The Lights of Europe Chapter II – San Sebastián with lantern: The unequal price of life
|Sylvia Durand||Feb 9|
“There was as little belief in the possibility of such barbaric declines as wars between the peoples of Europe as there was in witches and ghosts. Our fathers were comfortably saturated with confidence in the unfailing and binding power of tolerance and conciliation. They honestly believed that the divergences and the boundaries between nations and sects would gradually melt away into a common humanity, and that peace and security, the highest of treasures, would be shared by all mankind.”
-The World of yesterday. Memoirs of a European, Stefan Zweig, “The World of security”
It has been a few months since dreams and hopes for a new world began blooming across our newspapers: the so-called world of tomorrow. Like an earthquake, the pandemic shook our timeline, marking a pre and a post period: before covid, the world was completely wrong, we were unconscious and misled but now, ah now... you can bet it’s all going to change! We woke up for good and crossed our hearts, tomorrow will be another day. Ring any bell? A world-wide event upsets our self-confidence and all of a sudden, we are off the constant and safe road to progress. This must be déjà vu.
Let’s journey back. In 2008 we discovered with dread that a snake was slithering around our economy and bursting the precious "bubbles'' we were living in and speculating on. Plus, at some point, we realised another evil creature that was wolfing down the planet. And what to say about the countless small crashes, remote conflicts that have spread panic around all the financial places and shaken the very heart of our fragile nervous system? Different crises but each time the same scenario: a global - and I believe genuine - consciousness pushed us into some kind of reforming fever. This is it! It is now or never. This time we’re going to change for good. Yep, this is the one.
Crises have been like alarm clocks: we woke up and suddenly longed for the future, determined to draw a line between our past mistakes and a new future. So it feels a bit like Groundhog day: the more we replay it, the better we will get. Perhaps we never really managed to make the world of tomorrow happen. Or is tomorrow just a comfort idea we cradled ourselves in, waiting for today to simply become tomorrow?
Our century is a futuristic one: we like assumptions, promises, we became geniuses of forecasting algorithms, and the memories we are now used to are those suggested by our iPhones or Instagram accounts. The veneration of the past and the hysteria of the future are the reactions of two generations that find themselves in the same backlash of a traumatic world event, two sides of the same coin, one could say. All crises have the same paradoxal property of earthquakes: to destroy and rebuild from a clean slate, questioning the failure of the old foundations to re-design new ones.
In theory, the current pandemic gives us the same chance: it is a global event that affected all parts of society and forced us to take a stand as individuals, as companies, as governments. Many have already made up their minds and feel ready to evaluate how we reacted to the crisis: some seek impartiality in the analysis of the numbers while others criticize, focused on their (legitimate) interests and concerns. We have never been so scholarly about the decrees and various sources of law that re-define, almost on a weekly basis, our freedoms as citizens. But there is a less tangible change ongoing beneath the surface of these uncountable variations, a slower and deeper change that affects our values and that could make us the first generation to inherit a narrower and darker worldview than our parents’.
Continuing our journey through the de La Tour exhibition, we now arrive in one of the last rooms of Palazzo Reale where another night scene piece is presented: Saint Sebastian with lantern. In his peculiar triptych composition, it is the light that, as usual, becomes the main protagonist and sets the characters in a triangle disposition. On the left, in the semi-darkness middle of the painting, the Saint is lying peacefully while Irene is sitting on the right, her face glowing in the radiant light. Above, in the centre, stands the servant.
The representation of this Sebastian is unprecedented amongst his contemporaries: never before - not even in the Renaissance - had we ever seen such a secular Saint, a Sebastian without his solemn columns and pierced body. He even seems on the same ground as Irene, to the point that the viewer becomes confused as to what should be identified as the true subject of the painting. This is at least what the language of the light is saying: compared to the dazzling light that reflects on Irene, Sebastian is perhaps less of a central subject. A very modern representation that could barely define itself as religious painting, but actually uses the religious theme to portray, not so much the saint but, the holy act: taking care of and dedicating oneself to the weakened, vulnerable life.
We might think that nothing has changed up till today. We have stopped economies, we have tried to rescue and protect the most vulnerable even at a high social cost: the spread of the virus seems to have at least a happy ending that consecrates human life as an absolute and indisputable principle. In the age of cynicism, idealism and morality have come up, not in the shape of painted Saints but in the form of decrees and regulations. From his chair at the Collège de France, Didier Fassin (a French physician, sociologist and anthropologist) observes, however, that this - symbolically very strong - statement of the governments that have established lockdowns comes into conflict with another reality.
Former vice-president of Médecins sans Frontières and today president of the Comede (Committee for the Health of Migrants), his conclusion on the observation of exiled populations in Europe points out a deep ethical contradiction. On one hand we need to defend threatened lives and, on the other we disregard thousands of refugees’ deaths at sea and the mistreatment of those who try to reach "the Lights of Europe". In his latest publication, The Inequality of Human Lives, Didier Fassin starts a reflection that the Covid pandemic confirms and even deepens: the cultural and widely accepted idea that human life is priceless is no more representative of the current political and anthropological interpretation that tends to put an ever higher price on living conditions.
First of all, the cost of the lockdown does not only mean increasing public debt, but also the closure of companies and businesses that will end up in a further pauperisation of the most fragile parts of society. Furthermore, the health police that has been created to control the application of confinement measures actually consists in the restriction of fundamental rights that have heavier consequences on the poorest members of society. As we can imagine, the lockdown experience in social housing or in a migrant reception center on the edge of cities must be quite different from enjoying wide private spaces with beautiful gardens. But we have willingly consented to all of this, for this was the sacrifice we all made together for the sake of human life.
Nonetheless, some of the evidence seems to bring up a different result. Firstly, the numbers point out a higher mortality in underprivileged circles and ethnic minorities - particularly in the United States, but Europe shows the same trend. Another important warning sign comes from forced isolation places where the virus spread faster: overcrowded prisons, detention centers for migrants and asylum seekers, but also spaces where homeless people are gathered in dangerously close cohabitation.
This period might be historical not just because of the pandemic, but because it succeeded in making us more insensitive, less empathic. It may be because we no longer have access to facial expressions, or more likely because the fear of, and fascination by, the virus have absorbed us and locked us up inside ourselves. This general self-centeredness is visible - and perhaps justified - by the information. Our interests no longer focus on world events, neither civil wars in Syria nor famines in Afghanistan draw our attention. Basically nothing that goes beyond our national, or at most regional, dramas. We are absorbed in our lockdown experience and its consequences. And so it looks like this worldwide event has eventually accomplished the paradox of narrowing our vision of the world, which is the exact opposite of the post-war idea.
Before this crisis, many European countries boasted of a high-performance healthcare system. My guess is that it is because underneath its undeniable utility, this particular institution has a symbolic - even national - value. I believe healthcare is a legacy of a certain idea of society that is always less current, it’s the evidence that a social system once did work. If you think about it, the fact that each member of a society - healthy or not - contributes their own income to guarantee care and health of those in need, is an extraordinary act of empathy that makes us similar to de La Tour's Irene.
To be accurate, we should mark the distinction between the care system (i.e. hospitals, capacity of treatment, urban medical services, nurses, etc.) and the public health system (disease prevention, hygiene education, epidemiological monitoring etc). In other words, the first one takes care of individuals whereas the second takes care of communities. In 2000, the French healthcare system was put at the top of a World Health Organization ranking which measured two particular criteria: the quality of clinical medicine and the extent of health coverage, meaning a patient was well treated and well insured. Over the past two decades these elements have been progressively eroded.
On the one hand, there have been drastic cuts to all public expenses with a consequent reduction in hospital reception capacities and, at the same time, the same number of doctors facing an increasingly aging population. On the other hand, the social protection budget has significantly decreased, making drugs and hospital admission refunds lower and the access to treatment more expensive. Concerning the public health system, however, neither France nor Italy has ever achieved great results. The health crisis triggered by Covid is the outcome of this evolution: a lack of beds in the intensive care departments, a lack of masks, a lack of transparency in governments’ communication that was late and inconsistent.
Today, new thoughts have reshaped the idea of society and as a consequence, the management of public finances as well. Generally, healthcare - along with the entire social assistance services - now seems the moving relic of another time. Parts of it have been miraculously spared by the logic of privatizing services that were once believed to be due because citizens’ dignity depended on it, but mostly it’s considered to be a burden in the new scale of political priorities. This becomes obvious at election time: when the tax issue and the social budget chapters of political programs are raised up as "stumbling blocks", we are recounting a great deal about how the concept of social justice is being uprooted from our political visions.
Yet, today more than ever would be the time to face this need because the human cost of the pandemic will spread well beyond healthcare. While deaths and infections are closely enumerated, one can wonder: will the statistical fever continue after we eradicate the disease? How will we count the victims of unemployment and pauperization? Who will update us and report on death rates due to self-devaluation? In the US, the number of deaths related to the economical crisis between 2008 and 2009 has been estimated at 33,000 in 25 to 64-year olds: considering that the main causes of death were suicides, overdoses and alcoholism-related syndromes, we can reasonably fear that another chapter of the crisis will open in the upcoming months, though it may well be less visible.
Opposing the economy to healthcare makes no sense: a collapse of the economy will have dramatic consequences and increase social inequalities. Instead, we should extend our moral commitment to human life beyond just life expectancy, to give everyone not only a quantity of life but also a quality one. This means we have to broaden the concept of care to cure not only diseases but also poverty, bewilderment, the lack of perspective of our societies.
It is a fact that 5% of the poorest French citizens live 13 fewer years than 5% of the richest. So what can we expect from life? It is not just about longevity but also about dignity, living conditions, how we are treated by our institutions, how we can fulfill ourselves and live decently. These requirements are essential and for now, they are highlighting the inequalities of our societies. But since they are also accurate indicators for assessing a community’s degree of civility, we can ask: what have we come to be and what are we becoming?
Social protection systems call the virtue and the contribution of the whole society to a moral elevation, to acting for a common good, because people "believed they could be alive and happy only if the others were too". In Giorgio Gaber's dream, as well as in Irene's uplifting empathy, it is the same cornerstone that has made compassion and care the heart of human nobility and our society’s point of light.
Our creed is not as Christian as it was in the seventeenth century, but our faith in this undeniable principle is still strong today when we solemnly profess that life must be saved at all costs. Yet, if not all lives, and if we decide those lives actually have a price, what kind of creed is it? If today’s world, with the scars of all its past wounds and the history of all its human dramas, is still more cynical than yesterday's, how will we be able to separate past failures from the prospect of a new future?
In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of time, beginnings, transitions and endings: his double-face looks on one side towards the past and on the other one towards the future, without ever blinding themselves to one side or the other. Drawing a line between whatever we consider a before and an after means holding both the worlds of yesterday and tomorrow together. But instead of Januses, we look more like a Sisyphean generation: just like the titan, we carry up and push down the same rock, in a circular and repetitive timeline.
Asking ourselves what the world of tomorrow will be - whether it’s a concerned or an eager request - should lead us to call into question our relationships with history and with our culture, in order to re-evaluate our action in the present and recreate the idea of tomorrow. We are restless. We want to throw ourselves at a future to escape this time, but this is our time: it is made of the brutal lessons from the past but also of Irene's lantern. These are the lights through which we should look at our future to broaden the vision of today's world.