The COVID Files: A Conversation with Paulina Spinoso

Paulina Spinoso is a psychologist and professor of philosophy. She has served as both deputy director of the psychology program and coordinator of the philosophy program at the University of Business and Social Sciences (UCES) in Buenos Aires, and has taught at the UCES, the University of Palermo, the University of Belgrano, and the Argentine Social Museum (USAM). She has written and published on a number of topics, from psychoanalysis in the hospital setting to the cultural significance of tango in Argentina.

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(Vance) Tell me about your personal experience of the Covid pandemic. How has it impacted your daily life, your professional activities?

(Paulina) It didn’t happen from one day to the next, and we were already aware that something was wrong, but the pandemic really registered with me on March 14, 2020, when the people who organize milongas [tango events]–events that I love to attend–decided to suspend them. That same day a group of friends and I had theater tickets and we had to return them. That was the most “shocking” thing, that activities that once seemed natural to us, joyful even, suddenly became dangerous; not a slight or even a moderate danger, but a matter of life or death.

I teach philosophy at two universities and classes were just starting–I remember talking with the students in that first face-to-face class, which was also my last. The government decided to offer the classes virtually and I, partly because of my age and partly because of my resistance to technology, decided to hand off my teaching responsibilities to the adjuncts in my department, who are younger than I am. I miss meeting with the students, but I am relieved not to have to learn these new methods; also at not having so many daily obligations, waking up early, holding to schedules, and other things like that.

At first, I was quite cloistered because I belong to an “at-risk population,” not due to previous illness, but because of my age (I celebrated my 74th birthday during the pandemic). Of course, there were things I lost: going to the theater, milongas, get-togethers, dinner outings with friends, and going for walks, which is one of my favorite things.

I also gained some things, unusual things that I had been postponing. For example, I was able to engage in a more or less systematic reading of Argentine literature–such as the literature of the gaucho, which had always been on my to-do list. I took courses via Zoom, something I never had time to do before. I used my resources to help me face the new situation. My ideas about the necessary and the superfluous changed a lot. I don’t need to buy more clothes–although I regret the loss of jobs in that sector; on the other hand, the ability to maintain friendships, for example, is very necessary.

To this point, the degree of confinement has varied greatly given the changing circumstances–the arrival of summer, the rise and fall of contagion rates, the various health policies adopted by the government. Now I take yoga classes in Parque Centenario, or go out to eat with friends…with, of course, the appropriate precautions, although I have already received both doses of the vaccine and a flu shot.

“Staying at home”–I prefer that expression over “confinement”–doesn’t make me feel alone, although I do live alone–sometimes I do feel alone, of course, but it has nothing to do with the pandemic. I talk on the phone with my friends; fewer obligations mean these conversations can be longer. I participate in Zoom gatherings with my film group, gatherings we used to hold at a friend’s house, or with Resistencia Milonguera, a special interest tango collective to which I belong, and also with many people who are directly involved in the tango industry, and are trying to solve the cultural and labor-related problems posed by the inability to work during the pandemic. I watch movies (many), I read (less than I would like, but as one psychoanalyst pointed out recently in a newspaper column, it seems this is a common complaint). I also write; I really enjoy that. Lately, I have been writing “Ephemera”–tributes to our nation’s great tango artists–for Resistencia Milonguera.

Of course, all of this takes place alongside uncertainty, anguish, and sadness about the situation. Very early on, a friend of mine who was hospitalized around the corner from my house died of COVID, as did the husband of a neighbor in my building, and, very recently, Horacio González, a point of reference among Argentine intellectuals and a man whom I admired very much. In short, although all deaths matter, those that put faces to names tend to affect us more.

As a philosopher–my own professional affliction–I try to reflect on and read about this new situation. Early into the pandemic, I read Sopa de Wuhan [Wuhan Soup], published by a group of Argentine intellectuals, ASPO (Aislamiento Social Preventivo y Obligatorio) [Preventive and Obligatory Social Isolation]. Just yesterday I bought a new book by various authors, titled Desafíos en pandemia [Challenges of the Pandemic], which I expect will be interesting.

At the moment, I am trying to enjoy the reopening a little more–always taking precautions–trusting in the progress of vaccination efforts, and waiting for spring to arrive.

“Today we enter our thirtieth day of quarantine, and most days we don’t even know which one it is. The news, on television or the radio, overwhelms; almost no one watches or listens anymore. Ma’am how have you spent your quarantine, is there anything you’d like to say, or so-and-so said wear your masks, don’t go outside, if you’re 70 years old or more get a permit. We want to be informed, but when we change the channel or move the dial, everyone echoes everyone else, trying to scoop the others or say it better than they can, even while it’s evident that no one has any idea who’s right.”

Rosa Monfasani, Crónicas en tiempos de pandemia (2021; my translation)

(Vance) You mentioned that you live in the El Abasto area of Buenos Aires, which is heavily associated with the visual and culinary arts, tango culture, and other forms of social intercourse. What impact has Covid had on the life rhythms of your neighborhood?

(Paulina) How interesting that you are familiar with El Abasto. There are many Abastos, existing in overlapping and/or interlocking layers. There are remnants of the old Abasto, that of the wholesale fruit and vegetable market [which operated from 1893-1984]. There is the Abasto of the 1990s, when the market became a shopping mall, and luxury hotels, supermarkets, and new, taller buildings were built around it. In this Abasto, tango is for tourists. There is the Abasto of the collectivities: Sephardic Jews, occasional Russians, Bolivians, Peruvians, Senegalese. Yes, and the Abasto of true tango culture: Carlos Gardel’s residence is in our neighborhood, and there are several milongas [tango venues]–few, perhaps, considering the neighborhood’s renown. There are also cultural centers, theaters, small art galleries (a relatively new addition to the neighborhood). Finally, and most recently, there is the Abasto of the nightlife, where young people meet for dinner, or a beer with friends.

Regarding the pandemic’s impact here, the things I mentioned before also apply to El Abasto. Businesses and supermarkets are open, but with precautionary measures in place; the neighborhood’s street fair is a good place to shop outdoors; cultural centers and restaurants also manage their activities in the open air. Parks like the Centenario are used for gatherings and celebrations. So, the street remains busy, but, as the health authorities suggest, in ways that keep people from crowding together indoors, although, as I also mentioned, these protocols are not always strictly observed.

(Vance) Since the beginning of 2020, what are the most significant changes you have seen in your immediate surroundings? In the city of Buenos Aires? In Argentina as a whole?

(Paulina) As José Ortega y Gasset would say: “I am myself and my circumstances,” so part of the answer to this question is in my response to the previous question. However, a single, comprehensive reply is difficult for me, for several reasons.

Moments in time: There were times when people went out only out of necessity and the streets appeared strangely empty, the shops closed, some definitively. Then there were times, like now, in which the level of activity returned almost to normal, with a few differences: for example, face coverings are now universal, hand sanitizer is available everywhere, the number of customers allowed concurrently in banks and businesses is limited…and there are certain activities that have yet to resume, such as milongas (at least the official ones; there are some that have been organized on the sly).

Generations: All the above applies to the daytime hours. At night, it is different. The city is taken over by the younger generations. I don’t intend this in a pejorative sense, but I also don’t know if they take the necessary precautions. In fact, I rather doubt that they do.

The everyday and the extraordinary: When things happen that are out of the ordinary, such as the death of Diego Maradona or Argentina’s championship victory in the Copa América, the enthusiasm of the people often overwhelms precaution and they celebrate together en masse with no care for social distancing. These occasional bouts of death-defying enthusiasm are quite curious; as it is also curious that these events tend to be soccer-related (although Diego’s importance to us transcends the merely soccer-related).

Degree of impact: I am retired, I am relatively healthy and I do not have either elderly or children to care for. In a way, this is a privilege. There are those, such as health personnel, whose workload has increased dramatically, as well as those who have either lost their jobs or suffered a reduction in hours and are consequently experiencing financial difficulties, or who have family members who are ill. For these people, the pandemic worsens an already difficult situation. Everyone experiences these things differently.

Attitudes and interpretations: As has been the case around the world, in Argentina there are many people in denial. There are also those who believe that the pandemic is a ploy concocted by those bent on world domination, that vaccines transmit ideology, and other things like that. Luckily, many of these thought processes are not internally consistent, and despite what they claim to believe, these people get vaccinated anyway. Others completely refuse. They believe that “vaccination = genocide.” It seems unbelievable, but I saw this formula painted on a wall. These individuals classify themselves as “libertarians,” understanding liberty as being free to remain unvaccinated or to move about at will, infecting others or becoming infected themselves.

Politics: It is a shame, but in our country a situation like the pandemic, in which we might expect community to take precedence over partisan conflict, the opposition–which is quite aggressive–is willing to adopt any position, so long as it runs contrary to that of the governing party. This makes things very difficult.

(Vance) I am interested in your opinion as a psychologist; the pandemic will leave us all with some level of post-traumatic stress, expressed in one form or another. In Argentina, what do you think the long-term effects of this phenomenon will be?

(Paulina) I think it’s accurate to say “everyone,” because that’s what a pandemic is all about. This was a catastrophe. There are psychologists who focus on these situations, not only as a field of study, but as care-givers for people in such circumstances. Here we call this specialty “Emergencies and Catastrophes.” I wish these professionals could be more involved, but they are probably not completely prepared for a situation like this. They deal with fires, accidents, train derailments, floods, earthquakes; events that are both more limited and more spectacular. This situation is different: quieter, longer, more diffuse, less visible.

There are several issues that must be considered prior to answering your question:

1. We talk as if there will be an “after”–thus the use of the word “post-pandemic”–although this is by no means certain.

2. The experience of trauma involves some unexpected stressor, the degree of impact of which depends to a large extent on how well prepared an individual is to incorporate it, based on the resources available to him or her. Identical experiences affect different people in different ways.

3. The pandemic was not a lightning strike on a sunny day. We were all already immersed in many stressful situations which also prompted different reactions, and which familiarity had already rendered relatively inconspicuous. At the global and social level: serious ecological problems, growing inequality, open or underground conflicts, racism, migration, and exile; at the personal or family level: mental illness (depression, psychotic conditions, psychosomatic illnesses, addictions) or physical illness (cancer, heart disease, disabilities), family dysfunctions, and the generalized ills that, because they are so common, do not seem pathological, such as the colonial subjectivity upon which the global consumer society is built, or our voluntary subjection to the media and the consequent inability to distinguish fact from falsehood, or the imaginary from the genuine.

I say all this because, even supposing we ever arrive at a post-pandemic world, we will still have to deal with these things, with the added turmoil of the post-traumatic. Surely there will be “some level of post-traumatic stress.” There will probably be an early euphoria–perhaps a bit manic (rushing to travel, to dance, to eat out again)–but at some point we will have to face our loss in terms of lives (for instance, will the the families of the dead hold “delayed” funeral ceremonies, and what will they look like?). Surely it will not be as if nothing had happened (that would be the worst possible outcome). It will be necessary to rethink work situations and related activities: what will it be like to return to in-person classes after two years of remote education?; will educational institutions use this as an excuse to eliminate jobs?). These are the contexts I know best, but surely things will change in all professions, likely for good. We could see it as an opportunity: trade unions have begun to talk about reducing working hours. That is to say, more people with more to do, fewer people unemployed or overworked. The self-employed or workaholics would have the chance to recover whatever part of their being was previously lost to the workplace.

For each one of us, there will be work to do on a personal level, learning to accept the uncertainty–which may be more evident now, but when was anything ever really certain?–of the human condition, our own vulnerability and the need we each have of “common-unity”–as we say here, “no one can save himself”–and the inevitability of loss. This is a task for the “after,” but in many ways we are already doing that work–or not–right now.

Besides the things I’ve already mentioned, there are certain behaviors I’ve been struck by during these times:

1. The inability to postpone things or give them up altogether. For example, concern that young people might have to forgo “their holidays, or their classes, or their parties and class trips,” as if these things had been somehow guaranteed by God at the dawn of time. As if they were inalienable rights that society has an obligation to protect.

2. Submission to the imperatives of the superego. Lacan defined the superego as that which governs enjoyment and consumption, accompanied by the assumption that someone else is to blame for our limitations, which are therefore not understood as simply part of our reality. The result is narcissism cloaked in libertarianism: “I will not be imposed upon.”

Obviously, those who have lived the pandemic in this way will find the “post-traumatic” more difficult to navigate.

(Vance) The rollout of the COVID vaccine has been a complicated process in Argentina as in the United States, although perhaps for different reasons. Between political, commercial, and socioeconomic issues, it is not necessarily the case that everyone who wants the vaccine has access to it. What do you think of this problem? What, if any, social conflict has this caused? How do official efforts to encourage vaccination clash with the reality of vaccine shortages?

(Paulina) The fact that the pandemic has become fodder for political gamesmanship has made things more difficult. However, it’s not exactly surprising, either. The teachings of the Stoics are very pertinent here: “It is not the things themselves that affect us, but the opinions we have about those things.” I wish it were easier for us to encounter reality directly, and it is necessary that we make the effort, but this truth expressed by the philosophers in part defines the reality we encounter. Sociologists might say that what people think about what happens is part of what happens. Ideology and opinions are both part of the same conceptual world.

I already mentioned the resistance to the Sputnik vaccine. It was rumored that it secretly implanted a microchip, that it spread ideology, that it was evil, etc. Everyone talked–and still does–about the “Russian” vaccine, invoking communism and the Soviet Union, as if it were not common knowledge that the USSR ceased to exist a long time ago. Government officials were maligned, an accusation of poisoning was made, and terms such as “infectatorship” were coined. I find it somewhat amusing that Marx–who failed in so many of his predictions–was correct in his assertion that “a ghost haunts the world,” because here we continue to stir up the specter of communism anytime anything carries the slightest hint of social solidarity.

With Pfizer, long and complicated negotiations began early and ended only recently in an agreement. From the outset, there was official acceptance of Pfizer regardless of where it came from, as demonstrated, very early on, by the tests performed with volunteers at the Argentine Military Hospital. Later, there was noncompliance by Pfizer, along with overly burdensome demands involving corporate liability waivers and the offering of Argentine national assets as collateral. (Did they make these demands of all countries to which they sold the vaccine? Were the conditions they placed on us ideologically motivated? I don’t know; it would be interesting to find out). Finally, though, an agreement was reached, and now we are here. Understandably, people who love their homeland would find these demands difficult to tolerate, but vaccination is a priority for this government. People accuse the president of having “fallen in love with the pandemic,” while those in the opposition have said things like “let the ones who must, die” and “it’s just a little flu.”

As far as the vaccination program is concerned, it is based on priority: the elderly, at-risk populations, health personnel, and now young people, who seem most susceptible to the Delta variant. It is true that we cannot stage a universal vaccination campaign because there are not currently enough doses for all those who want to be vaccinated. It is also true that there are people who favor direct purchase by pharmacies from laboratories, at whatever price, and that the vaccines be marketed on an individual basis so that those who have the means can purchase them privately. Some level of social conflict may exist between these people and those who–for any of the reasons mentioned above–receive them for free and before they become available to everyone else.

There are also provinces, such as Córdoba, where there are more vaccines than people who want them; the anti-vaccine narrative has really taken hold there. It is also one of the provinces with the highest rates of infection.

Here is an example of the contradictions that plague the official response to the pandemic: in the City of Buenos Aires, as the Minister of Health insists that we are facing a new and serious danger, the Chief of Government is doing away with social distancing in the schools (previously, they had been required to maintain a meter and a half of distance between students). I read something that seems to me to describe well what is being done in the city: “just when the fire is beginning to ebb, they throw on another twig.”

The most problematic aspect of all this is that a universal humanitarian catastrophe is being treated in a way that is blatantly partial and subject to the laws of the market. Vaccines should be considered artifacts of global material and cultural heritage. Instead, their development has become a matter of competition between private laboratories that sell them at a high price and favor countries with greater economic wherewithal or ideological affinities. Understandably, it doesn’t make me happy that we are last among the first–because, after all, the vaccination program is making progress–but it makes me even less happy to be first among the last–because this means that there are countries that are much worse off than we are. This saddens me very much. I have no sympathy for individuals who believe they should have priority of vaccination just because they have the money to pay for it themselves, nor do I sympathize with countries that adopt the same attitude.

Increasing inequality, which was an issue well before COVID, has been exacerbated further by the pandemic; unequal access to vaccines is proof of this fact. Today, I read a comment that seems fair to me: “the production and availability of vaccines is linked to geopolitical issues that outstrip the will of a country like ours.”

You ask whether “official efforts to encourage vaccination clash with the reality of vaccine shortages.” I would suggest to you that they do and they do not. They do not, because the answer is a coherent vaccination program based on the availability and efficient delivery of vaccines; they do, because that availability is contingent upon extrinsic obstacles that are intrinsic to our peripheral condition in the world.

How do we deal with those contingencies? The way we deal with all such things in life: we struggle and endure.

(Vance) This is only one crisis among many in Argentina, but it is qualitatively different, more restrictive than a political or economic crisis, and in different ways. What impact do you think this will have on the national psyche? How does the country recover from this?

(Paulina) I must confess that I find it a bit difficult to accept that my country is exceptional in this regard. It is true that we have experienced many crises, and this one is exceptional for us as it is for everyone. But in the United States, did the Trump administration not end in crisis, is there no ongoing crisis in regard to racial discrimination, have there been no crises in the banking system?

(Vance) Your point about the universality of crisis is well taken; it’s been a pretty rough couple of years here in the United States, and from what I can see there is little sign of change on the horizon. I suppose that the distinction I’m trying to make between this country and Argentina is not the experience itself of crisis, but the way in which crisis is experienced. In the United States, we seem to have a greater psychological need to dissemble our experience of crisis, a need which has been greatly challenged during this particular crisis by the mere fact of its global nature. Our customary way of distracting ourselves from an unpleasant moment has been to compare ourselves with the rest of the world (we may struggle with racism here, but in Iraq…; we are dealing with drought and terrible wildfires here, yes, but in Ethiopia…; etc.). In the present situation, we don’t have that safety valve, because throughout much of the pandemic the rest of the world has been able to compare itself favorably to us. I think that has been the most significant blow to our national psyche in these times.

(Paulina) I appreciate your willingness to tell me about your own personal experiences. You reminded me of a saying of our poet, Leopoldo Marechal: “The fatherland is a pain in one’s side.” Each of us has regrets about the state of our homelands, and sometimes, as you say, it is tempting to say, yes, but we aren’t as bad as some. The point is not to rejoice in the predicaments of others but to share ourselves with them…even if all we have to share is vulnerability.

(Vance) In an article published on July 14, 2021, La Nación announced that the death toll from Covid in Argentina had grown to over 100,000. This is a discouraging milestone; it is also far from a final tally, since between 200 and 300 new deaths are still being reported every day. Under the circumstances, how does one sidestep despair, how does one maintain a semblance of optimism? You suggested that if we neglect the lessons the pandemic has taught us, history will simply repeat itself. What will have to change in order for us truly to take advantage of what we have learned from all this (assuming we’ve learned anything at all)?

(Paulina) If our interactions with reality are mediated by our opinions and those of others, it is worth considering the process by which those opinions are formed, often called the “construction of common sense.” While a person often “loves his opinions more than himself,” as Lacan says, the greatest error lies in believing that they truly belong to us. As the passage continues, “of the unconscious we do not speak, we are spoken.” “Mass” media–the term itself deserves attention–performs a fundamental role in this process, since it is they who are speaking to us.

Let’s take this in stages:

The article references the 100,000 dead, a shocking figure the actual weight of which would be no different if it were 99,999 or 100,001, but it serves to produce just that: a shock.

Forgive me another philosophical reference: the Frankfurt School long ago posited that, in a consumer society, “all cultural production takes the form of merchandise.” News is a commodity, and it is sold by the same or similar means as any other product–novelty, impact.

I recently bought and read a very interesting book by Laurent de Sutter, Indignation totale, which is subtitled Ce que notre addiction au scandale dit de nous [What our addiction to scandal says about us]. There is a cycle in motion that I try to avoid, though not always successfully: the search for the scandal du jour. The media take up a topic for one day, morning to night, never really getting past a superficial treatment, with the sole intention of filling us with indignation, and then, the next day, they move on to something new.

“100,000 dead” lends itself very well to this cycle. It also allows for attribution of blame to only one bad actor–Covid-19–when in reality there are many of them, including a denial-ridden, anti-vaccine, anti-restriction media regime. The media are never going to acknowledge their role in this process. They are always only reporters, shielded by their supposed neutrality.

Umberto Eco spoke of the “Santa Claus effect,” the idea that people don’t believe what advertising says–do you really believe that “life with Coca Cola is better”?–but they do believe in advertising itself.

Something very striking is happening. Many people believe media personalities who blatantly lie, or blatantly contradict themselves. It is as if one were to say: “I do not believe what you say–that would be stupid–but I still accept it as valid.” “Lie more to me; your wickedness makes me happy,” as a famous bolero says.

You speak of “despair,” you are looking for just a “semblance” of optimism. Well, I don’t feel that tone represents either my attitude or that of many of my fellow Argentines. Which is not to say we’re “optimistic.” Another book that I would recommend is Hope without Optimism, by Terry Eagleton.

Yesterday, a Sunday, I went to yoga in the Parque Centenario, performed a small ceremony for the Día de la Pachamama [the Incan “Earth Mother], and went out with a friend to eat asado at a parrilla–always with face coverings and hand sanitizer in tow. We didn’t feel desperation, nor did the people with whom we crossed paths. True, perhaps not everyone took sufficient precautions, which goes far towards explaining the high infection rate. That night, I attended my Zoom meeting with my film group. We felt concerned, preoccupied with the pandemic, but not desperate.

This brings to mind a phrase–this is beginning to feel like free association, yes?–which is maliciously applied to the Left (there is some truth to this), but which these days seems more applicable to the Right: “They wake up sad and go to bed furious.” In order to escape this dynamic, they would have to start watching different networks and reading different newspapers.

All of this must, of course, be weighed against what I told you at the beginning of our conversation: not all life situations are the same. There are other people on whose lives despair has a real bearing.

I just read an article by an Argentine essayist, Alejandro Kaufman, who, in reference to his refusal to predict the future, says: “There is a reason that the great religions rejected fortune-telling and distinguished it from prophecy, that age-old means of interrogating the present.” By this logic, the prophecy most suitable to this present moment would be one that calls attention to the fact that if we–the world–do not face the problems mentioned above, which preceded and perhaps even led to the pandemic, we cannot expect much improvement in the future.

“The pandemic violates us in that it reduces us to numerals. The only way we can know what is happening is to count the deaths. A paradoxical situation occurs: we need to know how many people are dying but, at the same time, this process of counting trivializes death and desensitizes us to it. One way or another, these were preventable deaths that we nevertheless were unable to prevent. In the context of globalization, the tally is global, continuous, and in real time, which generates a kind of constant panic. Everything we can do to mitigate and assuage these situations is as valuable as it is necessary. For the media to act as a witness, to recover the testimonies and life stories of the deceased, would be a very positive effort.”

Alejandro Kaufman, Entrevista con Pablo Esteban, Ciencia, comunicación y política (21 Junio, 2021; my translation)

© Vance Woods

For Spanish version, click here!

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