The chance of a virus

Wuhan, China, January 2020. News start to spread around the world about a new respiratory disease, a kind of pneumonia of unknown origin, caused by a new type of coronavirus. It spreads fast, forcing some of the most populated cities in the world to go on lockdown. It soon reaches other countries in the area, such as South Korea and Taiwan. It sneaks into Iran. Infections grow rapidly, the death rate rises quickly.

Looking back now, it seems to me like we Westerners followed the news from the distance, quite confident that the thousands of miles that separate us from them would prevent the virus and the disease from crossing our borders. This was happening in the far, far East; it was the consequence of their strange eating habits, of their lack of hygiene. They are weird, the Chinese, aren’t they? They are not like us (as if viruses followed an ‘us versus them’ approach). Sure, it is terrible but let them deal with it.

It was not quite our problem.

Yet.

We did not bother to take it seriously from the onset. We did not try to understand. Our stock markets held up shamefully well. We kept on living our happy, busy lives; we went on making plans, attending gatherings and events… Some experts warned about the risk: at least here, in Spain, they were not listened to. A global pandemic. This only happens in movies and cheap science-fiction books, right? Besides, this new virus is not much worse than a bad flu. Yes, it can create fatal complications in some older people, but most carriers do not even develop symptoms. Not even a coughing fit.

Let us not worry, let us not stop. We can keep going.

Personally, I followed the news with growing concern. If China, the outbreak epicenter, is taking it so seriously, there must be something to it. I remember telling my husband one evening, as we watched TV after dinner: ‘There is no stopping this. It is going to reach us sooner or later. Unless they lock down the entire world now, and I don’t think they’ll do. And if they don’t, we better wash our hands, get ready and take for granted that there is going to be a high price in lives, knowing also that most of us will get sick and get over it in just a few days or weeks.’ After all, they were telling us that this new virus was very contagious, but not very deadly except to a few unlucky ones. That is the thing about preventive measures: by their very nature, they must be adopted when things are still looking good. However, the price to pay for locking down the world when most Western countries were still thriving looked simply too high for us to afford. We kept playing the ‘If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist’ game. The ostrich strategy.

I consider myself smart, but I really do not think you had to be a genius to realize this virus could become a serious global threat. I was doing business with China at the moment and saw almost first-hand how badly they had been hit and what a struggle it was for them to cope. Perhaps this gave me a better hint. But it is out of question that the experts should have known; world organizations should have spoken more strongly in favor of taking measures when we still could. And those who warned us, those who did urge the authorities to take preventive action, should have been paid undivided attention.

Source: UN

Simply put, it came down to a decision that should have been made back in January already: either you lock down the world before it is too late and the virus spreads everywhere, or you consciously assume the risk, the overwhelmed health systems and the unavoidable death toll, both from Covid19 and other diseases that will go unattended. The third option, inaction and oblivion, should not have been on the table; yet that is exactly what most governments did two months ago. However, there was a conscious decision for us to make back in January already, one that involved a non-negligible amount of ethical implications. But nobody made it because… How do you lock down the world, or your country from the rest of the world, when everything seems to keep going as usual? It was not just unprecedented; it would have been unconceivable.

Well, the unconceivable is here. It is here, and halfway through my fifth week locked down, some days I still have a hard time wrapping my brains around it. Most of those who survived the two World Wars are dead or very old now; the rest of us simply could not believe such a dystopia could come true. When you look around and see how most countries have been caught off-guard, you could also be more prone to admit that maybe it was not that easy to foresee this, after all. To realize that something was about to happen which never happened before; at least not at this large scale, and most definitely not since our societies achieved significant degrees of development.

So here we are.

This virus has an interesting profile, I must admit. Maybe I am biased by my Christian upbringing, but at the beginning it reminded me a little of the intentionality of the Egypt plagues in the Old Testament. Of course, I do not believe for a second that this pandemic is some vengeful God’s punishment. I just cannot help but notice some similarities. Covid19 works in some funny ways.

For starters, many of the early infection clusters in several countries (China, South Korea, Spain) were associated to pseudo-religious groups. Of course, this has less to do with the questionability of their beliefs from a religious orthodoxy perspective, and more to do with the fact that, in religious communities, people usually get involved in community gatherings, often going on for hours in closed rooms, and where physical proof of affection, team work, support circles etc are present to a much higher extent than they are in public spaces.

Corona spares children and young people. Well, for the most part. Not all of them. However, it feels as if the virus had more faith in the upcoming generations than in those of us who have already had the chance to prove what we are up to in this world. It also tends to spare isolated countries, such as many of the world’s underdeveloped economies: they have fewer ties, fewer flight connections, fewer business relationships with the rest of the world. Thus, for instance, most African countries are not nearly as badly hit as we Westerners are, and their infection rates remain manageable (although this could change any moment and it is quite worrisome, since most of these countries lack countrywide, solid healthcare systems).

‘The value of human life is not measured in the number of years any of us has left’

Covid19 is forcing us to make an ethical decision about the lives of a population segment that has been systematically and mercilessly left behind in our fast, overly-technological, growingly impersonal world: our elders. It is out of respect for them, it is to save as many of their lives as we possibly can, that we have ultimately engaged in this mad race to flatten the world-famous curve. Our parents, grandparents, great-aunts, old mentors and teachers… They are not expendable and every life counts, and there is meaning in saving every human being, even if just one, even if the saved person will just live one more day after they are cured. We are being reminded the hard way that the value of human life is not measured in the number of years any of us has left. Still, some of the terrible decisions that our health workers worldwide are confronting come down to choosing who will be given a chance to live. When there is not nearly enough equipment and all intensive care units, ERs and hospital beds are overrun, there is no other way to go about it. Scarce resources as allocated to where, whom, they have a bigger chance to make a positive difference. But choosing who must stand a chance to live automatically means condemning others to die. It remains a decision no human being would ever have to make. As a doctor or a nurse, you may be prepared to look death in the eye every now and then, but the toll of doing it several times a day for weeks on end is unimaginable and I would not be surprised if many health workers are diagnosed with lasting psychological trauma such as PTSD. There is not enough money in the world to repay what they are doing, but I hope that, at the very least, they get the money.

With all of us locked down in our houses, freedom of movement stolen from us for the sake of our common wellbeing, we have come to a new appreciation of those so-called ‘unskilled’ professionals. They are the ones keeping us alive, literally. We depend on them for basic supplies, food, cleanliness, gas, meds. Not to mention all first responders, health workers, security forces, putting their lives on the line so that we have a better chance at preserving ours, holding the hands of our loved ones as their bodies give up, as they pass away. They are also the ones taking care of the dead, the ones in charge of carrying our loved ones back to the earth where we all belong. The time when some could still look down on such professionals is up, and the lesson should never be forgotten.

Source: Truthdig

This virus also seems hell-bent on highlighting the importance of what really matters: the company of our fellow humans. Personal contact. We, so used to looking down to the screens of our mobile phones, are missing seeing faces now. And yes, we may be using virtual communication much more often (and thank God we have it!) but we are doing it to check on our loved ones, to make sure our friends are okay, to be present for our sick relatives, to keep one another company. This situation is encouraging us to love and let it show. To care for one another actively, regretting all the chances we missed to do it in person while we still could, all the calls and gatherings we postponed because we thought we were too busy, or too tired, or not in the mood; all the missed opportunities to actually spend time with those our hearts beat for. We are not even allowed to say goodbye to those who leave us; we are robbed of the soothing ritual of accompanying them to their ultimate resting place. We are forced to grieve alone, in silence; forced to confront the harsh reality that they struggled and died without us by their side. One of my favorite songs says: ‘Some urgent letters arrive when there is nobody left to read them.’ Thanks to this virus, all of our letters have become urgent, and many are being dutifully delivered, now more than ever.

‘Life, at its core, is uncertainty, constant renewal, it is holding up and giving in; it is closely intertwined with death’

We are being stripped of our arrogance. Sickness and death have a way to bare our souls to the impermanence of human existence. We like to live in the pretense that we have a solution for everything; we like to see ourselves as efficient, successful, in control. This virus is breaking to us the harsh truth: we do not, and will never, have the last word. When it comes to the essentials, we never do. It is just the mirage we have gotten used to living in but, at our very core, we are vulnerable, fragile. The world does not need any one of us to keep going. I, for one, think this is a perfect chance to acknowledge it and start to behave accordingly. It gives you a measure of peace: when you realize this and learn to accept it, you learn to let go. And when you let go, reality expands: you do not lose everything; rather, you gain a connection with the entire universe. I had already caught a glimpse of this before, but it was Africa that taught me this lesson in an unmistakable, unforgettable way. Life, at its core, is uncertainty, constant renewal, it is holding up and giving in; it is closely intertwined with death, which is a natural part of it. And you keep going with the flow, you do not fight it. You accept it, you smile your brightest smile, no matter what deal you have been granted, and you get up to live another day, until one day you will not get up anymore, the world then becoming someone else’s responsibility. Because, unlike us, Earth will keep going. Meanwhile, you keep on getting up day after day, because that is what life does, and you are just part of the entire scheme. A very tiny part, and this is exactly how it is supposed to be.

From a more practical perspective, but no less important, this crisis is pushing corporations to improve conditions for their employees: enable teleworking, promote flexible schedules, offer paid sick leaves… Crisis are a chance for renewal, an open window for us to learn how to do better; to realize things can, and often should, be different. A kick on our collective butts to make us shake off our blandness. They extend an invitation for us to change, to question, to reflect, to use our creativity. They challenge us, and in doing that they become an opportunity we should not miss.

One of the aspects that I am personally enjoying more about the positive side-effects of this situation is how wildlife is taking advantage of it. As we are forced to look at the world from behind the glass sheets of our windows, spring is thriving outside. Life unfolds, and animals take over. These past few weeks I have seen news about fish returning to Venice canals (or maybe being noticeable for the first time in decades, the dirt layer caused by profuse water traffic and touristic overexploitation finally gone), wild goats jumping their way along the streets of British towns, wild hogs happily routing the earth right in front of the main entrance of urban hospitals in Spain… I live in a quiet neighborhood right outside Madrid, one of those areas where the highest buildings you can find are two-storied and semi-wild parks and green areas abound. Every passing day, more and more sparrows keep coming to my balcony. Their lively chirping makes me smile. These tiny creatures are the true kings of our streets right now, going about their stuff with no humans around to disturb their plans. And never was the air in Madrid cleaner than it is now: the sight of Madrid’s few skyscrapers that we get from my neighborhood is no longer threatened by that suspicious, toxic grey cloud that would only get thinner on rainy days. The mountain ranges that surround Madrid appear so clear, their profiles so sharp, that you would think it possible to caress their summits just outstretching your forefinger.

I am finding that people’s coping strategies can be classified in two opposite types. One is about self-preservation. It can be seen in the hoarding that took place at the onset of the crisis, or in the racist comments and behaviors against the Chinese community worldwide, as if blaming everything on them would validate us somehow. There is no denying it: panic can make us selfish, it can push us to dismiss our fellow humans’ needs without a second thought. It can make us disregard any consideration for the others’ wellbeing, our only focus on fleeing, on protecting ourselves, on saving our sorry asses. Often, and somewhat counterintuitively, this attitude appears to be more frequent among those who have enough, who have not been as badly affected as their neighbors, as other regions or countries. Those who consider themselves relatively safe will defend this privileged position at all costs. This reaction is understandable, but this does not make it any less poor from a human, psychological and emotional point of view. On the opposite side we find those who are working for the common good, building equipment, lending their machines for disinfection works, running errands for people at risk, donating blood, reducing their profits to help others for free, putting their lives on the line to help those who cannot provide for themselves, making saving lives the absolutely priority. Surveys show that most of us agree with lock down measures because we want to protect others, rather than because we are worried about ourselves. I feel that the helpers’ group is more numerous. Either that, or the news and social media are intently spreading the voice about this kind of solidary initiatives. If this is the case, I welcome it: it is nice to see the media focusing on the positive side of things for a change. Too often to my liking, they wallow too much on the negative, while there is always, always so much good going on in the world. Now that the dystopia they insisted in announcing has reached us, they seem to have shifted their focus a little towards the good.

‘The main issues humanity is facing in our world today are global, and they must be tackled as such. We are in this together.’

Regardless of our personal feelings, what is clear about this crisis is that it is leading us to a new paradigm. Our differences blur as we focus more on what we have in common, as the fact that our very lives depend on each other sinks in, clearer than ever. This crisis is stirring up a sense of community: we have suddenly become aware of people in need much closer us than we never thought. We clap from our windows in support of all the professionals working on the trenches of this war, keeping us alive; and suddenly we are clapping for ourselves too, encouraging ourselves to keep going. We have become aware of how alike we are as human beings, at our very core. All of our work meetings, emails, videocalls, start with the question ‘Are you all okay?’ as if we had suddenly realized that we should never strip our work life of the most basic humanness, as if we suddenly had started to truly care about the silent struggles our colleagues may be carrying as human beings and not mere productive units. Solidarity keeps crossing the most improbable borders every day. It is no longer a matter of nationality, ethnicity, language, even degree of development. Climate, virus outbreaks, the rise of populisms, migrations, terrorism… you name it. The main issues humanity is facing in our world today are global, and they must be tackled as such. We are in this together.

Personally, I have reasonable doubts that the world will emerge from this crisis being much wiser, more solidary and compassionate, truly a better home for everyone. We all wish to get back to normal, and that is understandable to some extent. Healing implies that we get rid of the traumas, of the nightmarish memories, of the darker feelings we are feeling during harsh times. ‘We will forget about this once it is over’, many say. And certainly, there is some truth to it. We refuse to settle into this, to acknowledge as our new normal, and it is in this resistance that our chances for full recovery lie, both at a physical and emotional level. There will be a transition stage, an adjustment, but this is most definitely not where we want to keep living from now on. However legit this aspiration may be, in my life I have also found that, when something happens that knocks you down (losing a loved one, being seriously ill… or a global pandemic), you may get back to normal eventually, but the person that emerges from that crisis is not the same it was before. It is not the old normal, but a new normal. Some learnings stay with us, some experiences do change us. We simply cannot be the same we once were after feeling so many emotions we never felt before. After everything we learned about ourselves, after the horrid experiences we may have survived, after making conscious use of new psychological resources that lay untapped inside us up to this moment. After having died inside and been reborn over again. Our vision expands, our abilities develop, our habits shift. Lessons from this crisis will stay with us, both individually and collectively.

Being forcefully locked down in your house is very different from staying home on a lazy weekend. The difference goes much further than just not having a choice to go out. Lacking stimuli, the mind is known to start slowing down after a while. You must strive to stay active, both physically and intellectually, as your motivation erodes. You must find yourself a purpose, something to look forward to every day. Not in a week, or in a month, or in summer, but right here, right this moment. The escape from this situation, the momentary relief, must not be sought in the ‘when this ends’ mindset but rather in willingly plunging in the here and now. Shifting our focus does wonders to our coping ability. A vast universe of possibilities opens up right here, within our reach, when we stop navel-gazing and start to ask ourselves how we can make the whole experience a little better, both for us and for others. There is always something you can do, no matter how little, no matter how desperate the situation. It may take some effort and determination, but the reward is rich and comes in the form of human connection and a sense of purpose, let alone its potential to prevent anxiety and depression. What you give, you receive tenfold. I learned this years ago during a time of sickness that had me stuck between my bed and the couch for more than six months. One of those lessons that has stayed with me throughout the years and that is serving me well now.

Turks clap for their health workers.
Source: Anadolu Agency

I have learned a lot about my own fragility in my forty-four years of existence. Everybody does; nobody gets through this life without being handed a nice share of grief several times over. I have somehow managed to survive the loss of a friend who suddenly died right next to me when I was fourteen; a cancer diagnosis, the news that my husband and I would never have children, bullying, mobbing, anxiety, depression, a problem in my right ear that causes very bad vertigo attacks every now and then. I regularly cope with Alzheimer’s and autism, both affecting people very close to me. Of course, I have lost loved ones, like my larger-than-life grandma and my aunt who was my alter-ego, to more natural causes and processes; and discovered that natural does not mean less painful. But this crisis brings a whole new perspective on vulnerability, on letting go. It is teaching me lessons about my own powerlessness in ways I never thought possible: how do you cope when there is nothing you can do, no one to go to? When someone you love is seriously ill and you can do nothing but wait, because you are not allowed to visit, to show up, to help somehow? What do you do when you realize you are on your own to solve your own immediate problems, whatever their nature (from appliances breaking down to insomnia)? When you give up the control of your life to external agents, no matter how resolute they are to get you out of this? How can you grieve sanely when you have been stripped of so many effective coping resources and mechanisms; namely, human closeness, physical activity, nature, work, shopping, plans, events, places to go, or gatherings to look forward to? The fact that, in order to protect and help my parents, I would be required to stay away from them one day never crossed my mind before. The one thing I will never forgive Covid19 for is robbing me of all the time I could be spending with them, now that they are both still here. Every day spent in lockdown is one more day forever gone.

‘We can imbue our very lives with meaning even between the four walls of a room’

I am finding that nothing in this situation is quite as I would have expected. So far, I always welcomed the chance to telework, but it turns out that teleworking all the time quickly becomes routine. I always cherish the quality time that my husband and I can spend together in our close-to-frantic daily lives, but now, some days I simply lock myself down in a room (a lockdown within a lockdown) to give myself time and space for the emotional processing that we introverts need to do on a regular basis, alone in silence and with no interruptions whatsoever, if we are to stay sane. At the same time, I am getting used to showing emotions in front of him that I always processed alone before. I am forgiving myself for my impatience and my bouts of anger because this is not my fault and I am learning as I go; I am forgiving him for having his own processing ways, so at odds with mine sometimes (no, please, do not come after me to talk when I urgently need to be left alone). It is uncharted territory, and we are improvising, and somehow making it work, from the most ordinary matters (such as practicing my Pilates workout in front of him as he holds a work videocall) to deeper ones. I also thought I would have trouble falling asleep at night from lack of physical exertion. I could not have been more wrong: I am passing out every single night, exhausted from the underlying tension I carry inside me all the time, whether I notice it or not.

At the same time, I am finding that true agency still lies in our hands. We can imbue our very lives with meaning even between the four walls of a room. We can find purpose, let our imagination and creativity loose, and focus on doing things that help. We can raise funds to help worthy causes. Even the smallest amount of money to buy a couple of masks or a ventilator can save lives. Even if it were just one life, it would worth it already. We can learn to think positive, we can find out the habits that benefit us, learn how to tell the things we want from those we need to get rid of, as our perception becomes sharper along with our increased sensitivity. Every day, every week is different, because our emotions shift and change, because we develop new resources to cope, because we get news from friends and relatives, because our areas of ease and difficulty come and go and are not the same now as they were a month ago, at the beginning of this lockdown. There are a thousand ways for us to stay useful, creative, hopeful, connected and motivated. There is a million chances for us to turn this experience into something meaningful, not just a hollow wait on a very uncertain future.

Someone asked me recently what the first thing I will do when I can go out will be. It got me thinking, because I genuinely did not know. I had not considered it. My gut reaction was ‘everything like I used to do before’, but I immediately realized that it was simply not true. I will be allowed to go out one day, but things will have changed nonetheless. It is hard to tell if we will be allowed to go back to public spaces and events, under which conditions, and what rules will be in place. It might take a while for travel (even national travel) to be restored. Living in Madrid, the most badly hit region in Spain and one of the most in the entire world, I would not be surprised if we are submitted to more strict controls than our fellow Spaniards for some time. I simply do not know when I will be allowed to travel to my personal paradise, my country house, again. I certainly hope it will be no later than summer, just in time for me to spend my holidays there. Also, some of my favorite shops, restaurants or theaters may have closed for good, unable to absorb the economic impact. We may not gather with family and friends right away, afraid of triggering a second wave of infection, afraid of being undetected carriers and wreak havoc among those we love most. The vast majority of us are, and will remain, untested, so it will be on us to protect those around us as we think it best.

‘With time, our grief will heal, and we will hug our fear away’

We Spaniards are lively, sociable beings: we hug and kiss and have big family units and socialize and spend lots of time outdoors. We cherish and honor our relationships. This openness and joy of living is one of the factors that lies at the very core of our world-famous life quality (along with a great health system, benign weather with long days and plenty of natural light, and the Mediterranean diet, to name a few more). Sadly, this lifestyle is also one of the key reasons why the virus has spread so fast here. How long will we still suffer the grip of fear when we approach others? I am afraid that our way of living will be changed, and not for the better, in this regard. The thought of a future where we are wary of physical contact and closeness makes me sad. I pray that we will overcome, that we will not let this virus turn us into a worse version of ourselves. I pray that, with time, our grief will heal, and we will hug our fear away.

Landscape near my country house
Source: my archives

I am going back to this question that I need to answer. What will I do first, as soon as we can get out normally again? Of all those things I am missing now, which ones will still be right there waiting for me as soon as I am free? I realize that, no matter what happens, what kind of world we come back to when this is over and we adjust, it is the little things that I miss most now and that I will try to get back to first. I weigh my response carefully. I want to keep it realistic. It must be something that does not depend on any rules. Something that is readily available for me as soon as I step out. ‘A walk’, I finally say. Just a long, slow walk out in the nature. Roaming around, bathing in sunlight, in bird chirping, in bunny races, in the whispers of trees; hearing the singing of the stream close to my house, basking in the radiance of an open blue sky. Soaking up life from the natural world, that has kept going no matter what. That is still out there, thriving and blooming, as I write these words. To draw strength, hope and renewal from it. To let it soothe my wounds and dry my tears. To finally let go of all the tension piling up in my gut as I soldier on week after week.

Nature will be there for me.

Life always keeps going.

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