Corona Diaries 1: Socially Isolating in Jerusalem
How Did We Even Get To This Point?
I’m calling today “day 3”. (Although, in truth, this is the first day that I’ve been completely apartment-bound.)
When I think back about this eerie new world we’ve all been unwittingly thrust into, it’s hard to even grasp at the suddenness with which life has so drastically and unrecognizably changed for all of us.
Into a reality that, just a month ago, would seem not only unimaginable but also preposterous. (Mirroring guidance issued by Saudi Arabia, Israel’s government announced today that people were not to leave home “unless absolutely necessary”; the government intends using technology intended for tracking terrorists to monitors confirmed infected citizens’ whereabouts).
The first time I heard about “the virus” was about a month ago when I was talking, via WhatsApp, with an Irish friend based in Hong Kong.
He mentioned something about being stuck at home eating noodles.
And I had a laugh conjuring up the mental image — and thinking how unfortunate it was that there was another crisis in Hong Kong just after the civil unrest there seemed to have finally died down. And then I went about my Friday as normal, wholly unaware that it would be the last totally normal Friday I have had since.
The novel coronavirus’s encroachment into my life since has been but gradual constant — like a slow-moving tsunami spreading from the East drawing slightly closer every day.
Now, the wave feels like it’s about to crest.
The Wuhan Meat Market
After learning that the virus had both a name and a family (is that humanizing it?) I watched distressing footage of the Wuhan Meat Market — and understood that SARS-CoV-2 was a zoonosis, like SARS-CoV-1 (better known simply as ‘SARS’), which had probably leap-frogged from bats to humans, probably through one or several intermediate species, although we’re not quite sure which yet.
And that was when I first remember feeling scared.
Looking at the footage from Wuhan and learning — as Vox nicely summarized — why deadly viral pandemics seem to consistently emerge from China, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the Almighty was exacting divine retribution for humanity sinking to the depraved depth of layering dead pangolins upon dead bats upon live snakes and offering them all up for human consumption.
Belief systems and cultures of course differ quite starkly in what animals they consider acceptable for human consumption. But I found it hard to escape the belief that history is repeating itself (it is!); or that there is some universal set of morals underpinning the world, such as not eating live animals, that had been violated — and that some monstrous punishment is being meted out to the world in retribution.
And to be transparent — I felt, in that moment, a sense of seething anger towards China for allowing the selling of wildlife meat in wet markets to persist.
Previous pandemics, including SARS, have shown these to be an unsafe breeding ground for the transmission of deadly zoonoses. China, and the world, had time to learn this lesson and institute reforms. Instead, during the crucial first 30 days, its regime expended effort on trying to frantically silence whistleblowers and suppress the spread of information that another deadly virus has escaped the bottle. And China’s problem became the world’s one in very short shrift. Now, with mounting infections and deaths in countries as far removed as Brazil and Japan, it’s clearly far too late to be talking about containment — an our only hope is that next time will be different.
(As the above probably makes clear, I am religious, although I tend to keep that fact private; note two: the exact chain of transmission is still undetermined, although both bat and pangolins share more than 90% of the novel coronavirus’s genetic material and the pandemic’s origin was almost certainly the Wuhan Market).
Thankfully, in those first moments of blind panic (“humanity is threatened by another BAT disease!?”) I thankfully happened upon Dr. John Campbell’s excellent YouTube channel which I have been watching every day since.
And, after watching his videos, that raw fear was replaced firstly by a sense of academic concern at what was then, as now, a very rapidly unfolding and complicated public health situation.
Because as we all now know by now (if not, we should!) the novel coronavirus is nothing like the seasonal influenza.
It is both many times more deadly and contagious and — at this moment in time — we have neither a vaccine nor treatment to stop its spread or treat its symptoms.
But digging a little bit deeper, the picture began to look even more worrisome (this was probably when I should have stopped Googling!).
20% of those that catch the disease go on to develop a more severe disease course and require hospitalization — a percentage so high that it is virtually guaranteed to overwhelm the capacity of health care services and outstrip the supply of artificial ventilators. Unless we can all do everything to #flattenthecurve, that is.
The frightening statistics don’t end there.
5% of patients overall need mechanical respiration and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). And while both are lifesaving medical interventions, the former is associated with pulmonary fibrosis.
There is also some evidence that the virus may be neuroinvasive, shutting down patients’ autonomic reflex to breathe as part of its respiration-disabling double-whammy. And like SARS, patients who develop a severe disease course but recover appear to be left with pulmonary fibrosis as a result — although the samples size was small and it’s clearly too early to gauge the long-term results. And finally, given the virus’ similarity to SARS, the potential for psychiatric sequelae and fatigue syndromes cannot be discounted.
To top it all off, just after reading that the virus appeared relatively benign to the young and middle-aged, I discovered that comorbidities including my own (I have asthma) muddied that picture.
If that’s not scary, then I don’t know what is.
Nobody, including me, is safe from this invisible monster jumping borders and communities on what seemed like an hourly basis.
And so it was time to find out what I could do to stack the odds as far as possible in my favor.
Stage One: Gathering Good Information From Wherever It Can Be Found
When faced with crisis, my primal instinct is to gather information.
I’m a nerd, a digital native, and Google to me feels like a sort of wide omniscient elder who has been answering life’s most intractable questions for me since before my bar mitzvah.
With this deadly virus spreading by the day, it felt like a race against time to arm myself with all the knowledge I could about what I could do do from a prevention standpoint.
So I downed a cup-full or two of my experimental coffee-water-solution and got to what felt like work.
The headline information was clear: This virus may infect if not all of us then the majority of us some time over the next two years.
I toyed very briefly with the idea of going into a sort of permanent quarantine — avoiding society until such time as a vaccine or cure was developed. And then realized that that would essentially be impossible. (As thing stands, the government is in the process of making that choice for us.)
I began checking out Reddit in depth for the first time in months, trying to pick out legitimate information from conspiracy theories and misinformation on the various subreddits covering the spread of the new human disease caused by the novel coronavirus: COVID-19.
When even governments are arguing basic facts about the virus that’s easier said than done.
One evening, as I sat trying to figure out which hand sanitizer to add to my shopping list for the next day’s errand (this was shortly before pharmacies ran out) I turned to Google for an answer and got this in return:
That screenshot is completely unredacted save for the black border which I have added for clarity.
Seeing USA Today and CNN.com in stark disagreement at the top of a Google search was almost as terrifying as learning that another deadly bat virus was hopping ruthlessly between continents and threatening entire age demographics with obliteration.
My all-knowing oracle was confused.
And it seemed like nobody — from governments to health ministries — knew quite what to advise. And that made things all the more scary.
After spending a few days of not doing much besides reading the news, bringing my hitherto neglected Twitter account back to life, and trying to make sense of whatever information I could glean from Google, Facebook, Reddit, PubMed, and a million and one other websites, I felt confident that I had learned everything I needed to know about the virus in order to prepare myself.
Do face masks work? Nobody really knows, but get a good one anyway and know what certification to look for if you’re buying one. (And make sure there are enough for healthcare workers!)
Can the virus live on surfaces? Yes, but it’s susceptible to bleach, so start spraying surfaces every other day.
And, most pressingly, Is takeout safe? There’s no evidence the virus can survive in food. So it’s probably safe to engage in some calorie-therapy and stuff your face with delivery pizza (just don’t forget to remove the box!)
After three highly-caffeinated days of frenetic Googling, I was beginning to feel like I had a pretty good handle on things. And as the first reports of asthmatics faring well with the virus thankfully began coming in (such as this one by Rosny Daniel) I began to feel a bit more reassured that all wasn’t necessarily doom and gloom. There was a feint glimmer of hope — and that was enough to save me from spiraling into a frenzy of worry.
During those first frantic days (while work essentially fell by the wayside) I made what I suspected might be my last hurried forays for a while into the outside world: stocking up on any remaining essentials, ensuring that I had a nebulizer and reliever asthma inhalers on hand, and buying a few extra bottles of wine to take the “bite” off staying indoors for weeks on end (no, I am not trying to advocate using alcohol to escape reality; but at a time when it feels like the world is in collective meltdown, a glass of wine, or two, can be mildly therapeutic; okay, so maybe I am — but just a little!)
But as I took my last trips to supermarkets and pharmacies, I grew increasingly concerned.
Everywhere I went, I noticed that people were doing literally everything they were not supposed to be doing.
Hugging. Kissing. Shaking hands. Chatting and gesticulating frantically in closely-knit groups. (I worry that the virus’s rapid spread throughout Italy has been due, at least in small part, to the rather up-close-and-personal Mediterranean culture that Israel largely shares.)
My brief forays out were, oddly enough, turning out to be more stressful than my days spent at home.
Buying my hand sanitizer, I shuffled awkwardly to the side of the checkout counter, trying to keep two meters from the clerk — only to have another shopper brush right behind me a second later. Keeping to the government guidelines was not only hard; it was downright impossible.
Taking one last wistful look at my local high street, I resigned myself to staying at home for the immediate future.
The very first time I really felt as if my liberty had been curtailed was Thursday night, which is the start of the weekend in Israel.
On the work front, it had been an unusually grueling week and there was no end in sight. Usually, I hang up my writing shoes for a few hours and pick things up again on Friday morning, putting in a last few hours before the start of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath). But this Thursday night was going to be different.
The attitudes of my family in Ireland, and my wife — along with those of the world, it seemed — were changing by the day.
Exchanging views and news on the virus with friends on WhatsApp, I noticed that I was suddenly no longer the crazy guy reading from other crazies on Reddit and frantically trying to save myself from impending doom.
When I floated the idea that getting out of our comfortable-but-not-opulent Jerusalem apartment for a few hours might do us a bit of good, I was met with an uncertain and decidedly cautious stare in return.
I chugged a cup of coffee and spurted out a few more hours of work, falling asleep, exhausted, in the early hours of the morning. (Note: if you work from home and are social-isolating, then you’ll really learn the value of pacing yourself!)
And I cried just a little inside.
An Unfestive Purim
Until there was official guidance for asthmatics I was choosing to play it safe and socially isolate — not leaving the apartment save for essential purchases. (Interestingly, the official guidance is now for vulnerable population groups to do just that.)
But after about a week of voluntary social isolation I finally cracked.
The occasion was Shushan Purim, the happiest of Jewish holidays in which — I exaggerate not — Jews are injured to drink alcohol to the point at which they cannot distinguish between Haman (an evil tyrant who plotted unsuccessfully to annihilate the Jews) and Mordechai, one of the heroes of the Book of Esther.
Along with, I’m pretty sure, the majority of Jewish Jerusalem, I begin looking forward to Purim about three months in advance.
The great joy aside, however, events on the ground were already beginning to shift rapidly — part of the chaotic new world order that we are all grappling to come to grips with.
The Jerusalem Municipality, siding with the Government which had just announced its first official limits on crowds, had chosen to ban the traditional boisterous party in the Mahane Yehuda Market and that on the nearby Nissim Bahar Street in the city’s English-speaking-heavy Nahlaot neighborhood.
But then this photo (which has now gone locally viral) was posted to a popular English-speaking Facebook group and began doing the rounds.
It showed hundreds of patrons squished into the market’s small lanes doing the exact opposite of social containment.
Seeing that photo (which is not my own — so rather than reproduce it I’m instead linking to it here) I was on the verge of drinking more coffee and doing more work. It was unsafe to go out!
And then, suddenly, I felt a strange but fervent urge to do precisely that and celebrate one final time. A compulsion borne out of equal parts boredom, religious fervor, the desire to let a little bit loose, and desperation. It was time to emerge — if only for one last time!
So emerge I did, blinking and grimacing into the outside world, stumbling into a taxi (from confusion, not drunkenness!).
For those wondering what quarantine will be like, and who haven’t yet started socially isolating, I can affirm that even after a few days, emerging back into the outside world feels a little bit strange — intoxicating even.
There’s so much stimuli to take in — the sky seems somehow brighter, a routine conversation with a cab driver suddenly engrossing. The whole experience can be overwhelming to overly-sensitized senses dulled by the boredom of four repetitive walls.
But what I can say, in retrospect, is that I do not regret going out on Purim Shusan — not even one bit.
Yes, I tried my best to keep a safe social distance, washed my hands meticulously, and carried a tub of hand sanitizer in the back pocket of my jelabiah (my costume for the day).
But I also got moderately inebriated, per the religious commandment; wandered into a synagogue where, after jumping around to strange religious techno blasted from massive speakers, I prayed passionately for the end of this bitter virus flooding through our communities and the world; and then, expunged of energy to seek divine intervention, I visited my favorite bar and enjoyed another kind of intervention: one tremendous, extremely bitter IPA.
I lived. I had fun. And best of all I forgot about the coronavirus for a few hours.
But just as I suspected when I was going out — it was to be the last time for a while.
Several days later bars, restaurants and all other recreational facilities were ordered closed.
And Then …. Everything Got Very Real
Although I’m writing this only a few days after it, my little Purim expedition has proven strangely therapeutic — and I’m still yielding the benefits.
Having enjoyed one last foray into the real world (while knowing that it might be my last foray for a while), I’ve made an uncomfortable and cold peace with living a more limited version of life at home for a while.
Which, as I write this, seems like a pretty good way to sum up my existence.
And, in part because of that expedition, I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself. Because there’s truly no reason to. We’re all going through this together. And there’s something oddly comforting and cohesive in our shared mission.
If this didn’t feel quite real two weeks ago — picking up on hard news about this virus from an English doctor on YouTube and some Reddit threads — then it certainly does now.
There are nightly emergency press conferences about it, such as the one I have screenshotted above, which the government is streaming on YouTube — creating a strange sort of cognitive dissonance caused by hearing some very un-routine information, like the exercise of emergency powers, delivered over a friendly and familiar medium like YouTube.
And there are police showing up on doors to check for quarantine-evaders. And loudspeakers broadcasting news of the latest government restrictions to devout Jews in Mea Shearim and other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods who don’t carry smartphones.
Like I imagine is the case in many places, virtually nobody in Jerusalem is talking about anything else.
Two weeks ago, I decided to risk what I was sure would be major embarrassment and cancel a couple of meetings with clients in Tel Aviv. I figured it wasn’t worth the risk.
Today, I’m not sure whether it would be legal for those clients to meet with me; citizens have been adjured to remain at home “unless absolutely necessary” — although the ban has no legal enforcement mechanism and so remains underpinned by a sort of honor-system, although the police is clamping down on those who might be evading quarantine.
It’s all changing overnight.
And so, as fast as things have evolved, I’m grateful for the knowledge which I was able to tap into at the last minute (truthfully, I should have been following this for months).
I’ve prepared myself as best as I can for the virus, although filling remaining knowledge gaps has taken a lot of time (how should you wash your clothes to remove the virus? Do you need to wash fruit and veg?). And that gives me some comfort.
Truthfully, none of us should feel like we’re that far behind the class. Humanity’s collective understanding of the novel coronavirus remains extremely limited; but at the same time there’s only so much you need to know to adequately prepare yourself. There comes a point at which you need to say “I’m practicing prevention to the best of my abilities and I can do no more.”
If you made it this far then, as you might have guessed, I’m taking things relatively seriously — although my measures pale in comparison to those I’ve seen documented in some accounts online.
I’ve set up a “decontamination zone” at the entrance to my apartment. This is where all goods from the outside world enter but do not pass as they must be considered automatically, if invisibly, contaminated. (And yes, it’s really hard to write about this without sounding like a mad conspiracy theorist).
I’ve stocked up on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) so that — should the pandemic get extremely severe — I can venture into the outside world with the best possible protection to. .. I don’t know …. put the rubbish out.
And I’m being parsimonious about my visits into the “outside world” — which now seems like a vaguely malicious sort of place beyond the expanses of my oddly comfortable personal bubble.
Yesterday, I ventured out into that area to see a gastroenterologist because I’ve had (what I believe to be!) some complications from gallbladder surgery several months ago.
The gastroenterologist prescribed a bile binder to help things settle down.
Today, I decided that it was not worth visiting the pharmacy to pick it up.
I can survive without it for a few weeks — or should that be months? Hopefully, things will have settled down by then, along with the level of bile refluxing into my stomach. Although I — like anybody — am no longer really sure of what will be even tomorrow.
Oddly enough, in the interim, all this has started to feel quite normal. And, surprisingly, all this focus time has its perks.
As a writer, I love writing entries like these just for the joy of writing — and it’s nice to have comfortable time to do this after also getting other work done. Usually, I cram these projects into the small hours of the morning, if I manage to get to them at all.
The epidemiological situation is changing rapidly.
I stick to a daily YouTube diet of Dr. Campbell and Peak Prosperity to try keep on top of the big picture while filtering out much of the unnecessary detail such as the continuously-rising case counts. I’m trying to cut down on monitoring the lower-level picture as it’s dissected on Twitter, Google News, and other sources.
And I’m taking pleasure in the little things.
We’re still ordering the odd takeout.
Delivery people who once took my odd requests to pick up a tip from atop a flower vase as a doomsday-like oddity are now insisting on similar precautions themselves.
Because if there’s one thing it’s worth looking forward to at the end of the day it’s a Burrito and some nice wine.
I’m finally getting value out of that Netflix subscription which I’ve been paying for for six months but barely using.
And there’s now a daily recreation schedule affixed next to the mask-donning (and doffing) instructions to make our apartment feel more like some sort of temporary holiday resort rather than an open prison which the government is sensibly adjuring us not to leave.
And far from being a place of boredom, life within these four walls is so busy that it’s sometimes hard to keep up.
Work has been buoyant — there’s the usual volume that clients send me along with requests for ad-hoc pieces about remote work, how to remain productive during the coronavirus, etc. As I’ve spent so much time thinking about it, these are practically writing themselves.
And there’s so much news to legitimately keep up with, such as government restrictions and orders that are changing by the day.
During the course of the last few hours alone there’s been a dramatic increase in the lockdown (all non-essential trips outside of one’s home are officially discouraged) and public transport will cease during weekends and nights.
Halfway through writing this post, the police knocked on our door to make sure we’re at home.
All this feels slightly odd — while also feeling normal.
A the same time, the learning about what to do and avoid doing goes on and — I must make a dastardly confession — it has become a perverse enjoyment of sorts.
I need to figure out how to use my new nebulizer just in case as I might be relying upon its services if I get a serious exacerbation of my asthma due to the virus.
And I need to try out my new face visor for the first time (okay, that might have been a little overkill).
Although simultaneously, while trying on face visors and half-face respirators, the gravity of the crisis facing the world doesn’t evade me.
But I’ve come to realize that there’s no point stressing about it either — it’s bad for our immune system and exacerbates asthma, you know.
I’m happy and grateful to be living in a country that, along with too few others, seems to be taking delaying the spread of the virus extremely seriously.
My chief criticism, in fact, has been that the lockdown hasn’t been tough enough and that “recommended” measures — such as non-essential services avoiding workplaces — are being trounced upon by employers who won’t tolerate any disruption to their businesses whatever the cost, including their health and that of their employees.
That and the fact that I couldn’t figure out a way to get Guinness in time for Patrick’s Day.
As my friends keep reminding me these are extraordinary and wholly unprecedented times so it’s natural that it feels like we’re all living in a hastily improvised movie of sorts.
There’s no playbook for how to get through this — for the world or for us.
So we all have to do our best — together.
But for now, for me, a hefty dose of information, the busyness of work, some Netflix, and the odd drop of wine are enough to get me through this.
So let me end this by reiterating more or less what I spoke silently while in a state of de-quarantined and slightly inebriated rapture during my recent Purim festivities:
May we all keep safe and healthy.
May all those who have contracted the coronavirus make a speedy recovery.
And, as quickly as it came, may its spread be brought to a speedy and decisive end.
Originally published at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com