Beam me up Scotty

No one will beam us back to normal except those who find a cure for COVID-19, or an efficient and cheap vaccine. Until then the world is experiencing a variety of effects: second waves in some places, persistent long plateaus in others, strong economic distress everywhere. Niece Moja, a therapist, is one of the few people with a burgeoning business, but she is also a wreck at the end of a busy day having to deal with others’ anxieties on top of her own. Niece Mbili is one of the unlucky generation. She graduated in the middle of the crisis, and at a time when the industry she wanted to join has dropped into recession. The Youngest Niece is in the uncertain generation. Will her school reopen? Will her school leaving exams at the end of the next year leave her infected?

We’ve decided for ourselves to work back to something closer to normal. I’d been working through video and phone calls, but now I’ve begun to take “coffee time” with colleagues. Some time back we started meeting friends outdoors: masked and distanced. Last week we met a couple for dinner for the first time in half a year. We sat as far apart in their living room as space allowed, and had all windows open. We think we can continue meeting couples for dinner, one at a time, with at least two weeks between meetings. This interval would be sufficient for us not to become unwitting carriers of the disease. Our help have been lucky, most of their employers gave them their salary and helped out with food, when they were not working. Still, they are happy now to get out of their own homes and back to work, but have concerns about safety. We worked out a way so that they don’t have to breathe the same air as us when they come home.

We’ve been shopping for a while, usually outdoors. Unfortunately markets are crowded, so distancing is not possible. Most people are masked, but many are not properly masked: noses outside the mask, or mask pulled down below the lips. So I prefer to have a face shield in addition to a mask when shopping. The economic trouble has reduced a lot of people to an unsustainable income level, so there are many people who come up to you begging for help. It is distressing, because you know that as an individual you cannot possibly help enough. I have the luxury of moral distress, but when you cannot get a meal, perhaps you are not focused on the long term. When I’m face to face with this kind of problem, I can’t help feeling a little ashamed that I have a mask and a face shield to protect against a more remote possibility.

COVID-19 has probably killed more people than we can really account for. When a younger friend, a Himalayan trekker, died of a sudden massive cardiac arrest three months ago, I did not think it had anything to do with the epidemic. But then I heard of two more friends of friends, again in the early and mid-40s, dying similarly, and read about cardiac problems that COVID-19 causes, and I begin to wonder. There is no upside to going back to normal. But there is no upside to remaining locked down either. A perfect dilemma! If I were in the shoes of policy makers, I would throw money at some kinds of biological and mathematical sciences. Funding science always produces new possibilities.

[All images except the featured one are WhatsApp forwards; artist unknown, copyright status unknown]

Building trust

If you ever do street photography, you will find that the best shots come when you have built some trust with your subject. This photo was taken in Quy Nhon in Vietnam, once a port of call for Zheng He, and in the last century a base for American troops close to the front lines of that dirty war. I could not have got the photo you see above if the little girl had not been in a position where she felt safe. Building this trust does not depend only on you as an individual, but also the circumstances in which the subject finds herself. I think this girl would not have had such an open smile if I had come across her alone in a market.

I read the following sentences “On 13 March 2020, as the infection continued to spread in Italy at a brisk pace, Standard Ethics – an independent sustainability rating company – improved its outlook for the country from negative to stable. This is because, according to Standard Ethics, “in the emergency resulting from the spread of the Covid-19 virus, [Italy] has re-established a remarkable solidarity and united purpose. […] It is possible that by courageously overcoming this difficult test, a beautiful nation like Italy, will rediscover its vigour and optimism” (press release, 13 March 2020). The case for the Spanish flu was the opposite: government institutions and national health care services largely proved ineffective in facing the crisis, while civil society experienced a serious breakdown due to the climate of generalised suspicion” in a thought provoking article.

After the cyclone of 1999, the state of Odisha changed its approach to disasters, by emphasizing preparedness over relief. The social capital that it built up by previous work on schools and primary health, saw instant dividends in saving lives through this century. That is a wonderful Indian example of dealing with disasters, and shows what changes can be made with good governance.

When I think of long term effects of the ongoing epidemic, I think of the possible waves to come in the next five or ten years, their effect on travel, and on our circumstances. How our governments deal with this crisis: whether by putting in place a robust health system or not, may determine whether and where we will travel in the next years, whether we will meet open and smiling faces, or sullen and suspicious ones.