Learning to live with danger

How easy is it to catch a disease again? Chicken pox, never. A cold, perhaps even twice or thrice a season. For a new disease like COVID-19 this may be hard to figure out, but with tens of millions of people infected around the world, one can get rough answers surprisingly fast. Of course, the question needs to be qualified. Is there a version of “long COVID-19” which has periods of dormancy, so that a resurgence of the same infection may look like reinfection? If so, should we count this? Should we count infection by a new strain of virus to be a reinfection? Reasonable answers seem to be “Perhaps”, “No” and “Yes” respectively. With this in mind, it seems possible today that the chance of reinfection, while small, could be higher than that of death. All these estimates are provisional, of course. Partly because doctors around the world are learning to manage the infection and reduce the rates of death. Partly because the chances of new strains of virus to emerge depend on the number of people infected, and this number is still increasing.

Now that we know that recovering from a COVID-19 infection is not always the same as becoming our old healthy self, the statement that death is less likely than reinfection does not seem to be as much of a relief as it would have been nine months ago. Instead it raises new concerns. Would the effects of vaccines wear off? Will reinfections cause a mild disease or a worse one? There are, as yet, strong opinions but no definite answers to these questions. But the questions force us to re-examine the lives of our grandparents. They lived in a world of communicable diseases. Human life expectancy was lower, because you could die of such a disease before your heart started to act up. How did they live?

For some months we hid ourselves away from the world, regarded everything that had to be brought home with suspicion. Then we learnt to distinguish between levels of danger. Once we figured that we had been infected, we let our guard down for a while. Again, after realizing that we may not be safe for ever, we are back to masking and distancing. Life is not on hold any longer: regular work has resumed, dentists need to be visited, other medical check ups have to be done, some socialization is needed, holidays are necessary. The way we do things has changed, but life has resumed. I suppose all of us will have to find how to resume life. Even in medieval, demon-haunted times, people lived and worked. We know better, we will live safer; this I am certain of. No other disease has been studied by such a variety of scientists: I have read research reports on COVID-19 by doctors, data scientists, physicists, biologists, economists, and even engineers. We will learn from each other the safe ways to navigate the world.

Flying in the pandemic

We heard a lot of different things about flying since May 25, when airports reopened across the country. The early flights were crowded and had unreliable schedules. It was not yet clear how safe airports and aircrafts would be. There was a lot of drama about cleaning surfaces, but not enough was being written about cleaning the air. By October the outlines of the problem and its solution were clear enough that there were media stories about it. The two points about safety I got were this. First, planes usually have very good airflow and filtration systems, and the air is scrubbed clean much faster than in the building where I work. As a result, the main risk is from people around you transmitting viruses in the usual way: breathing, talking, and coughing. The second point is that we already know how to deal with this: masks and shield, and distancing, when possible. I realized that I had lost my fear of flying in the time of the pandemic.

This tree near the check-in counters makes the empty airport look welcoming

We put this to practice a couple of weeks back, when I realized that The Family and I have never had a holiday in Kolkata. There would be no year better than 2020 to see Christmas lights in this city, since most people are still avoiding going out. We knew that we are taking risks, and it would be safer to stay home, as others are doing. But perhaps with good masks, worn as well and as safely as we know how to, and other safetly precautions, we can still travel now and then. As it turned out, Mumbai airport (photos here) was not crowded. It was possible to deposit baggage, check in, pass through security, and wait in the passenger areas while maintaining distance most of the time. The aircrafts we traveled by were far from full. The airlines are not taking care to maintain distance between occupied seats, but when the load is so little, it is possible to move to seats as far from others as you can. Airlines hand out mask, shield, and sanitizer when you board, and we used them all. Arrivals is a little more chaotic, with knots of people around baggage collection areas, and the exits. Nevertheless, we felt very safe because all the passengers behaved sensibly; the pandemic has encouraged civility. I am happy we tried this out, I think flying is a risk we may be able to take now and then as we wait for a vaccine.

A Summer of Tigers

Spain has lodged in my imagination since I read Pablo Neruda as a teenager, and was led through him to the Spanish poets Quevedo and Garcia Lorca. Before that was an exposure to the painters Goya and Velazquez, and then, inevitably, Picasso. So when I found I had to attend a meeting in Spain, I thought we could make a longer trip. The Family agreed.

En el fondo del pecho estamos juntos,
en el cañaveral del pecho recorremos
un verano de tigres,
al acecho de un metro de piel fría,
al acecho de un ramo de inaccesible cutis,
con la boca olfateando sudor y venas verdes
nos encontramos en la húmeda sombra que deja caer besos.

In the bottom of our hearts we are together,
In the cane field of the heart
A summer of tigers,
Lurking in a meter of cold skin,
Lurking in a bunch of untouchable skin,
With the mouth smelling of sweat and green veins
We are in the wet shadow that rains kisses.

Pablo Neruda, Furies and Sufferings

The easiest question to answer is “Will it rain in Spain?” In June it’s unlikely, unless you are in Bilbao. The temperature, on the other hand, is harder to discuss: between 26 and 18 Celcius in Barcelona, an average variation between 29 and 13 Celcius in Madrid and Granada. I was surprised that Seville could swing as high as 32 Celcius. It sounds much more comfortable than Delhi and Mumbai in the last couple of months.

The Family and I discussed what we associated most strongly with Spain. The one thing I definitely want to do is to visit the Prado in Madrid and see the painting called Las Meninas by Velazquez (picture below). The Family is looking forward to the Miro collection in Barcelona.

We ruled out bull fights; not our cup of blood. Football is definitely on the cards. We watch the football World Cups fairly regularly, but don’t watch club matches. Still, we will try to see a game.

Carlos Saura’s movies, Flamenco and Carmen are stuck in our memories. A little reading told us that Seville or Granada are likely to be best for Flamenco, although Madrid as the capital will also attract talent. We’ll try all of them. We have to start looking for tickets.

Madrid and not Barcelona? Not possible; it’s the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, and also city of Gaudi, Cadafalch and Muntaner. We agreed that it would be a great place to spend a few days walking around and enjoying the Tapas and Vermouth. A cousin who used to go for meetings in Spain every few weeks told us that there are more pickpockets in Barcelona than in Madrid. This turns out to be widely reported. There is even a guide on how to report thefts to the police. There are warnings about taxis in Barcelona as well. This begins to sound like Delhi. We do enjoy Delhi in spite of many problems.

Not in Kansas any more

Of course not, Chicago is in Illinois, and, like Kansas, allows people to carry guns around with them. But, in the sense of being deeply outside my zone of normality, the phrase "Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore" passed through my mind when I saw the notice in the featured image at the entrance to my hotel.

This reassuring sign reminded me that Chicago is more dangerous than Sao Paolo. But crime in a city is not evenly distributed, so I searched for safe neighbourhoods in Chicago. Once I found that the downtown area called the Loop is safe, I figured that I might as well enjoy the experience of being in the city where Alphonse Capone worked, and where sudden death is not a term in football.

Since Chicago was unseasonably warm, I walked a lot. I walked north of the Chicago river a little past the Magnificent Mile, up to an area called the Near North Side, and southwards down to Chinatown. I took buses and trains in this part of Chicago. All this felt perfectly safe to me.