Storms brewing over Los Palos. Photo credit: Tony Kent

Letter to coronavirus

In Timor-Leste’s national language, Tetun, dadolin murak means golden verse. It is also the pen name of one of the young nation’s leading poets. Preferring to remain anonymous, and frequently engaging with challenging issues relating to gender, the environment and history, over the past five years Dili based Dadolin Murak has emerged as the voice of the post-independence generation and a leading figure in the development of a growing body of Tetun language literature. As well as many short stories and poems Dadolin Murak has recently published two volumes of poetry, Who is this Woman to You (Se mak Feto ba O), and Referendum Candle (Lilin Referendu).
 
On the 24th of March Dadolin Murak responded to ominous news that an individual in Timor-Leste had been diagnosed with with Corona Virus by penning a ‘letter to COVID-19’ and posting it on Facebook. Although there have, as of the 14th of April, been only four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in in Timor-Leste far more are suspected. The national leadership remains wrought by a protracted power struggle, and although the state and citizens alike are doing what they can to ensure that the virus does not get a foothold, there is an awareness that their capacity is limited. Should it begin to spread widely life-saving medical care will not be available to the vast majority of people who need it.
 
Against this background of anxiety and confusion Dadolin Murak’s letter struck a chord among the poet’s many young followers, and to date has been shared more than 1000 times. Though of value as a work of literature in its own right, it is may also be of interest to foreign readers in so far as it gives a sense of the tendency in Timorese intellectual life to perceive (and seek to address) social and environmental issues as essentially linked. For most Timorese the natural world is home to all manner of sentient ancestral and elemental spirits, and although their presence is vital to the cycles of life, when neglected or hurt their wrath can be terrible. As readers of this poem will see Timor is not a place where the social, spiritual and scientific are easily separable—a way of being in the world too often missed or discounted by foreign commentators and development actors but essential to understanding its public discourse and political life.
The following is not a literal translation. In seeking to render the spirit and sound of Dadolin Murak’s letter into English I found myself having to make a number of difficult decisions about which parts to include, and where additional text needed to be added in order to make it accessible and coherent. Although these modifications have been checked and approved by the author of the original, any mistakes are my own.
Dr Michael Rose

Olá Corona (Covid-19),

I see that you’ve been working hard these days. Wuhan, Italy, Indonesia. And now you’ve come to my beloved land Timor-Leste like you have to so many others.

This is not a friendly letter. You’re like the black storm clouds that block us from seeing the moon. You are like wild seas that prevent us from being seeing the safety of the beach and threatens to pitch us into the depths. I write to you with anguish and anger, sadness and tears.

Last night, before I slept, I sat outside alone. I looked up at the stars and asked them, ‘what do you know about Corona?’ They were silent. They didn’t know. But they could see that no one was gathering beneath them as they used to. They could hear that no one was singing or chatting with their friends as they had before. They were sad too. Even the kakuk bird roosting in the branches of the samatuku tree seemed dour. I went inside eventually but couldn’t sleep. Before dawn I rose again and waited in the dark fog to ask the sun.

‘Sun‘, I whispered, ‘what do you know about this Corona? How can you help us in this time?’ The sun silently rose into the sky with nothing to say to me, or so I thought, until a butterfly fluttered into the garden and set itself down on a rose. It beat its wings and looked up at me as if to say ‘calm yourself. Remember that the world is still beautiful’.

‘The cool winds will still blow’ it seemed to say. ‘The waves will continue to lap at the beach. The roosters will continue to crow in the mornings.‘ It was daytime now. How grateful I was to have received this butterfly, its message like a prayer to nature.

Corona, I’m telling you this so you can know how difficult you’re making things for us.

I believe you see the misery you’ve caused throughout the world, people wailing over their dead. In China, in Italy, in scores of other countries. The very structure of our societies of been shaken since you have come, the machinery of capitalism too. The rich who have hidden away their billions and billions cannot sleep as they watch their fortunes trickling away by the minute.

Perhaps there can be a lesson in some of this damage you’ve done to the world?

Where do you come from? Why have you appeared now? Are you trying to tell us something? I lie awake at night thinking of the destruction you are causing, the old people gasping for breath as though you have your foot on their chest, the empty cities and frightened people. And I think, ‘perhaps you are nature’s punishment, a way of telling us that we have gone too far?’ It is true that when the cars and trucks stop the heavens will once again be clean. And that when factories close so too will they cease pumping out the fumes that are changing our climate. Perhaps we should ask forgiveness of you for our leaders who never believed in it, or worse knew it was happening but refused to act for fear of losing their status.

I wonder, if this is what you want, perhaps we can come to a compromise; cease your attack on us and we will try to reform ourselves and stop destroying our planet?

Perhaps you want to see the waters filled again with life, like the dolphins returning to Venice. OK.  Then just stop killing our Italian friends. We can talk!

Or maybe you want to test us, to see how much solidarity we human beings really have with each other. Well, if you let us live then we’ll genuinely see what we can do. Look at the people standing on their balconies singing to each other in Europe. See the medical teams from China and Cuba that have travelled there to help the sick? Surely these are signs that all is not lost.

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Others, though see you as an opportunity to advance their own selfish agenda- perhaps you want to send a message to the world’s fascists, kleptocrats and warmongers? That’s understandable, but if so couldn’t you just wipe out Trump, Bolsonaro and their ilk?

Corona, you know how very frail we are as a species, how individualistic we can be, how prone are to closing our eyes to the troubles of others in difficult times. Even now some of us rush to the stores to buy up essentials as though other people don’t need them, others are happy to raise the prices to take advantage of the desperation. There are people who won’t even accept a quarantine centre in their neighbourhood without protesting. We are weak, please leave us be.

We are aware that it is perhaps because of our greed, our political ambition, our tendency to wind each other up that you and your nasty friends have appeared and begun to attack us. We are also aware of how full our lives are of ‘false consciousness’, that we wrap ourselves up too tightly in our thoughts but in doing so lose sight of what matters- our planet and the suffering of its people- that we risk becoming mere predators of each other and this world we live in.

Corona,

You have appeared in our midst, in our nation the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, young and poor and fragile though we are. You must know very well that since independence we have not succeed in building an effective health system, although so many have died while waiting for one. You must know that although we have riches we have wasted them on infrastructure projects that bring no direct benefit to our people. You must know that although we have our freedom our leaders have spent much of it bickering with each other over ego and power. And knowing this you still wish to us to fall down dead like all those poor people in Wuhan and Italy. Ah, please Corona, we implore you, we’ve already suffered enough.

We want our skies to once again be free of urban smoke and dust, we want to gather together in peace under the light of the stars and the moon. we want once again to see dolphins playing in the clean waters of the sea and wild birds flying back and forth among the branches and singing their songs of new life. We want to rediscover our solidarity with our fellow beings. We want to become a place of life. We are trying to be better. Please, leave us be.

—————
Adeus,

Ramelau tutun, 22/03/2020. Dadolin Murak

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