Scarlet Letters in the City



“...if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom...”

― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter


Am I the only one that sees malignancy in the tarps hanging outside homes declared to be in lockdown?


The first time I saw a home with that huge tarpaulin, which announced in huge, broad letters the words HOUSE LOCKDOWN, all capitalized, I saw two ancient honored notions crumbled before my eyes. These were the right to privacy as well as the sacred character of houses and the human beings inhabiting them.


On the said tarp, a symbol was designed showing a drawing of the outer structure of a house – that rectangle capped by a triangle to stand for a roof. Within the space of that “house” is a lock placed right onto the middle, the final bolt that will clamp down any possible action of movement or mobility. If still it is not clear what is being locked down, there are in two lines these words under the sign and they say: Bawal Maglaog/Bawal Magluwas (It is forbidden to go out/It is forbidden to enter).


The command is final and executory, if we are to go into legalese, the language of law and the language of lawyers. This is the language that, while intended to confirm the righteousness of an act, is the very same language that obfuscates, mystifies and nurtures for non-lawyer all semantic grid lock. No one finds consolation in this language except the lawyers who are imbued with the right to unlock the tremendous riddles at the expense of those who wish to understand what this society has deemed to be right and proper.


Standing before that house, as the day was darkening, I asked the most ignorant question for the pandemic: Is this ever legal?


The spread of the virus has guided the authorities to the cruel wisdom of lockdown. People who are afflicted but are not very sick and are not therefore dying need not be taken to hospitals; besides, hospitals are full of humans in near death or barely breathing bodies.


Vicious but wise is the idea of keeping the affliction at home. Let the people infect each other. Wait for death to come knocking because no law can ever stop Death when it arrives. For the moment, lock the house down. Announce the grip. Beware of outsiders; beware of insiders.


Realities and the here-and-now can make even the most preposterous proposals acceptable. Imagine yourself in another period, when diseases that could contaminate easily were all over the land. Imagine the time of the Spanish flu and the smallpox. Were there lockdowns?


Strangely, there are two ghosts that haunt me with homes being locked down. One is the ghost of Jeremy Bentham, the mind behind Utilitarianism. This theory rests on the foundation of consequentialism that shows how one’s consequences of action can bring about standards of right and wrong, or the assurance of the proper versus the inappropriate. In Utilitarianism, the interests of the many are upheld. If locking down therefore a space or a territory could benefit more, then lockdown – building boundaries – should be upheld.


The red tarpaulin of course brings back the ghost of an old novel, The Scarlet Letter. Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the book tells the story of a woman who gives birth to a child without the identity of the father being revealed. It is a story of how society lives by very rigid rules of society where there are actions not admitted as moral. And we are helpless before the mighty force of Society.


As a punishment for her crime, the woman has to wear a dress with the red letter embossed on the chest part of her dress.


Stigma and shame become the controlling power in this story. Affliction is announced. Bad health is forewarned. The virus is labeled, but not consequently controlled.


Immediately also, I finally realized that in times of pandemic, it is not the health agencies that become powerful, not even the local government but that age-old trait in us to expel and expulse, to hide, in so many ways, the disease that even in lockdown continues to kill our kin.