Nothing New: Dying in the Time of COVID-19 and Academia

Julio César Díaz Calderón | 25 September 2020

Every day since COVID-19 arrived to the USA, I have been bombarded by storytelling. Since then, I have read many stories in all the languages I know, I read about how lucky the writers of the stories are because they have enough food, they can still work remotely, they can put stuff on hold. They reveal how it is hard, how they grieve and cope, how much life has changed and will continue changing. Then, they start lecturing. The habits of the flesh. Reading them, I get anxious and hopeless. Waiting to be saved. Then, I start to think… if these people are the lucky ones, who are the poor unfortunate souls whose stories and wisdom are not being told, nor imagined, nor imposed? What are we losing from suffering the way we (learnt to) do?

To address those question, I always start with my tribes. Most of the people I admire and I work with are on the ground. These times and every time. Isolation and grief are nothing new for them. Events forcing them to change and to lose what they had achieved are everyday occurrences. Death, slaughter, discrimination, rape, indifference, virus, disappearance, and seclusion (now referred to as “social distancing” in mainstream circles)… common things. Tragic, but common. Different times, the same phantoms, different shapes. Still now, they are organizing; they wake up and they fight, like every other day.

Of course, even for the people on the ground, the big change is the beat. But, have you ever danced a bomba? “Bomba is a musical expression created in Puerto Rico at the end of the 17th century, by West Africans and their descendants who worked the colonial sugar plantations along the coast of Puerto Rico. Through fiery drum rhythms and improvised dance, the cane workers released feelings of anger, resistance, and sadness about their condition” (Tekina-eirú Maynard). Sometimes, when you are dancing bomba, the barrilero (the player of the drum) gets exigent and s/he starts increasing the beat. Your body is asked to follow. Soon, you get surprised at how fast you can move, how fast you can assimilate the new rhythm, and how much you start to heal. COVID-19 increased the beat, but this world seems to have forgotten how to dance. Still, some of us dance.

Since Lorena died of COVID-19, it takes me longer to stand still. After the remembering of the many Lorenas that taught me so much, I begin to have flashbacks of videos with few words, mostly, crying, despair, and anger. Shock and the bodies that nobody wants to touch. Sigh in, sigh out. Nothing new, the everyday decision to live another day.

Today I put my Cuban rumba at 3 am, and I danced. After seven songs more, while I was still a little out of breath, I decided to write this piece. As when we dance rumba, I saved one time, and I started at two. I always need some support to endure my academic writing, thankfully, my friends are fast at giving me the rhythms necessary to hold on. Bartolina Xixa helped me this time to put the ramita seca (“dry twig”) that is my heart in words. This is the result.

I wonder if these times reveal how strange the academic/activist dichotomy is. Also, how distant is one from the other. Does any scholar still think their ideas without solidarity are what we need? This time, like most times, practice without our own practice is not enough. Bartolina laughs every time I claim that Academia has something to teach activisms. After some time, I started to smile back.

These times, like almost all times, I have in mind my radical Buddhist learnings. Sarah Nahar taught me about resting in power. That Buddhist practice reminds us to take care of ourselves and rest. This is important for these times, for, apparently, most of the current messages about dealing with COVID-19 are about resting. Yet, resting in power requires us to be willing to take turns in loving practices to block systemic harms and to put the effort to build communities. What the terms in the previous sentence might mean for your communities is a matter of practice, dialogue, and reflexion. Then, we can rest because we have the tranquility that somebody else is acting while we are resting and because we acknowledge that we need to cultivate the strength to deal with our pain in order to transform toward liberation. What allows your collective self to be in peace while resting in the time of COVID-19?

Times up, I have to start wrapping this up, my other communities wait for me to take my turn in other places. Also, Professors keep asking me to read and write things that do not matter. Keep masturbating your minds if you want, it has been a masturbating month every month since the day COVID-19’s isolations started. Hopefully, after you see your novel trauma videos and stories, you get the pleasure of turning them off and you start resting while the feeling of sadness and impotence fades away and the gratitude narratives of your privileges take over. You will consider to stop whining and to start sharing the structural and collective burdens. Ideas:

a) Reduce the workload of students and extend deadlines to help students in distress with their research projects or their life struggles (especially sharing your time with those you haven’t and with the ones you promised time, but never gave it).

b) These times give us an opportunity to reflect on action. Let evaluation reward action as much as theory. Let new theories emerge from practice. If all of us are in danger and possibly many of us are going to die no matter what IR keeps recommending for us, why should IR be immune to those insecurities?

c) Remember to keep cultivating your community rituals of healing. If you don’t know how to heal, google Feminist or Queer scholars of color for their perspectives on healing. Experiment and find out what works for your communal self.

d) The problem is not the virus, it is the indifference. Know where your community centers are and what they are doing. Offer yourself to them. Even in awful Academic cities of irresponsible youth, you can find them.

e) Yes, it is okay if the best thing you can do is give money, the point is to know to whom.

By now, it should be clear what the catch is. It means putting your body on the line. Caring asks from you to acknowledge how many bodies your body puts on the line every day. Nothing new. How much do you expect other people to be willing to die to save you if you get sick while you keep saying that your collaborations are analytical and experimental? Don’t get me wrong, keep doing science, we need science, we need your analytical skills and your experiments, but, during these times, as in almost all times, that is not enough. Also, it is unethical, but, it is hard to rely on ethics during these times.

Staying at home has a cost many prefer to forget in the name of safety. The whole point is that, if you keep waiting to be safe before you are willing to act, let me tell you something: no safety is enough in neoliberal times. It is the same in the time of COVID-19. Act… in the name of love, this time, and every time.

Keywords: #artivism #art #activism #aesthetics #ethics #community #COVID19 #autoethnography #love #dance #music

Julio César Díaz Calderón is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Political Science, University of Florida, where they hold a Fulbright-García Robles Fellowship. They are the son of Francisca Calderón Melo and Eucario Díaz Reyes and the brother of Karina Alejandra Díaz Calderón. Yes, comrade Emily! I’m Nobody! Who are you - reader - ? Are you - Nobody - too?

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