from China. His eyes show all the pain of antiviral therapy. And on his forehead, like diamonds, are big drops of sweat, because it’s awfully hot and stuffy in that damned mask. There! The perfect look for the hero of our time. He’d like to go on a drinking binge for a couple months just to wake up in the future, weak as a puppy, a crack through his trembling heart and a pulse over a hundred. And outside the window, there it would be, a brave new world . . .
But I’ve gotten carried away. There’s not going to be anything new, my dear. They’ll still shout the financial indices in their grating birdsong from the imponderable heights. Dull people will go on multiplying zero by zero on their ancient calculators, squatting around a fountain of oil. The stars will still shine over the Gothic cathedral, and the gargoyles will go on spitting disdainfully at your smartphone screen, from the side where you’ll never be. The world will remain untouchable and unknowable, whether you’re in its corona or not. The fleeting beauty of this moment is that everyone is equal before COVID, presidents and bums alike.
But no. Primus inter pares—there are also some who are more equal, as always. These are the good soldiers of the conquering army, who always know everything, act quickly and decisively, ready to roast anyone and anything with napalm—just as long as they can maintain their sense of righteousness and superiority. COVID can bite them, too, but they always have an absolute majority and will survive no matter how things shake out. The other survivors will surely take one on the jaw many more times to come.
So here’s my prediction: nothing special is going to happen. Even in quarantine we're not escaping our petty everyday squabbles. Wars continue across the planet as usual, both in the real world and the virtual. Money still decides everything, and no coronavirus is going to change that.
Sure, there will be fewer old folks strolling the parks and sidewalks, staring vacantly at some fixed point, shuffling along with their ski poles or walkers. Sure, we’ll wash our hands more often. Sure, we’ll start mass vaccinations, as soon as they put out a
Chinese vaccine. But the anti-vaxxers aren’t likely to shut up, are they? And another crisis will strike. Was there ever a lack of them? And some of the newly unemployed will howl about their loans for iPads and cars. And Trump will sneak around pumping brake fluid from the moon, or whatever. And we’ll make the transition to distance learning, distance working, distance eating. Business as usual.
We’ll learn to live with the coronavirus. We can live with politicians and corruption, can’t we? We moan and groan, march and picket, but we live on. It will be the same with COVID. Peaceful coexistence, like all the professors and Communist Party history departments were always drilling into us.
As for an economic or any other kind of rollback in the history of civilization . . . Well, it won’t be pleasant. Nobody’s arguing. But maybe, given that everyone knows progress has been going 150% over the past few years, it would be all right to march in place for a little. Surely we spent ten thousand years dicking around with pointed sticks, or the wheel. And we’re marching in place right now, too. Maybe we’ll finally master, say, fifteen percent of the iPhone’s functions. Not everyone—only about three percent makes any sense to me—but a lot of us.
Some people are making impatient noises now, like we didn’t finish the job killing off the bourgeoisie: there they are in their burrows, surrounded by hoarded buckwheat, lecturing us, and tormenting the old folks too, the vicious beasts.
I’m not like that. I’m nice and well-behaved. It’s just that I’m a sociopath. I don’t understand all these people suffering over not being able to go to their soccer pubs or beauty salons. Outdoor barbecues, hikes in the mountains, jogging, shopping, bus rides.
A close friend poured out her soul to me yesterday. So much unhappiness, tragedy, grief! She says she can’t buy barbell weights anywhere in St. Petersburg. All the sporting goods in all the stores are sold out, the Internet’s been completely combed over, and the weights she so dearly desires can only be delivered two months from now. A lonely tear rolls down her flushed cheek. O tempora! O mores! I had a sudden vision of all those good people carrying home the athletic supplies they’d wrestled away from the quarantine crowds in the store. I saw them arriving at home, lying down on their inflatable exercise mats, and getting to work arduously sculpting their bodies. Ha! But it's true. I've seen plenty of treadmills and training bikes transformed into clothing racks in people’s apartments.
I’ll say it again: I’m a sociopath. I have a hard time understanding people and I barely sympathize with them. I have personally noticed not a single change to my way of life during this state of emergency. For me, every 6:00 PM might as well be after the quarantine—or before it. That is to say that I’m in a lifelong quarantine, which just happens to coincide with the current, official quarantine. Considering it philosophically, we’re all locked in our own personal quarantines from the day we are born. We submit to the rules, in other words. Actually, this internal quarantine might even be what prompts the emergence of reason. Maybe it's thanks to a quarantine of Mother Nature that we even appeared? She’s just sent down some revisions. Previously there was no curfew, but now there is. Get used to it, kids! Be fruitful and multiply, and hang in there, okay?
But the people really do want a holiday, and I’m with them. So let’s meet at six in the evening after the quarantine and go drink some beer. It will be strange outside: squirrels, rabbits, lords of the forest like elk and bears, vines and spiders the size of saucers, columns of ants where sports fields should be and monkeys hanging in bunches off television antennas. Instead of shoddy asphalt and buckled slabs of concrete there will be a Baskervillian bog. The streetlights and the stoplights will give us a last embrace and blink, worried, as we go.
Law enforcement in its miraculous protective coveralls will be out there with us, too. We can splash some beer at their gas masks. And we’ll carry the doctors in our arms, like warriors of old. And the soldiers will be with us, and the politicians, and the bankers, and the bloggers, and the journalists—why not? For one short evening, we can pretend to be a unified human community of rational people.
"В шесть часов вечера после карантина" © Lilya Kalaus. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.