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Letter from the Editor | 294

The plague and the pain

It is no surprise that pandemics have a significant impact on the population’s mental health. The fear of contagion and death, the immediate impact of an economic downturn, the stress of confinement, the burden of having to take on  tasks that used to be shared by multiple people, and worrying about the future have all affected the day-to-day lives of millions of people since the novel coronavirus emerged, triggering feelings of anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and depression.

This psychological suffering, which has been identified in countless surveys, is not synonymous with a psychiatric disorder—but if it persists severely over time, it can be classified as an illness. Properly confronting this issue is fundamental to public well-being and recovery from the crisis, but it is not a trivial task, for at least two reasons. Firstly, suffering of this nature is still the subject of great prejudice. A refusal to accept mental health issues as an illness, often by patients themselves, makes them difficult to treat. Secondly, the pandemic has placed major demands on national public health systems—where they exist—which means less resources are available for mental health services.

The cover story of this issue is dedicated to the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of the population, including a particularly vulnerable group: health professionals, who are exposed to contagion risks and the suffering of their patients on a daily basis.

One way of dealing with the anguish and fear of a pandemic is through art. The plague—a generic name for a contagious disease that kills a large number of people—is a recurring element in literature and art worldwide, frequently serving as an allegory of the human condition. The article on page 42 examines its representations in fiction over time, reminding us that this is not the first and likely will not be the last plague to sweep the earth, and that even moments of great hardship can lead to the creation of works of art that enrich humanity.

While the scientific community continues to work on the novel coronavirus, many researchers have returned to their studies in myriad fields, although within the limitations imposed by the pandemic. Results are being published at a rapid pace, including ambitious proposals, such as a new way of classifying living beings that abandons the taxonomy created by Lineu in the eighteenth century and adopts a system based on evolutionary history, emphasizing ancestral links. Conceived by researchers from American institutions, a number of Brazilians collaborated on the project.

The analysis of lithic material obtained from a site in Mexico, another study that involved Brazilian researchers, questions the dominant American archaeological theory that the continent was first occupied around 13,000 years ago. The latest results suggest humans were present in the Americas 33,000 years ago, corroborating other, often ignored findings from excavations in Chile, Piauí, and Mato Grosso, which identified rocks modified by humans at least 20,000 years ago.