History, Modern, Travel

Me and You and SARS-CoV-2: A Year in Review

Historians will look back at 2020 with the same fascination as arborists looking at one of those tree-ring anomalies that signal something cataclysmic—a wildfire, a rare atmospheric event, a rampant disease. It is something grandchildren are likely to ask their elders about and that people will build unwieldy monuments to. So for this week’s post I thought I’d do something I’ve been avoiding for a whole year, which is to talk about the pandemic and the year we’ve all just scraped through. Thinking about the virus and virus-related events tends to inspire feelings of dread, denial, depression, anxiety, shock, anger, grief and dislocation, so I try to ignore it as much as possible. On the other hand, sometimes looking at things squarely can have a bracing effect, and somehow it’s easier to think about now that some vaccines are ready, so here goes.

December 2019: Wuhan & the Tsunami Omen

It is believed to have started in Hubei Province. Some studies show that people in Lombardy, Italy, had it as early as September but it wasn’t until the final days of December 2019 that anyone recognized the virus as something new. On December 26, an elderly couple visited a Wuhan hospital complaining of fever, coughing and fatigue. The next day, examining their CT scans, Dr. Zhang Jixian noticed features different from flu or common pneumonia. Zhang had worked as a medical expert during the 2003 SARS outbreak and was alive to the possibility of another epidemic. She ordered tests that confirmed the couple’s illness was a viral infection but not influenza. She ordered a CT scan for their healthy-seeming son; sure enough, his lungs were similarly affected. Another patient showed the same signs. Zhang filed a report to the hospital directors declaring the discovery of a viral disease that was probably infectious.

WUHAN, April 16, 2020 (Xinhua) — Zhang Jixian, director of the respiratory and critical care medicine department of Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, receives an interview at the hospital in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, March 2, 2020. (Xinhua/Shen Bohan)

By the end of the 2019, Wuhan was on high alert. On December 31, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission released a briefing on its website about early signs of a pneumonia outbreak in the city. It advised the public to seek hospital care when having persistent fever while showing signs of pneumonia, and to wear face masks and avoid enclosed public places and crowded areas. Meanwhile, Zhang instructed her staff to wear face masks at all times and to take extra precautions.

At this time John and I were in Sri Lanka, in Hikkaduwa, a beach town. We were not yet aware of any virus in Hubei. Actually, the biggest disaster news was that Australia was burning. Around us, there were reminders of a local disaster—the tsunami of 2004 that devastated many families in the region. Near Hikkaduwa was Tsunami Honganji Viharaya , a Buddhist temple built by the Japanese dedicated to the victims of the tsunami.

Peraliya Buddha near Hikkaduwa

On New Year’s Day I went swimming on the beach, out to where the water was waist high, when the tallest, most powerful wave I’ve ever experienced knocked me head over heels. I decided to get out quickly. A Russian swimmer had the same idea—the Indian Ocean was taking no prisoners. I couldn’t help wondering if this slap on the very first morning of 2020 was some kind of omen…

January 2020: Thailand & the Chinese New Year

The very first confirmed COVID-19 patient outside of China popped up in Thailand. A 61-year-old Chinese woman, a resident of Wuhan, entered Bangkok on January 8. On January 13 she was diagnosed as having the new coronavirus. By January 28, at least 14 people in Thailand had been infected and the Thai Health Minister said the government was unable to stop the spread of the disease. Cases started appearing in dozens of other countries.

We arrived in Thailand at about the same time as Covid. Our ultra-modern Chinese hotel had an infinity pool (yay!) but also facial-recognition instead of entry keys and we got stuck in a dystopian nightmare (the stairwell) for an hour (boo!).

One day a screen in the elevator lobby alerted us to the need to take precautions against something called COVID-19. Overnight, everything was different. Everyone seemed to know where to get face masks, every building entrance had a little table with hand-sanitizer. In the metro, two friendly public officials supervised the use of hand-sanitizer and, confusingly, made everyone pass through a metal-detector.

It was just at this time that shops in Bangkok were gearing up for Chinese New Year. It was the Year of the Rat and everything was branded with cute mouse images. The supermarkets and special New Years’ markets were very crowded. For the first time, when doing my grocery shopping, I felt heavy claustrophobic dread. This would become a familiar feeling over the following months.

February: Tokyo & the Diamond Princess

By February 10, the COVID-19 death toll in China had already surpassed the total number of Chinese deaths in the SARS crisis of 2003. In America, the case of Trisha Dowd, the first person in the US to die of COVID-19 and someone who had not travelled recently, suggested that the disease had already been spreading by community transmission, maybe even as early as December 2019.

On February 5, a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess was quarantined near Yokohama when several passengers tested positive. Confirmed cases on board would eventually total 712 (of 3,711 people). In early February, the ship accounted for over half of reported cases outside of mainland China. Since then, more than 40 cruise ships have had confirmed positive cases of coronavirus on board.

Like the virus, we ended up in Japan in late February, for a week-long stopover. The train ride from the airport to the city was dreamily quiet and, again, everyone was wearing masks except us and other Americans/Europeans/Australasians. The streets were eerily quiet. We visited the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden just as the cherry trees were starting to flower and saw a couple get their wedding photos in traditional kimonos. We ate ramen and spicy fries in a little bar where Japanese country music was playing. We were roughly handled by a real sushi chef. In short, it was everything we’d hoped!

March: Seattle & the Elderly

On March 2, a woman living at a nursing facility in King County, Washington State, died of coronavirus. Eventually 81 residents, 34 staff members and 14 visitors at the same facility would become infected and 23 people would die—the first outbreak in a nursing home. By the end of November, more than 100,000 long-term care facility residents and staff would die of the coronavirus in the US. Disturbing reports of neglect and lethally irresponsible decisions would emerge from carehomes in Canada, the UK , Europe, Australia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Italy was becoming the Wuhan of Europe. By March 9, 9,172 cases had been confirmed and the entire nation was in lockdown. There, too, the elderly of Bergamo died in staggering numbers.

Message in the window of a nursing home

In Japan, the airport had been a little chaotic but there was definitely a sense of emergency and people were required to wear masks at least. Prior to boarding, an airline official had come around with a clipboard asking if we’d visited China within the last 14 days. When we arrived at SeaTac airport, no one was wearing masks or acting like anything was different. I was interrogated for 15 minutes by border guards about why I wanted to enter the US. They did not wear masks nor mention the virus at all— I suppose they were worried I was a potential ‘illegal’.

April: New York & Emily

On March 1, the first patient in New York had tested positive for the virus. By April, there were 83,713 total cases and 1,957 deaths in the state. On April 10, New York State had recorded more COVID 19 cases than any single country other than the US. Some New Yorkers fled their apartments to seek safety in the country. Schools, restaurants, workplaces shut down and residents were required to stay at home except for essential activities, where they had to wear masks. Scenes emerged of temporary graves being dug in public parks, of exhausted healthcare workers, of makeshift disaster morgues.

Statue in Kenton, Oregon

We’d arrived in Portland, Oregon, but my thoughts often went to New York, where so many of our friends live. A couple we know were expecting their first child and I was extremely worried for them. Jasmine said her experience of labor in the middle of a pandemic was like a hell, and she is not someone who exaggerates. She’d been whisked away to a hotel that had been hastily adapted to function as a maternity hospital, the hospital staff were exhausted and grumpy and it was very daunting for a first-time mother. But Emily was born healthy and beautiful.

May:  Portland & Black Lives Shattered

In the USA (and elsewhere), COVID-19 was not just a virus, it was a political issue. The one time we used a taxi in Portland, the driver was not wearing a mask. He saw that we were masked up and told us that we shouldn’t believe what we hear on the ‘mainstream media’. He said that the virus was no different from the flu. Conspiracy theories about the virus gained traction.

Meanwhile, anger was growing about cases of white cops targeting and killing innocent black people. In March, three plainclothes police forced entry into a Kentucky apartment and shot young ER technician Breonna Taylor in her sleep. On May 25 Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Mural in West Belfast, 2020

By now we’d been in Portland for a couple of months. The neighborhood where we lived was characterized mainly by beautifully tended gardens designed to attract birds and bees, and chalked messages on the sidewalk saying things like ‘I Love You’ and ‘Hope’ decorated with hearts and rainbows. Mt. Hood stood serenely in the distance and the huge forest park cooled the whole city with its fragrant shadow.

On the news, though, Portland was portrayed as an apocalyptic firefight. Starting from May 29, there were protests in Portland demanding police reform, but they tended to be focussed on one point: the Justice Center downtown. Even after police used teargas and militarized federal law enforcement officers invaded the city in July, seizing protestors off the streets in unmarked minivans, protests continued.

Portland, hotbed of unrest

June: New Zealand & Felipe

In New Zealand, Jacinda Adern’s Labour Government put the country into full lockdown on March 25. By June 8, after a couple of quickly contained flare-ups, there were no active cases of Covid-19 in the country. This was a comfort to me primarily because my family lives there but also because it demonstrated that it was entirely possible for a political leader to deal effectively with an infectious outbreak.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a post cabinet press conference at Parliament on June 08, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In the US, our nieces graduated so we had a little get together on Zoom, the conferencing app that 2020 made famous. Like many students across the globe, they were deprived of the official graduation ceremonies. This was a problem that Japan solved with robots.

The end of June brought a huge loss when our friend Felipe Gutteriez passed away. I will always miss his good humour, elegance and quiet humanity.

Rose in Portland

July: Migration & Belfast

One thing that happened in 2020 was that borders closed fast and hard and there were many travel and transport restrictions. This was an essential part of stemming the spread of a deadly infectious disease. For many people looking forward to a summer holiday, it was an inconvenience. One lovesick Scottish man crossed the Irish Sea on a jet ski to see his girlfriend. For migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, though, it was a life-threatening nightmare. In the Asia Pacific region, migrants faced a higher risk of covid thanks to not being included in social security provisions. Indian migrant workers suddenly left without work were forced to walk or cycle thousands of kilometers to return to their home villages, and many of them had no money for food . There was a huge drop in people applying for asylum in the EU due to constraints on international travel and hardline border policies. In the UK, anti-immigrant sentiment increased . An enormous migrant camp appeared on the US border and government contractors in the US detained hundreds of migrant kids in black sites.

Fifteen-year-old Jyoti Kumari cycled 700km from New Delhi to her family’s village with her injured father, a migrant laborer, on the back of the bike. Read the story here.

Concerned by lost profits, American airlines resumed booking flights to 100% capacity at the start of July. Unfortunately, this was exactly when we were due to leave the US. The first thing that US border authorities had told me was that I was not welcome to overstay, and I was not about to call their bluff. So we took the scary step of flying from Portland to Seattle to Denver. From Denver we were going to fly to Iceland, which at that time was accepting foreign visitors. Unfortunately, the day we were supposed to go, Iceland closed its borders to most non-EU foreign nationals and that plan was scrapped. We spent a night in Denver figuring out what to do and decided to go to Belfast instead because the UK’s border was open. We arrived a few days before July 12, the beginning of the Orange Parade season.

Near Denver airport

August: Americas & Eating Out to Help the Spread

In August, COVID-19 was hitting the Americas hard. On July 29, Brazil set new COVID-19 records for a single day, reporting 70,869 cases and 1,554 deaths,  bringing the country’s totals to 2.5 million cases and 90,000 total deaths. Mexico had the third highest number of deaths from coronavirus in the world, with more than 62,000 fatalities. Argentina, Bolivia and Panama were hit by waves of protests against the combination of covid restrictions and economic recession. By the end of August, Peru had reported the highest number of deaths per capita from the coronavirus and had also posted the world’s deepest economic contraction in the second quarter.

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t get my health and wellbeing advice from this character

At this time we were living in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, a relatively new district near the port. The UK government introduced a scheme called Eat Out to Help Out, an ill conceived plan designed to help resuscitate the restaurant industry. Dozens of people in the city centre flocked to dining establishments and spent many maskless minutes indoors with strangers. Not surprisingly, this was probably responsible for eight to 17% of newly detected COVID-19 clusters in the UK in August and early September.

Sign outside a Northern Irish restaurant during an easing of restrictions

September: Spreading like Wildfire

India topped four million cases, the US seven million. In Europe, daily cases reach a record high on September 20. In the UK, 7,143 new cases were recorded in a single day, the country’s highest single-day jump since the beginning of the pandemic. Indonesia recorded several daily case records on five consecutive days.

Meanwhile, California experienced 13 large wildfires. One of these, nicknamed Bobcat, was one of the largest recorded in the history of Los Angeles County.

We took a taxi tour of Belfast, a highlight of which were the political murals on the Peace Walls, many of them dealing with contemporary issues such as racial injustice in the US, the importance of the National Health Service in the UK and the pressing issue of Climate Change.

Pictorial tribute to the NHS on Divis Street (the Falls)

October: In Sickness & In Obscene Wealth

Spain declared a national state of emergency, and the French and UK governments both announced a nationwide lockdown. In the UN’s COVID-19 and Universal Health Coverage policy brief, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that “inadequate” global health care systems had contributed to the millions of deaths from the pandemic so far. He stressed that universal health care was a key recommendation.

Meanwhile, in Belfast, we moved to a house near the Falls Road, famous for its Republican sympathies in the sectarian strife of the Troubles. We visited Milltown cemetery, where many Republican partisans are buried. It was an area with a strong Socialist presence and every second lampost had stickers announcing the failure of Capitalism and pointing out the huge profits that billionaires have been raking in since the beginning of the pandemic.

November: A Sea Change

The US elections on November 3 were won by Joe Biden and his running mate Kemala Harris. Trump refused to concede and later claimed that the elections were rigged. On November 8 scientists at Pfizer and BioNTech announced that a new coronavirus vaccine stopped 90% of cases.

In its final trial it has been shown to be 95% effective.

In November we moved to a house in Bangor, by the sea, and spent the days trying to spot eider ducks and guillemots. John tried cold-water swimming and decided it was a bit too cold.

A turnstone in Bangor

December: Dublin & Brexit

On December 16, the US passed 19 million cases. About one in every 22 North Americans had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. By December 26, one of every 1,000 North Americans had died from the disease. In late December it became clear that a new, more transmissible strain of the virus had appeared in UK. Macron closed the French-UK border just a few days before the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020.

Thousands of trucks were motionless at the Port of Dover on December 24

On December 30, with our time in the UK nearly up, John and I took a taxi from Belfast to Dublin. We didn’t know where the border is and there were no checks on the way. When we got to town it was very cold. Ireland had lockdown restrictions in place so we walked up and down the street until it was time to meet our new landlord.

The New Year

And so we come to 2021, which lacks the fearful symmetry of 2020 and hopefully will be lopsidedly gentle on everyone. Happy New Year!

Statue in Belfast outside Carlisle Memorial Church, just down the road from Mater Hospital