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Photo: Texas A & M Today
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How to imagine the post-COVID world (and not be more destructive than the virus)

The Hay Festival in Querétaro has brought together some of the best minds to draw valuable lessons from the pandemic. The world has changed, they say, but we…

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We live in small narrative bubbles. The front pages of today's newspapers look like yesterday's, and TV news seems to use the same canned images of a few months ago, when the COVID pandemic was at its peak in many countries. 

Vaccines are coming. Or they're not. Markets are collapsing or "continuing" to collapse, and there are fewer deaths but more infections. There are also different ways for coronavirus to spread. Is it another strain? What will happen in schools?

We have always lived with a single certainty, that life surprises us at every step, and this causes us to fear that we are unable to anticipate, and even to think that there is nothing more to do than to let others, in whom we have lost confidence, deal with the problem. 

However, for Mexican journalist and writer Juan Villoro, there is not only reason for pessimism given the circumstances, but also for the opposite. This is what he told BBC Mundo during the 2020 Hay Festival, which was held recently in Querétaro. 

"We are facing an emergency situation, but we have also seen that we are connected but not united. There has been a capacity to infect us but not the same capacity to offer common responses," said Villoro, aware that in an unequal and disunited world, new responses are required.

But, which ones?

Dominated by algorithms and with politics turned into a techno religion, the opportunities for improvement, he noted, are many. As they say, one falls so low that one has no choice but to ascend.

"The first notion of change is imagination. If we conceive that things can be different, we can change them. I believe in the utopian drive, without hope for the future there can be no transformation. Optimism is something we must all build," he assured. 

Our hope lies in the strength of the collective — pressure groups made up of citizens who set different agendas and allow us to move from a representative democracy that exhales its last breath to one that is much more horizontal and direct in action. 

"It's about changing reality," the writer added. "We need to bring ethics and politics back together and act in a network. You don't alter reality with a like or a retweet, you alter it when you have a presence in people's lives."

As when Mexico lived through the tragic earthquake of 2017, this is how Villoro remembers it. People took to the streets to collaborate among themselves.

"That," he concluded, "is the difference between society and community."

Cohabiting with the virus

For Argentine sociologist, writer and Prince of Asturias Award winner Saskia Sassen, the existence of this virus should not be seen as more threatening than it is, although it is indeed a threat. 

"We have learned in our cities to relate in a different way than before and the COVID is going to happen, and we are going to forget it. But what we must not forget is that a virus that has no smell or sound has kept us almost prisoner and has left a mark on our imagination," she said.

For Sassen, this virus represents challenges and changes for our present — a "new modality" — but not for history. 

"How many times have we been invaded by a whole series of invisible elements without smell or voice? The question here is not the virus but us, who have made the virus a monster", said the sociologist. 

At this point, there is a tangle of questions that need to be thought about. The first of all, there are many more agents and types of life that exist on the planet that have been and are being violated by human beings, and SARS-CoV-2 is "another actor that has a right to this air and land and that lives with us."

"I am going to bring this virus to my classes with students so that it is not seen as an enemy but as something with which we have to share the planet and we have done so much destruction that more and more will come. We are generating the need for this virus," summarized Sassen.

The scientist advocated to start thinking about other ways of cohabiting and gave the example of little Holland, in Europe, where they have invented new forms of growth, such as vertical agriculture, that do not monopolize the land. 

"Calling it 'the virus' is not enough, it is a small manifestation of many elements and an invitation to intellectuals to rethink some things," she concluded.

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