Romancing the virus

Quite understandably Polish television carries some considerable amount of social advertising urging people to stay at home. This post is about how isolation is represented in such advertising and, in particular, the romantic vision of staying home the advertising offer.

Before I start, let me say that I generally agree with the idea of social distancing. I was very pleased when Polish education system was closed. I mostly understand the need to stay home. But, please, let’s not make it into a wonderful time we all have been waiting for. For many, it’s really not.

I am not certain I watch a lot of tv, but I do watch some and over the last few weeks, I have been observing videos recommending social distancing as a time to do all sorts of nice things we have always wanted to do. There are two videos that, I think, I have watched more than others. One is a commercial video, the other (which you will find here) is classical social advertising where celebrities tell us, regular people that one can do all sorts of things when staying at home (the link is to a short version of the video I’ve seen all too many times).

Indeed, we see a man playing ukulele in what looks like a large garden, another man is preparing burgers, a woman is sitting surrounded by books…. life is wonderful. And whether you look at the commercial or the social advert, all the people there happen to find themselves in at the very least decent housing, large enough not to feel cramped. Children don’t cry, no one is bothered by the guitar, and the kitchens are so nice and homely that even a hardened non-cook  like me has the urge to fix a gourmet dinner. And it is precisely this sugar-coated reality, this romaticisation of the pandemic, that irritates me no end.

Let me tell you a story. When I was a boy, I used to live in a high-rise block of flats. My parents were fairly comfortable financially and we had a nice-ish flat (judging by the standards of the 1960s communist Poland). I even had my own bedroom, though we had only one television set in the flat.  I also had my own tape recorder, a radio, and many books. Altogether my situation was not princely, but it was way better than perhaps that of most of my schoolmates.

And yet, when I think today that I would have to be in that flat for weeks on end, without the possibility of leaving it (underage kids are now forbidden to leave their domicile unaccompanied), I shudder. The idea that I would have been at the mercy of my short-tempered father 24/7 for days and days scares the living daylights out of me. It would have been hell. My father was not very good at controlling his temper, so we all would have had to walk on eggshells in order not to provoke him to shout and curse. My father was not physically violent towards me, but I fear that social isolation would have created a pressure cooker. I would have been scared shitless (do forgive). Would he have snapped? I don’t know. But the question is enough to scare me. Even today. We also do know that the risk and incidence of domestic violence (collateral damage, I read today) increase significantly.

Today, I’m very lucky. My academic career has always allowed me to work at home. So, staying home is not very painful. Yes, of course, I miss going out, a few days ago I just went for a drive as after almost a month, I really needed to get out, but on the whole, it’s not so bad. I also have a garden where I can sit to my heart’s delight.

But I also have friends who tell me they go loopy at the thought of another day at home. Very busy lives have suddenly been halted. The adrenaline is still pumping but has nowhere to go. They do not see social isolation as a time of wonder where you can clean the drawers or do some carpentry. However, most of these people still have decent flats or houses, they don’t have major financial worries, and they can find some support in their partners or children. They’re OK, on balance, kind of.

There is a show on Polish TV, called ‘Our new home’. It is about helping people in dire housing conditions. The TV channel pays for significant refurbishment and upgrade of the house or flat. But when you look at how those qualifying for the show live, you just despair. Their conditions are dramatic. And it’s worth considering that they also are required to stay at home. As are people who have just lost their zero-hours contracts (in Polish such contracts are called trash-jobs). I cannot even begin to understand the reality in which they live, but I do understand that the realty of the adverts is a galaxy far, far away for them. And this is what gets me every time. The memories of my short-tempered father and the TV show that suggest that wonders of social isolation are really not for everyone.

And here we come to the more general point. Public health measures, sensible and rational as they may be, must be and are turned into people’s lives. Here and now. The forced smile, the daily reminders that you live in a dump, or perhaps the punch in the stomach, because you were not quiet enough. I keep wondering how many of us will be damaged by having to stay put. Or how many of us will simply leave, hell or high water, because another day, hour or minute will be unbearable.

Yes, I do hope we can all make it. But perhaps there is a way of helping us all on our way. So, please stop these patronising ads telling me that life in social isolation is just the bliss we always hoped would happen. For many of us, I’d say for most of us, it’s not. And cannot be. Instead, I for one would like some appreciation that I have managed to keep sane for another day. How’s that?


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