The Pandemic and Images from the Bygone World

Mirna Šolić currently lives in Glasgow and teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. She studied in Zagreb (B.A. Hons.) and Toronto (M.A.; Ph.D.). During the last twenty years she has lived and worked in a number of places, including Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Scotland, and Slovakia (in alphabetical order). At this point she feels settled in Scotland and wonders what comes next.

As the pandemic made flying no longer possible, a car travel to Croatia from Scotland was the only way to reach my Croatian home. Traversing the continent was a truly therapeutic experience after almost nine weeks of lockdown, when one-hour daily strolls around a local park were the only opportunity to vent out what I thought was anger, but in reality was desperation at seeing how the invisible structures of the familiar world turned into a shapeless mesh. Driving on empty motorways helped me feel again that my two homes are interconnected and accessible. In Dover I was wondering why only East Europeans seemed to be boarding the ferry for the Continent. Did other people not attempt to cross over as well? I did not escape from Britain. My lockdown was comfortable because I have a garden and a job, but what made me entirely desperate was a huge loss of human lives, and enormous suffering of many. At the beginning of June 2020 Croatia seemed a much better place to be.

Being through the pandemic in Glasgow was a powerful emotional rollercoaster. My first symptoms appeared in mid-March. The worst was persistent cough, the type which keeps you awake at night, and exhausted during the day. I stopped taking my son to school a week before it was officially closed, as I felt ill and unable to drive. I was embarrassed of cough attacks in public, which I was trying to supress in order to avoid curious and compassionate looks from other parents. At that time, I also believed that coughing revealed my weaknesses, particularly that despite my very strong feeling of being at home in Glasgow an illness made me an outsider without any family around, who could help with school rounds.

On what now is a memorable Friday, 13 of March I was trying to explain to my GP over the phone that I had Covid-19, passed on to me by my son’s father visiting from Germany. The phone conversation was surreal as the entire medical issue turned into figuring out geographical coordinates and international affairs. I was trying to explain how bad it was in Germany, and how the situation across Europe was alarming, but the medical professional was adamant: my guest, who was in cold sweat and had difficulties breathing was not from China, so the possibility of Covid-19 was officially ruled out. What followed was a month-long survival on out-of-date codeine anti-cough pills which I stockpiled along with other medications from “back home,” and which at least helped me sleep. I guess my condition was not that bad after all because I have survived, but what remained was the feeling of fragility of facing the system increasingly out of touch from its immediate geographic surrounding, not just because of cancelled flights, but because of its lack of interest and engagement with the outside world.

In hindsight, the time spent in isolation made me evaluate the meaning of not only what I was temporarily deprived of, but also what I seemed to have lost permanently. I struggled to accept that the pandemic was equalled to war, that medical staff were heroes, hospitals frontlines of defence, and the threat similar to that in Dunkirk or Pearl Harbour. Geographies and times conflated, chronology no longer made sense, and everybody was just trying to explain the unexplainable by relying on any comparison they found useful. The present suddenly became the past, and perhaps the most valid, but paradoxically the most unreliable response to the crisis were memories, which even in normal circumstances shape our attitudes, and make us search for alternative imagery and a possibility of escape. I was noticing how photographs from childhood kept on popping up on social networks and generating “likes” from followers. At the beginning of March, the time which coincided with the onset of my illness, my acquaintance posted a photograph of nurses smiling in front of a humble tiny children’s ward, dated from 1964. It was there that I was born before it was demolished and became part of a modern hospital, the exact architectonical copy of numerous others popping across Yugoslavia.

That photograph triggered memories, and many other images which I thought were long forgotten. I wish I could have posted a photograph of a nurse who we called auntie Milena, but I did not have one. She was a red-hair woman with a wide face who came to our school to talk us through the basic hand hygiene, explaining to us children why soap bubbles matter. Such vivid memories were more telling than simplified and ideologically charged language of the leaders in charge of the situation, urging us to take control over saving lives which they seemed not to be saving.

At that time reports started emerging on the theme of how countries with pro-socialist leaders, or with socialist heritage, such as Cuba, Indian Kerala, or the Czech Republic, managed to curb the pandemic successfully, but their success was almost always described as a blend of relentless and authoritarian practices and a natural resistance of local population due to harsh living conditions. In reports about the so called Eastern Europe the dominant narrative was “East European response to Covid-19,” suggesting that the region’s success in curbing the virus was due to local people’s resilience to hardship, centuries-long lack of resources, suffering, as well as war-related trauma. “East Europeans” responded so well to the pandemic for the reason that their world has been in perpetual state of crisis anyway, and they were on stand-by. Hence Eastern Europe was somehow blessed with suddenly acquired biological resistance to the virus, which seemed to be lacking in the West. Also, they treated the virus as they treat outsiders: as an alien which needs to be eradicated. And while I was debating such stereotypes on Facebook, and with readers of my article on this topic, in order to figure out if my instincts alarming me how inaccurate this was were any valid, I was getting feedback from people who argued the same, and who sensed that what we felt at that moment was not anxiety based on fear of the virus, or temporary restrictions imposed by the lockdown, but a sense of the existential loss and impossibility of explaining two issues. On one hand it was why the response was so efficient, and, on the other, what actually went wrong with our lives and histories as such.

For me, looking at the pandemic through the prism of my own war experience made me think not about the war, but remembering the pre-war world, particularly through my mother’s stories about Yugoslavia. My mother was a paediatrician, and I often used to sit in her surgery after school, waiting for her to finish work so that we can do grocery shopping and go home. I remember how at one occasion an unhappy parent was complaining about waiting times and was criticising her for taking what seemed to be a lot of time for examining a child. She turned to him and said: “I’ll take as much time as I need to examine my patients, and you won’t tell me how long it’ll take.” And that was exactly what she did. During the war she remained the same, adhering to the same professional and human standards, just like many others. People from different walks of life and different parts of the country would come to her surgery run for employees of Yugoslav and, after the country fell apart, Croatian Railways, conveniently located by the main railway station in Zagreb. These also included victims of war-time atrocities, but also odd cases, for instance a father who came to thank her for fantastic care, before saying goodbye as he was leaving for good, to fight “for the other side.” She treated him with grace, as that was perhaps the only thing she could do while watching how her own country and her own world were falling apart. I wanted to believe that these memories, or rather living images, were something of a personal importance only for me, idealised projections of my younger days, but in the situation in which I felt physically and mentally disconnected from the world I knew, they made me realise that returning to those times for answers and comfort was not only a sign of a completely natural need for protection, but something larger, an attempt of explanation of something that we have inevitably lost.

The stories she told me were not based on hardship, trauma, and resilience, but about individuals from Yugoslavia who, just like many other European nations, from the European East and the European West (instead of ideologically imposed Eastern and Western Europe) grew up with the ideas of social justice in the post Second World War world, about the society embracing simple and far-reaching initiatives tailored to provide accessible health services to all. This was done through a solid and robust system of primary care, health education, which tenets were, as one colleague recently wrote, in promotion and access to health in communities rather than surgeries, as suggested by Andrija Štampar, an internationally prominent public health scholar of Croatian origin, who contributed to the creation of the World Health Organisation, and whose ideas were followed in Yugoslavia. Photographs taken in hospital settings on different occasions, especially those of her as a young doctor, have remained a remnant of that time (my mother is sitting in the first row, third from the left):

My mother often used to recall how as a young doctor in Yugoslavia she was regularly sent to run-down villages without electricity and often without running water in order to vaccinate and examine children. On such occasions she would often end up providing medical support to entire families and neighbours, joining them afterwards for a family meal. She used to say how doctors were not only supposed to be medical practitioners, but also educators and social workers, responsible for the well-being of the society, which was in line with what she was taught in medical school, and in the memory of Štampar’s legacy. And public health, which was so cherished after the Second World War, was not something the state ideology could that easily interfere with by replacing medical experts with bureaucratic cadre. In fact, somebody argued that many people, who for political reasons could not study humanities, found their niche in medicine.

My parents were immensely proud of the country eradicating polio, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, with artefacts of these actions being scattered around the house, as was this stamp, which was issued by Yugoslav Post in commemoration of fight against tuberculosis, which I found just recently stuck in between two books behind a glass door of my mom’s bookshelf:

They were proud that asthmatic children were offered fully subsidised Adriatic holidays, that top quality immunisation jabs were sold around the world, that they were able to share their expertise with other non-aligned but also Western countries, the progress they witnessed and contributed to, health and education benefits they gained, and respect in the world they had. The world, which was far from perfect, but which was tailored for humans, with well-equipped hospitals and labs, vaccination programmes, changing for better in front of their eyes, emerging from the destruction of the Second World War. It was not about being on stand-by in traumatised and frozen state of mind due to perpetual hardships of history, or natural resilience, but about invisible everyday practices, believing in and imagining a better future. I recently read a speculative study how East Europeans may be more resistant to Covid-19 because of tuberculosis vaccination programme, which is now abolished in the West. I cannot comment on medical side of thing, but I do think it was more about attitudes towards public health, the psychology behind alertness, prevention, and well-being rather than the vaccination itself.

In Britain, people are so proud of NHS, which in affection they call “theirs,” to the point when being critical of NHS equals blasphemy. A thank you message to NHS was the last thing I saw before I boarded the ferry from Dover to Dunkirk. A sign of gratitude, of recognition, of pride.

But when I hear the phrase “our NHS” I remember our own equivalents which these days we so successfully degrade, and which, in already three decades long national narratives of the post-Yugoslav states, are frequently dismissed as unwanted heritage of socialism. What I see in their affection for NHS is something we have managed to lose, the remnants of tradition which still so powerfully re-emerges in the times of crisis, the time when now long-neglected and shabby hospitals and primary care units opened during the time of socialist Yugoslavia come to the fore as crucial for national well-being. But how should we name this unnamed “ours,” and is there any abbreviation which could sum up one wonderful tradition and make it recognisable to the others? Naming matters because it tells the story of identity. And self-respect, awareness of our own values and abilities, which we seem to have lost.




One thought on “The Pandemic and Images from the Bygone World

  1. Pingback: Photographs, Yugoslavia, pandemics – Patristics 1954

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