Swiss writer badly hit by coronavirus reflects on the crisis

Swiss writer Jonas Lüscher was in intensive care for nine weeks with the coronavirus and says his lungs are still affected. Thomas Egli / lunax

Jonas Lüscher, 43, lay in a coma for seven weeks after contracting the coronavirus. The German resident says he is angered by people who downplay the virus. He also talks in this interview about how good literature can help our understanding of the crisis.

This content was published on August 29, 2020 minutes
Linus Schöpfer / SonntagsZeitung

Jonas, you had the coronavirus. How did the illness affect you?

I got it badly. On March 15, I jumped in at short notice to help out in the Munich municipal elections, working at a polling station and then counting ballots. That’s where I got infected. First I got the usual symptoms – a cough and high fever. After a positive test, I was transferred to the hospital. There the doctors diagnosed pneumonia and my condition deteriorated rapidly. I was put into an artificial coma and onto a ventilator. I was in a coma for seven weeks, in intensive care for a total of nine weeks, and in rehab for three weeks. My lung function is still somewhat limited and I am struggling with the usual side-effects of a long coma, but happily I haven’t suffered any cognitive damage.

How do you view the public debate after this experience?

I find it very strange to say the least that even immunologists are still publicly saying the coronavirus isn’t dangerous for healthy people under 45. This would probably have annoyed me even if I hadn’t been infected. Now it annoys me even more, because this downplaying of the risks is a denial of my whole sickness experience. I don’t belong to a risk group, I was healthy with no pre-existing conditions, and I am not yet 45. It’s clear why this line of argument is a comforting one: If the virus only affects the elderly and those already sick, then we can lock them in. But this is firstly wrong – it’s not only my coronavirus experience that shows this – and secondly, inhuman. And thirdly, it doesn’t work, as we have seen from the Swedish example. As for all the conspiracy theorists… these people are frankly a disaster.

Who is Jonas Lüscher?

Lüscher, born in 1976 in Zurich, is a Swiss writer living in Munich, Germany. He grew up in Bern, where he first trained and qualified as a primary school teacher. After several years as a script editor and screenwriter for the Munich film industry, he studied at the Munich School of Philosophy (2005-2009), also working as a freelance editor.

In 2011 Lüscher moved to the federal technology institute ETH Zurich, where he wrote a dissertation on the significance of narratives for the description of social complexity.  In 2012-2013 Lüscher was awarded a Swiss government grant, enabling him to spend nine months as visiting researcher in the comparative literature department at Stanford University in the US.

His first novel, Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), was nominated in 2013 for both the Swiss Book PrizeExternal link and the German Book PrizeExternal link. Acclaimed as a humorous satire, it centres on a culture clash between high finance and the value system of northwest Africa. He has won a number of awards for his work, including the Swiss Book Prize in 2017 for Kraft, which returns to the topic of neoliberal arrogance.

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Does the coronavirus reveal a greater evil? 

It would be a shame to miss the opportunity provided by this crisis to ask ourselves some fundamental questions. The pandemic is like a magnifying glass – it enlarges social imbalances that already existed and reveals the problems clearly. We have to ask whether an economic order that is so vulnerable because of its dependence on constant growth and unbridled consumption can still be considered sensible in the light of a pandemic. We also have to ask whether we shouldn’t fundamentally rethink our relationship with animals. And in view of the gigantic aid packages, we should think about who is carrying the biggest burden, who is the most vulnerable, and how we can share this burden more fairly. Once again, questions of wealth distribution and justice are paramount.

Are these questions being discussed at all?

No, astonishingly. But it’s pretty obvious that in this extraordinarily dramatic situation wealthy families like the Hoffmanns, the Oeris, the Brenninkmeijers and the Blochers should give up a billion or two. Even so, this discussion is not taking place. Everyone seems to hope that we can soon return to the pre-coronavirus era. It might be that in three or four years we’ll look back at 2020 and the coronavirus as just a distant, horrible memory, in the same way that many people can barely remember the 2008 financial crisis. But it’s also possible that our old normality will never return. And we’ll have to adapt.

You say redistribution of wealth is an important issue arising from the coronavirus crisis, but there is not necessarily an obvious connection.

Yes, there is, absolutely. The coronavirus crisis threw inequalities in our society into sharp relief. Anyone with a lovely villa complete with garden and swimming pool on the Zürichberg can seize the coronavirus crisis as a chance to slow down, no problem. Practice some yoga, or brush up their French. A single mother with two teenage sons living in a small rented apartment has a completely different experience of the crisis. Her life becomes more precarious because of the coronavirus. Yes, we do need to distribute money better.

Why is no one aware of this?

Because we have internalised the neo-liberal thinking of the last 30 years. We simply lack the imagination to conceive of a better world. Apparently, we still can’t imagine that carers deserve better pay and working conditions, even though their importance has become very obvious in the last months.

You are a Social Democrat. Your own coronavirus crisis – combined with society’s – seems to have strengthened your convictions.

Yes. This crisis is proof that we need a competent state. Just take a look at the US, which has completely broken down in the crisis: a weak welfare state, a miserable health system, a decaying infrastructure and incompetent people in key positions.

Not just Trump, but Bolsonaro and Johnson also look bad. Does the coronavirus spell an end to the era of populist dilettantes?

Of course this crisis is revealing. Trump and others like him clearly have no mastery of the basics of their administrations and no clue about crisis management. The question is whether their voters care at all – whether the reality can make an impression on their fanatical followers. In the case of Trump, one of these crazy interviews that he gives should be enough to convince anyone he is unelectable. The fact that Jair Bolsonaro escaped with a mild dose of coronavirus is a great shame in terms of the lessons that could have been learned. It seems to validate his “it’s just the flu” line.

Unlike Boris Johnson, who seems to have got it quite badly...

I read that his coronavirus illness has changed him and made him more reflective. That is of course good news in one way. On the other hand, it’s not acceptable that a politician only becomes sensitive to a problem after he is personally affected by it. If a prime minister has to get the coronavirus to acknowledge the problem then that makes him unequal to the task.

In your latest book, you say society undervalues story-telling and worships statistics. The coronavirus contradicts you: We need stats in order to understand the number of cases and probabilities.

On the surface, that appears to be the case. Yes, we need scientific precision in the coronavirus crisis, and epidemiology is indeed above all a statistical subject. But the question remains: What do we do with all these figures? We have to use them to develop a narrative. Figures alone don’t say anything. So we need narratives based on these figures – narratives that are enlightening and universal. The Berlin virologist Christian Drosten is a good example of a competent story-teller of science. His podcasts are nothing more than figures, which Drosten turns into understandable, careful and nuanced stories. Germany can count itself lucky to have a scientist like him. At the other end of the spectrum are the most stupid coronavirus stories of all – point-blank denial with conspiracy theories added to the mix.

At the peak of the first wave, apocalyptic coronavirus stories were also popular. Lukas Bärfuss, for example, predicted that Switzerland would suffer worse than Italy.

It’s always easy to mock “panic-mongerers”. Christian Drosten made this lovely observation: “There is no glory in prevention.” And that’s how it happens: A few people sound the alarm, so precautions are taken that mean it is not as bad as they warned – and they look like alarmists. However, if they hadn’t issued warnings and no precautions were taken and things got worse, they would presumably be accused of inaction by the same critics. And it wouldn’t have taken much: Let’s imagine the Basel Fasnacht carnival had taken place. The pandemic really could have caused as much damage here as it did in northern Italy.

You are convinced that literature can lead to a better understanding of the world. Will there be a big coronavirus novel that opens our eyes?

If the press soon starts announcing the big coronavirus novel, I think we can be sceptical. In most cases, those enormous expectations demand too much of books. One novel can’t deal with a subject like the coronavirus comprehensively. It’s more likely that there will be a web of creative narratives – films and songs, too – that emerge gradually and enable us to gain a more multifaceted, deeper understanding of the coronavirus. This doesn’t mean that terms such as “corona” or “viruses” are necessarily the explicit topic. It’s also about the impact of the pandemic on big human themes like “love” and “family.” In the same way that the good stories about the 2008 financial crisis – for instance, texts by Rainald Goetz or John Lanchester – dealt with the crisis implicitly.

In your books Barbarian Spring and Kraft, you also address the financial crisis and the crisis of neoliberalism. Is the coronavirus interesting literary material for you?

From a social perspective, yes. I won’t write about my own illness – or at least nothing that I will publish. But I am sure my writing will change in some way after the coronavirus – and I would imagine it’s the same for every serious author.

Coronavirus has consequences for the arts: concerts are barely possible any more and the same goes for big book readings, while many companies are on the brink of bankruptcy. Are we about to see devastation across the cultural landscape?

It’s a very critical moment, for sure. Much of what is disappearing now will not return. Small, subsidised enterprises will have a hard time. And many areas of cultural production are self-reliant – independent theatre, jazz, dance, but also literature. For many, it’s a hand-to-mouth existence. Most writers can’t live from sales of their books. They need readings, which are now cancelled. It’s particularly hard for those whose books were published in the middle of the lockdown. They may have worked five years on a novel that simply disappears into a black hole.

And what about the much-discussed book renaissance?

Hmm, I think a lot of people just did more streaming (he laughs). The bookshops were of course shut during the lockdown and couldn’t profit much from it. Perhaps one or two people took a book down from the shelf again. But anyone who didn’t read before the lockdown won’t have started reading during the lockdown.

What are your feelings as we head towards autumn and winter?

I am very worried. If we have to go into lockdown again, we will have a much higher price to pay. Economically of course, but socially too: single people who get lonely, families in small apartments, broken and violent relationships, unemployment…

And you personally?

I was lucky despite my bad luck – I would say I escaped with a very black eye. The doctors assume that I am immune to the virus for a while. I lead a privileged life in many respects – I have a spacious apartment, I am in a good relationship. I have a small financial cushion. I have it relatively good.

This article first appeared in SonntagszeitungExternal link on August 8, 2020, and has been reproduced here with permission.

Translated from German by Catherine Hickley.

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