The plague of the leap year 2020 did not improve humanity as certain optimists believed; it exposed its true dimensions as, on the one side, those of powerful individuals, owners of the world, and on the other, in addition to being bound by the chains of consumerism, deprivation and inequities in the distribution of wealth, those that were submerged in the fear and obligation of isolation. Or, as the historian Jean Delumeau warned some time ago, "the age of the plague is the age of enforced solitude".
In Colombia, during the pandemic, the red flag (or any other red material) has come to signify that the person/household displaying it – as here in a popular neighbourhood of Medellin -does not have the means to feed themselves and urgently needs help.
And there are solitudes within solitude. Those of the most impoverished, those of the forgotten, are the most unwelcome and harrowing. It is not the same to be confined in some kind of hovel resembling a prison than in a palace or in a house with all the modern conveniences. The plague has made existence even more punishing for those who live without, and even more so for those who, in a moment of crisis due to extreme hunger, displayed in their windows, perhaps hanging their heads in shame, the red flags of defeat.
The plague caused some to believe that neoliberalism, that great producer of poor people and sponsor of the fortune of a minority of extravagant plutocrats, would fall into crisis. Not so. It appears to have emerged reinvigorated, at least in countries such as Colombia, with its pauperised and deindustrialised rural areas in which a lumpen-bourgeoisie does as it pleases, dividing up the wealth of the state, deriding the law (that it makes itself) and ignominiously disregarding the workers, whom it mocks with a repugnant minimum wage.
This dystopian year, beginning in other geographies with people who sang on their balconies, saccharine messages that everything would be better afterwards and naiveties, for example, that we would all embrace one another once the plague had passed, shored up established power. There was no shortage of those, in paroxysms of spirit and confidence, who prophesised that there would be a kind of renaissance of the welfare state and that capitalism would suffer irreparable fractures. Although the plague has not ended, one year after its onset, the new (world) order is one of fear, surveillance and control.
The plague converted the globe into a panopticon in which power freely exercises its dominion. Multinationals still call the shots, and fat cats in the banks grin at their profits, while the most needy drown in various forms of desperation and hopelessness. The only certainty for the millions of the dispossessed has been uncertainty. The leap year imprisoned us, put us in quarantine, confined us. Right from the first incarceration, we could see power, that concrete and repulsive entity, raising itself up astride the shoulders of those condemned to destitution.
Or perhaps this was not the case in the United States, for example, particularly in cities such as New York, where thousands of workers perished, those that have to work in the toughest jobs, Black people, immigrants and those that know what the truth of the "American dream" really is: a nightmare. The same nightmare that the Coronavirus intensified to a fever pitch.
It has been a discouraging year for nearly everyone. It has not been (or it was not) a year of shared humanity, even if there have been thousands of instances of solidarity, of looking after others, of love and help for a neighbour who was in a worse situation. Rather, especially in countries such as Colombia, the enormous differences between social classes have been clear. With an antipopular government prioritising a privileged minority, in this country of injustices, the disparities within the inequalities have been further widened.
While in Colombia at the end of 2019 there was a continual flow of peasant, student, worker and unemployed protests, as well as other popular sectors, with strikes and demonstrations, the pandemic caused a weakening of the mass expressions of resistance against a regime founded on absurdities. Nevertheless, in the midst of the isolation and the measures to prevent infection, 2020 also saw expressions of discontent at abuses by officials in the country.
The year of the plague, 2020, offered proof that the universal pandemic, in countries such as Colombia, increases abysmal social differences and the disadvantages of having an economic model that promotes poverty for the many and wealth accumulation for a select few. Furthermore, it showed signs of how the levels of anguish and shame increased among the lower and middle layers, for small and medium enterprises, for cultivators and, of course, for an unbearable mass of unemployed people.
The pandemic has brought a small number of advantages; for example, it caused us to return (well, a minority of us) to Thucydides, Giovanni Boccaccio, Daniel Defoe, Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Camus, Thomas Mann and to other writers and historians who have narrated plagues and diseases.
This leap year of plague and mortality has been a year of sorrows. It has also been one of painful images, such as those showing the windows displaying the washed-out flags of hunger.
40,000 people - half the city's population - died of the plague in Marseille in 1720. Painting by Michel Serre (born Miquel Serra i Arbós in the Catalan city of Tarragona) depicting the Cours Belsunce during the epidemic.