OpinionIsrael News

Post-traumatic stress in the wake of the war on COVID-19

We will step out of the trenches only to venture into the unknown, worried that this or another pandemic could come along at any time and take over our lives again.

Passersby outside a COVID-19 vaccination center in Jerusalem, on Dec. 31, 2020.  Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Passersby outside a COVID-19 vaccination center in Jerusalem, on Dec. 31, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

No, we will not go back to “the way we were.”

For an entire year, we having been living completely differently from how we were accustomed. We have suffered; we have been anxious. Such a condition, like war, generally involves post-trauma.

I was born after World War II, and I think that our exit from the coronavirus pandemic will resemble the period of my early childhood, characterized by a mixture of excitement, suspicion, fear and resilience. That was a revolutionary time. Customs changed. The strongest overcame the unbearable memories and economic difficulties. The sense of death remained often unspoken, while reappearing in nightmares, and lingered on for a very long while.

Thirty years ago, I was in Israel covering the Gulf War. When the air-raid sirens sounded, everyone had to don masks, due to the possibility that the missiles launched at Israel from Iraq carried poison gas. This was my only other experience of having to wear a mask.

Then, we listened to the radio for instructions about when it was safe to remove our masks. Afterwards, we could breathe freely again.

Now, with COVID-19, the mask is always with us; it has become a permanent fixture, like a part of our bodies. When that changes, ostensibly we will move on to normality—resume combing our hair, dressing up and putting on makeup. At the moment, that sounds like life on another planet.

Around us, there will be those who have suffered enormously and bear the signs. Some will want us to know; some will keep the secret. Many will remain depressed and traumatized. Others, who have eaten incessantly in the lockdown and gained weight, will be ashamed.

The after-effects will become an object of social interest, and even the topic of political debate on the responsibility for certain failures—addressed and integrated into the technical analyses of health authorities everywhere.

There will be opposing truths, lies and opinions. It’s going to become a divisive issue, probably even more so than it already is today.

In Israel, even the magnificent success in vaccine distribution is disputed and viewed malevolently by cynics as an “experiment” or a vote-seeking ploy by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

COVID-19 will leave its post-traumatic mark in every corner of the world, with economic crises, enmities and envy, along with an enormous rush towards renewal and life. This is a natural response to suffering, and in Israel, we’ve almost reached that point.

As I write this, I remember the small twinge of pain in my left arm as I received the second injection of the Pfizer vaccine about a month ago. I desired that pain; I felt it with satisfaction. It was a tangible sign of freedom.

I then received on my cellphone the Health Ministry certificate—ahead of the “green passport” that is going to be issued. And I now dream of being able to travel to visit my family in Italy. It’s a dream of liberation.

But I will be a different person in a different society. National and international post-trauma has political-cultural consequences that lead to social change.

The loss of the freedom to do what one wants; the imposition of strict rules; the obligation to live in closed spaces for weeks on end; and the vertigo in the face of big cities with empty streets will remain in our consciousness for a very long time.

Along with this will be the pain (unknown these days other than to societies such as Israel, required regularly defend itself against surrounding enemies, and dictatorial regimes like Syria, whose population lives under constant violence) of collective death, in the hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands, as is the case in Italy, my beloved country of origin. Suddenly, for the first time since WWII, friends and acquaintances, suffering and alone, have all departed together.

The sorrow over the disappearance of elderly parents—who, until mere months ago, were vibrant—and the novelty of their total isolation at the time of death are no longer the stuff that movies are made of. Nor is the loss of one’s job or business, or the closure of one’s children’s schools.

This is precisely the kind of uncertainty that makes war so terrifying, as one never knows what can happen in the next minute or day. The same goes for the coronavirus: A moment after testing negative for COVID-19, a person may become infected again, or for the first time. This is analogous to the battlefield. A soldier can be struck down by a bullet a minute after fleeing from gunfire. The sense is that there is nothing and nobody to trust.

As a result, after the pandemic, we will be wary as never before of appearances, smells and venues. We will constantly be on the alert.

We will step out of the trenches only to venture into the unknown, worried that this or another pandemic could come along at any time and take over our lives again.

The response may be further restrictions of social and cultural environments, affecting—as it has been doing—the very family life that has served as protection and comfort during difficult times. This could cause a reevaluation of how we conduct ourselves, and lead to a tendency to be constantly on guard.

On the other hand, we now see anger spreading among societal sectors who once considered themselves untouchable, and now feel more fragile, at risk, impoverished, unheard and isolated. There is no winning ideology or religion that can come to their rescue.

Calls in Europe for mutual responsibility, appeals to people’s goodness and statements about societal resilience have sounded weak. The prevailing sentiment is that the rhetoric of European and American leaders reveals embarrassment and cluelessness.

Meanwhile, it is actually the tough Israeli method of vaccines and closures that has been successful at preparing the populace for a practical way out of the pandemic.

The ruling classes have been operating without the source of guidance traditionally provided by values and faith: the home, the protective membrane of the nuclear family, which has served as a kind of refuge—albeit one damaged by the postmodern culture that has continued to suggest its inevitable decline. And the void left by this may trigger a very agitated, confused response.

In the United States, the pandemic has sparked misinformation, fake news, anti-Semitism and violence unseen since the 1960s and ‘70s. U.S. President Joe Biden begins his term in office having to manage a Senate tinged with socialist ambitions—and furious mobs against so-called “racism” and “oppression” (largely a smokescreen to veil the crisis of the left)—and right-wing supporters of former President Donald Trump filled with revolutionary quivers and irrepressible rage.

In Europe, the pandemic has caused major disillusionment, as the country borders that were supposed to disappear are back in full force, due to both the virus and the vaccine.

Even national pride—a thing ostensibly of the past—has returned, with Italy gratified at having fared better than Germany and France in providing the vaccine to its citizens aged 80 and above. Ironically, amid all the COVID-19 confusion, the European “nation state” has begun to fight for itself.

But Italy, like its counterparts across Europe, has found itself in front of a lonely mirror, with its monuments—from the Piazza di Spagna in Rome to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence over the Arno River—vacant. This emptiness will not be forgotten.

The most ongoing post-trauma, however, will be related to the concept of old age that we have been fed incessantly for the past year. Who would have expected this in our “forever young” culture, with its promise of eternal energy, at any age, to engage in physical activity, seek new career paths or fall in love? How could those of us over 60 have imagined that we would be told again and again by our leaders and health officials—on radio, TV and the Internet—to stay at home or die.

To make matters worse, the idea is that if we do die, it’s still preferable to having the young not survive. Indeed, the marginalization of the elderly—who are more fragile, a greater burden and matter less—has begun.

When this is all over, we will go out into our empty squares, look at each other and be simultaneously embarrassed, amazed, happy and also angry. It will be difficult to regain our previous rhythm of traveling, shopping and eating out. Our economies will struggle to recover.

Will we be more modest? Kinder? Will we be more attentive to the infirm and elderly? Certainly, something will different, and we are looking forward to that change—waiting for the end of the nightmare like children anticipating their birthdays. We just don’t know what that change will be.

One thing is likely, however. Just as we are hit today by melancholic nostalgia while watching films that depict the horrors of the 1930s, tomorrow we will remember the times when our kitchens were in constant use, when our meetings were all on Zoom, when our children were home demanding endless attention and when we binged on politically correct Netflix series with perverse nostalgia.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

This article was translated from Italian by Amy Rosenthal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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