– Aurelio Porfiri
At the moment I am writing these lines, at the end of April, in Italy we are still under lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. At this point there is no need to explain everything because everyone is well aware of what I am talking about. In the last few months this was basically the topic of every discussion and every conversation. This event was really distressing, but there are also some lessons that we can learn from these tragic events, and the following are the four things I think I have learned from these past weeks.
1) Experts are good, but they should not govern. I was hitherto unaware of the existence of so many virologists, epidemiologists, microbiologists, and so on. In the past weeks they were like rock stars, present on every TV program, every podcast, every video on YouTube, every article in the newspapers and magazines. They are everywhere.
Now, of course when we are in a pandemic, we turn to experts for advice, but let us be careful that they do not go beyond their expertise, and start to govern. Of course, when a doctor is giving us advice, it pertains to his or her own field. So if you read what the “doctors” say, first of all, you notice that they do not always agree with each other, and also they tend to make our life a living hell, with the intention of keeping us alive. It was not rare to hear words and phrases like “our life will not be the same again,” “we will never go on holidays, never enjoy summer,” “old people should be in eternal lockdown,” “the relationship between grandparents and nephews will have to change and so on and so forth.” I mean, I am sure we need to be very careful about the virus and the possible contagion, but we also need to look at the quality of life in general.
Experts only tend to concentrate in their own field, but for example the extreme measures that were already implemented here in Italy will have a devastating impact on the economy, leaving thousands of businesses closed and millions of people without jobs. The virus is bad but this kind of situation is also bad, and the people in charge of the common good, like politicians, have to balance health needs with the needs of the people and not allow them to become impoverished. We had experts here dictating the government and sometimes stepping too much in a field that is not theirs and this can be dangerous.
2) Epidemics brings two kinds of dangers: viruses and rhetoric. Now, we know that when there is an epidemic or a pandemic, we need to look carefully at the virus that is threatening us and to take appropriate measures to contain it. But because these occurrences are often overwhelming, there is another kind of epidemic that comes with the main one and that is the epidemic of rhetoric. All doctors and nurses are unsung heroes because they are not only risking their lives at the present moment but do so in many other instances too. They have chosen this profession because they really believe in helping people stay healthy and improving their wellbeing. I don’t think they are pleased that we remember them only during happenings such as this, but they would be much happier if they would be able to do their job in the best possible conditions not only in times of emergencies but always. They are doing the job that they have chosen, thus fulfilling a vocation, they have not chosen to be “heroes.” Certainly, some of them may have been forced to do “heroic” acts of courage in certain circumstances, but they are not choosing to throw themselves into a hospital, this is not the choice of a moment, this is a choice of life. In the same way are “heroic” soldiers, teachers, policemen, priests…everyone who gives himself or herself for something they believe in, they are heroic. I have the impression that the use of this rhetoric is good to make us feel better, more than to be really grateful to the people working in hospitals. Now they need money and equipment, not honeyed words.
3) Don’t take freedom for granted. I am used to going out, having long walks, traveling to different parts of the world whenever I wanted and to visit people whom I wanted to visit. All of this was taken from me (and from billions of other people) all of a sudden. We need to accept this situation because it is “for our good”. But still, we cannot say that it is something nice. When you are in a situation where you need to stay for 2 or 3 months indoors during a lockdown, even if your family is perfectly peaceful and you live in a comfortable apartment (and this also is not to be taken for granted in many cases) it is hard, you really want to do the things that you used to do before. I really can empathize with people in certain parts of the world, who have no freedom of movement, of thought or of speech. People who live in mental lockdown all their lives because they submit to authoritarian rule. You may have money to buy a nice car, but you are still living like a slave. I think that freedom has its risks, but the alternative is slavery, and it is not a good alternative. We should always fight for freedom, that does not mean that we can do what we want, but that we are in the position to make choices and then to respond and take responsibility for these choices. We are free to make mistakes, and there is no other entity making mistakes on our behalf.
4) Perception rules. When I was teaching in Macau, especially during the first few months I had some problems adapting to the new environment. It was a completely different environment from the one I was used to, and certain things started happening to me that were really annoying. Sometimes I was accused of things which I really did not do, and I used to share my frustrations with my boss at that time. He was a wise person and taught me that even if I was not guilty of the things I was accused of, people would believe what they perceive rather than the truth. Now, of course I am all with Saint Thomas Aquinas and strongly believe that truth is adaequatio rei et intellectus, our mind that accepts the reality of things. But another reality of things is that what the people follow is not the reality but the perception of a given reality that sometimes is created and not real. It is really funny to look at the way that the USA, China, Russia, and even my country, try to manage a narrative that is more convenient for them, regardless of the reality of things. I am sure everyone is bombarded by news that wants to give us the “correct information” about the origin of this virus: some say from China, others from USA, some even from Kazakhstan, and in some news, there was even the information that this coronavirus is proudly “made in Italy!” Perception is what concerns big powers but not reality. Reality is always somehow hidden, and always we are not able to know the reality of things. But because we are Catholics and so we need to be proudly Thomists and Aristotelians, we should look for truth always, even in the Church herself. We never forget that the Church is led by human beings on this earth, and sometimes they too follow the pattern that is similar to the ones of the big powers of this world. So we always need to look for the truth and to submit everything to rigorous scrutiny. God has given us the power of reasoning and we need to make good use of that, not just let other people tell us what to do and what to say. We are so lucky because we were given a huge treasure, that is the Catholic tradition, art, magisterium, theology, spirituality, mystics…we have so much to train ourselves and to be able to look at possible deviations in the Church itself, when even in the Church perception rules. So we need, humbly, to be able to advise our pastors if there is something we feel is incorrect, and as citizens, we need to do the same if we feel that the perception that is given us about things does not correspond to reality. For us, in every case, Saint Thomas Aquinas rules.