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from the April 2020 issue

A Thundering Silence

Felipe Restrepo Pombo reflects on his quiet days of COVID-19 quarantine in Bogotá, normally one of the most bustling cities in Latin America.

“If I was in hell I would always feel I had a chance of escaping.” 

—Francis Bacon, in an interview with David Sylvester

A few months ago I was invited to teach a course at a university in Indianapolis. After class I headed for the outskirts of that small American city, where I would be spending the first night of my stay. I arrived in a peaceful suburb and pulled up in front of a building with dark stone walls built in the early twentieth century. It had been a school for many years before being remodeled as a row house. Upon entering I felt a disturbing sensation that I couldn’t quite define. Later, I went to bed and turned out the lights, but I couldn’t sleep. A couple of hours passed by, during which time I tried to identify the reason for my discomfort. Finally I found it: I opened the window and a gust of frigid wind blew in, announcing the end of autumn. Outside there wasn’t a sound to be heard.

I forgot about that moment after returning, a few weeks later, to the hubbub of my daily life. Once again I was surrounded by the calming murmur of the city that is ever with me and that lulls me to sleep at night. However, in the midst of the pandemic we’re experiencing, the feeling returned.

I traveled from Mexico City to Bogotá twenty days ago, when the COVID-19 emergency was just beginning to emerge in Latin America. I took one of the last flights into Colombia before the government closed the borders completely. I barely got up from my seat the entire flight—maybe once or twice to wash my hands. I didn’t touch the food or the entertainment screen on the seat in front of me. It was one of the most disquieting flights I’ve ever been on. Upon landing at the airport, I was examined by a doctor and—despite not exhibiting any symptoms of the disease—was ordered to spend fifteen days in mandatory isolation. I holed up in my apartment with some supplies and the certainty that I would not see another living being for the next two weeks. 

Much has been published during this emergency about the effects that confinement has on both body and mind. During the first few days of isolation, I inhaled whatever information I could find in an attempt to cope with my loneliness. I wrote down recipes for healthy dishes, exercise routines that could be performed in a small space, and relaxation techniques. I read encouraging testimonies of brave souls who had survived prolonged confinement in terrifying conditions. I found myself feeling strong and capable of bearing anything . . . until I heard a psychologist on a newscast say that “after ten days of solitude the mind begins to produce self-destructive thoughts.” I panicked: all of the safety scaffolding I had erected began to crumble under the weight of those few simple words. I peered a few days into the future and saw myself lying on a bed, unwashed, staring at the ceiling and feeding on insects.

I ran to the window; I needed fresh air. And there it was again: the total silence. Bogotá is one of the most populous and chaotic cities in all of Latin America. Traffic there is some of the worst in the world, and the city has serious problems with both environmental and noise pollution. However, on that particular afternoon, in the midst of a languid, orange-hued sunset, there was absolutely nothing to be heard. Or was there? Yes, I could hear the coursing sound of water in a nearby stream that descends from the Bogotá mountains.

We are a vain species. For years we’ve cultivated the fantasy of our extinction in the form of a thundering roar. We’ve imagined environmental catastrophes, alien attacks, and asteroids raining down from the heavens. More recently we’ve found ourselves obsessing over the dual threats of technology and artificial intelligence. In most of these scenarios, the cataclysm is deafening, and through it shines our heroism. Always—even in the zombie apocalypse—the threat presents itself on a monumental scale.

What a miscalculation on our part: the greatest attack on our species turned out to be almost imperceptible.

Today finds us prisoners of our own fear, trying to protect ourselves with the most rudimentary of weapons: four walls. All the paranoia about gigantic enemies turned out to be a simple projection of our own narcissism. It’s not clear whether this virus that’s killing us is a living being or a chemical entity. But in either case, it is a rather graceless parasite. “We aren’t even facing an identifiable species that wants to live and perpetuate itself by preying on other species,” Juan Cárdenas wrote in a column for El País. “It is an ambiguous agent, something hovering between the living and the nonliving, which cracks open the cells of others and colonizes them in a way that serves no biological purpose.”

I managed to survive my days of confinement with order and patience. In fact, I had some periods of great productivity, along with the intimate, if virtual, company of those dearest to me. I didn’t eat a single insect, though I did get a bit drunk: a few bottles I had been saving for special occasions were emptied in the midst of the pandemic.

When my mandatory period of isolation came to an end, I went out to buy food, which is still allowed in Bogotá. The silence I sensed through my window was now amplified. I walked several blocks with the distinct impression that the city’s entire population had disappeared. I crossed an avenue along which not a single car passed. I was reminded of that magnificent sequence in the first episode of The Walking Dead in which Rick Grimes rides down an empty highway on horseback. Then, in the distance, I finally saw another person. A woman in her fifties. She was dressed in a white bathrobe, rubber boots, surgical gloves, a face mask, and dark glasses, and her head was wrapped in plastic. Walking a dog wearing cute red shoes. She stared at me in horror before hurrying off as fast as she could.

The key to confronting this virus seems to be the simplest: do nothing. Forget about our heroic impulses and stay at home, away from everything. But I’m afraid the notion of a society in a state of perpetual lockdown makes no sense. The consequences—both physical and emotional—of burying yourself alive can be devastating. We will have to emerge little by little, have to learn to live in a new environment with new rules. That is when this tragedy will have taught us something. Or not. But at least it will have brought us closer to solitude and silence.

“Un estruendo silencioso” © 2020 by Felipe Restrepo Pombo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Ezra E. Fitz. All rights reserved.

Read more work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic from writers around the world.

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