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Trying Social Distancing in a Brazil That Doesn’t Believe in Personal Space Boundaries

In Brazil, telling someone he's too close can be taken as an insult

Here in Brazil, like the rest of the world, we are under lockdown. Every time I leave my apartment, my wife insists I wear a mask. If I mention that two weeks ago they were telling us masks were pointless, she says, “Everything’s changed.”

As usual she’s right, especially when it comes to knowing what’s best for me, so I put on the mask and venture into the great outdoors, i.e. one step outside my apartment into the hallway.

A few weeks ago, when I saw people wearing masks, I thought, “This is out of control. People are overreacting. It’s foolish. It’s only a flu virus.”

Now I’m thinking, “Who are these idiots not wearing masks? Do they want this pandemic to last forever?”

I stop at the local pharmacy and the cashier is wearing a mask plus an impenetrably-stiff face shield. I want to ask her where she got it, but I don’t know how to say “face shield” in Portuguese.

Coping with the quarantine in a foreign country presents challenges besides translation. Social distancing in Brazil is extraordinarily difficult. Like in Spain and Italy, people don’t recognize personal space boundaries.

It’s impolite to hold a conversation, even with a stranger, unless you’re within arm’s length. Suggesting to someone that he’s standing too close, even on line, will be taken as a personal insult.

I haven’t yet succumbed to coronavirus paranoia, but I’m afraid others have. They’re circulating conspiracy theories that it’s better to get the virus and develop antibodies, and they’re looking for ways to infect themselves.

They also believe cellphone towers are weakening our immune systems and creating the ideal environment to spread the virus. In England, this idea has caught on and 50 cellphone towers have been destroyed. As Joseph Heller said in his book Catch-22, “Insanity is contagious.”

It will be weeks or maybe months before Brazil reaches its corona peak, by which time the economy will be in chilling collapse. I have trouble understanding the Brazilian craving for group get-togethers, but I sympathize with the micro business owners facing bankruptcy who are re-opening their shops too soon.

The pharmacies in Curitiba sold out of masks but small shops are selling them in various flowery designs, like the ones my wife ordered from the seamstress down the block who does our clothing alterations.

An enormous segment of Brazil’s workforce is self-employed. The informal economy may represent one third of the country’s GDP. With the quarantine only one month old, half of the entire working population has lost some or all of its income.

My wife is right. Everything has changed. It’s a surreal nightmare. I never could have imagined going for a stroll and seeing people wearing masks.

Perhaps it’s fun for some, but I’m not a fan of dystopia. Those stories harbor all the worst elements of science fiction. Strangers wielding masks is scary, especially white masks combined with dark sunglasses. My neighbors have metamorphosed into vampire hunters or apprentice invisible men.

Am I the only person who finds the mask uncomfortable? It chafes behind my ears and pulls them outward so I look like Prince Charles. If I’m wearing glasses or sunglasses, breathing through the mask fogs up my glasses.

My cloudy vision adds to the eerie atmosphere, reminding me of a movie scene with a young lady in misty 19th century London rushing home from the smelting factory before it’s time for Jack the Ripper to emerge.

Yesterday, I read a directive from the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. saying “facial coverings are not predominantly a measure to protect the wearer but rather to protect others from the wearer.”

Many with virus symptoms have yet to be tested. Others have been tested but not received the results. Still others can be asymptomatic.

Therefore, by wearing a mask I’m establishing myself as a martyr to the cause, protecting others from me, a corona Superman, preventing contagion through uncomfortable self-sacrifice. Superheroes, as we know, prefer wearing masks.

Now that I have a positive approach to the crisis, I’m wondering if there are other affirmative aspects, for example, new corona fashions. The face shields remind me of those worn by riot police. I’m not anticipating imminent riotous anarchy like the conspiracy nuts, but having an authority present in times of stress can be comforting.

Additionally, I’m enjoying the Brazilian, youthful, corona outfits of crop-tops with denim cutoffs combined with masks and gloves. The incongruity of masks and gloves coupled with exposed midriffs and legs is reminiscent of the unexpected imagination of the early Surrealists.

Delivery guys, who are now a pillar of the corona community, aren’t having any trouble adjusting to the new attire either. In Brazil, motoboys are accustomed to obeying the helmet laws while overlooking the traffic laws; working with hardshell helmets and facial visors isn’t a distraction. I watch them weave among cars while holding a phone in one hand checking their GPS for the next delivery.

This week I spotted a homeless woman who had obviously been camped out in the same location for a while. She had food and water and was propped up against boxes, sitting on a fat foam mattress and knitting.

While less pedestrian traffic will decrease the number of her donations, I imagine middle-class folks are feeling more generous these days, and the tally of cash and food contributions may not be much reduced for these unfortunate souls.

I wondered if people living on the streets are less upset by the lockdown than we are. No one chooses to be homeless, but at least they are spared the dilemma of being trapped thousands of miles away from home.

The agonizing stories of tourists and exchange students attempting to get home in this crisis are numerous. They demand their governments send jets to pick them up because there are no international commercial flights.

Unlike the homeless who have nowhere to go, or travelers who are trapped far from home, I’m content in my expat apartment, a home away from home. I have no appointments, and the internet is working well.

I lie on the couch all day binge-viewing Netflix, reading, and binge-eating. It’s an indoor vacation with lethargy praised as exemplary behavior. The license for laziness keeps me safe inside away from the surreal, invisible boogie man.

B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Brazil and a frequent contributor to Brazzil.com. His website is www.bmichaelrubin.com

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