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, many 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.