Pandemic: not the game

If you had told me a year ago that March 2020 would see much of Asia, Europe, and the Americas on lock-down, schools closed, fines for leaving your house without the appropriate forms, shuttered restaurants, closed borders, a ban on international travel, bankrupt airlines, an impending internet collapse, manufacturers switching to emergency medical equipment production, millions of jobs lost, and thousands dying daily due to one virus, I would have told you to lay off the YA novels. But here we are. March 2020: the month Covid-19 became a pandemic.

A couple years ago, we ran a simulation exercise looking at how prepared we are for a pandemic. The result? We are not. Countries ran out of hospital beds, health workers were ill-equipped, at-risk, and in short supply, and containment was stifled by weak and disconnected health systems failing to communicate infection rates in a timely manner. We wrote about how important it is to invest in strengthening public health systems and building resilience to absorb shocks such as outbreaks, climate change-driven disaster, and/or conflict. The report was sent off somewhere (probably the highly-populated land of reports no one reads).

To see the real thing unfold has been a bewildering experience. As someone who doesn’t work on the front lines of health systems, I can’t help but feel useless. The kind of public health work I’m supposed to do comes into play before any of this happens. If we’re doing our jobs right, the average person shouldn’t be thinking about healthcare, let alone fearing for their lives. The feeling of uselessness gets even stronger as the pandemic cripples other public health measures, such as access to safe housing and food.

As Covid-19 rages on, it’s unraveling not just health systems, but also chunks of the social and economic infrastructure we’ve laid out. The gross underbelly is being shoved in our faces and suddenly we’re all surprise-pikachu-faced. As billions of dollars disappear from markets and businesses shut down, those at the bottom of the food chain are faced with impossible rent payments and children they struggle to feed. Trickle down economics works in reverse when it comes to loss. Millionaires sing “imagine no possessions” while the homeless and the paycheck-to-paycheck don’t need the imagination. I shudder to think of what may happen if (likely when) Covid-19 hits refugee camps and homeless populations. We are still in the somewhat early stages of this pandemic’s true impact and we’ve underestimated it for so long that I’m not sure there’s much wiggle-room for mitigation.

There have been several models floating around on what the pandemic could look like and how containment and suppression would work. The “flattening curve” has been ubiquitous (and I say this with the knowledge that cat memes have been created around it, which, let’s be honest, is the definition of ubiquitous). What the flattened curve doesn’t explicitly mention is the potential for several peak infection waves. It seems to suggest that we can all hole up in our houses for a few weeks, boring the virus into submission until it decides to pack up and find a different planet. In reality, without a vaccine (which will likely come in a little over a year), as soon as we loosen the quarantine and social isolation measures, infection rates will rise again and we’ll need another period of quarantine and social isolation. And so on and so forth until there is sufficient population-level immunity. The Imperial College model has also been a particularly intriguing/ terrifying one due to its grim predictions. Basically, millions will die if we do nothing or very little. If we do everything, we can lower that number, but drag out the pandemic and disrupt livelihoods further (which has other long-term health and social consequences). That said, the virus itself, as terrible as it is, could have been a lot worse. For example, it could have been Ebola (though Ebola is kind enough to be less transmissible partly because it knocks people off their feet before they can transmit further whereas people carrying Covid-19 can fly about as they please, spreading the love before they ever feel truly ill).

The moniker Covid-19 comes from it being the “Novel Coronavirus Disease of 2019.” Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses including SARS, MERS (which in retrospect now seem like the nicer siblings), the common cold, pneumonia, etc. Fun fact – the name comes from the crown (corona)- like spike proteins around the virus that bind to the host cell. The origin is often attributed to bats via an intermediary species, potentially pangolins (scaly anteater whose scales are sold as a cure-all) sold in “wet markets.” The virus attacks the respiratory system via the lining of the respiratory tree, namely type 2 pneumocytes in the alveoli. Basically, it triggers an immune response that can eventually lead to alveolar collapse and hypoxemia (hence the difficulty breathing), alveolar consolidation (hence the cough), raised body temp (fever), and so on (I’m not a doctor and I took pathophysiology 10 years ago, but this guy’s great). Imagine all this without the appropriate equipment. Hospitals are already running out of ventilators and in some communities, they never existed in the first place.

The early days of the pandemic were riddled with false reports and denial across the world. China persecuted Dr. Li Wenliang who first sounded the alarm of an outbreak despite efforts to keep it quiet. He eventually died of the disease himself and was celebrated as a martyr. Tragic. Iran then kept things quiet as the virus made its way through Qom, a pilgrimage city, using the holy sites as a hotbed of hosts. The reticence is attributable to the desire of the Grand Ayotollahs to assert their power through the annual celebration of 22 Bahman (Feb 11th). The 22 Bahman demonstrations commemorate the Islamic Revolution’s “victory” in 1979 and mass participation is seen as crucial in affirming the continued will of the people to support the Islamic regime. Not only did they not cancel demonstration in light of the Covid-19 threat, but they encouraged people to show up in masses. Later as the situation disintegrated further, officials hemmed and hawed over closing shrines until eventually announcing their closure in March (I won’t get into the hardliners that then stormed the closed shrines…). Like everywhere else, the outbreak in Iran unveiled underlying social tensions, further highlighting the 40-year battle between religion and secularism.

Four months after the discovery of Covid-19, China’s achieved a success story by quickly applying strong measures to contain spread. They’ve gone so far as sending their response team to help in Italy, where the outbreak is devastating the population. Iran’s had a harder time of it while being further crippled by additional US sanctions. The US had a rough start as well with a testing kerfuffle early-on and a reluctance to believe experts’ warnings. Experts are also scrambling to develop expertise. Nearly everything feels unprecedented. We don’t really know the virus itself. New research is being pumped out at impressive rates highlighting things like the virus’ ability to stay on surfaces for 2-3 days, the potential for re-infection, the effect of ibuprofen, etc. Economic and political impact estimates are being released daily, but they’re rendered obsolete just as quickly as they’re produced. Everything feels as though it’s up in the air.

What happens when technology becomes an even bigger “savior”? Is this the catalyst for a remote working revolution? Will educators shift their focus? What will international travel look like? Should I have bought stock in a telemedicine app?

How long will unemployment last? Will people get their retirement savings back in time? What will happen to supply chains? Who are the winners, beside Amazon, Zoom, and Peloton bikes? Who are the losers, beside the hospitalized and the unemployed? Is the mom-and-pop-shop a relic? Will city design shift back towards sprawl rather than density?

Will we be able to use the crisis to fix the broken underbelly of our public systems? Will the right to health be more respected? Will we see more support for climate adaptive investments? Will people make decisions out of individual fear of future pandemics or out of hope for collective resilience?

Or will nothing happen? Will we emerge from our homes with a few extra kilograms only to slip right back into business as usual? Will we forget that air quality improved dramatically as we slowed down? Will the vulnerability and situational anxiety fail to inspire empathy?

For now, those of us who are lucky enough not to be very sick, to have safe homes, to have protective nationalities, and frankly, to have an internet connection, are coming to terms with “limitations” to which we’re unaccustomed. Governments and the WHO are having so much trouble getting people to stay at home and respect social distancing (sorry, “spatial distancing”) and isolation rules, that the term Covidiot has popped up.

The definition of the word ‘Covidiot’ is when a stupid person who stubbornly ignores ‘social distancing’ protocol, thus helping to further spread COVID-19.

The word Covidiot also describes a stupid person who hoards groceries needlessly spreading COVID-19 fears and depriving others of vital supplies.

The great toilet paper shortage of 2020 will go down in history as a shitty situation nested within a crappier one.

I’ve found myself glued to Twitter, cycling between horrifying predictions, pleas from the front lines, politicians’ speeches reminiscent of war-time pronouncements, and of course, top-notch memes. The internet’s been a much more interesting place over the last few weeks, but honestly, I’d rather be bored.

Intuitive Being

Most people tend to strive to be better. To know more. To do more. To see more. To weigh less. To waste less. To love deeper. To smile brighter. To work harder. To play wilder. To be more unique. To be less weird. This desire – coupled with capitalist programming around productivity – makes us eager to cash out on fad lifestyle “diets” while gurus cash in.

According to BookNet Canada, between 2013 and 2017, there was a 56% increase in print sales in the category of sale-help or personal growth- with 22% growth just between 2016 and 2017. The top 3 selling self-help books of 2017 were The Little Book of Hygge (From the Happiness Research Institute), the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and the Happiness Equation. We are quite literally trying to buy happiness. And it doesn’t stop with print media. Audiobooks, podcasts, youtube videos, lifestyle coaches – these have all experienced growth in the past few years as people search for this elusive happiness.

We track our mood, our goals, our food, our sleep – always promising ourselves that this week will be the week that we go to bed before 11, work out at 6am, drink 8 glasses of water, fill in the bullet journal, be a badass b*tch at work, meditate, keep up with friends, run the 10k, and maintain a picture-perfect relationship. And then we fail. Much like the person who gains 10kg after losing 5kg on a crash diet, the failure feels heavier after the concetrated spurt of effort.

In the world of dieting and health, these diet cycles lead to disordered eating and problematic relationships with food. Enter intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is about eating what you need, when you need it, to satisfy hunger. The model is then complicated by intrinsic and extrinsic factors that define what it means to “satisfy” (fashion vs fitness motivations; social vs emotional drivers, etc). For now, let’s just go with eating what your body asks for, when your body asks for it.

Like most eating trends, “intuitive eating” is another label that allows books to be sold, YouTubers to be paid, and people to feel in control. Contrary to a lot of other dieting fads however, intuitive eating is associated with “more positive body image and positive emotional functioning,” and less disordered eating. It’s also more associated with weight maintenance and stability.

Naturally, this made me think… if intuitive eating offers some respite from volatility, shouldn’t “intuitive being” do the same for general mood and wellbeing? That is, doing what you want, when you want with the purpose being to satisfy a personalized type of soul-hunger. For some, that hunger may be curiosity, for others it may be space, for still others, it may be love, and so on. I’ve had a strange few months and while I know that I have some kind of deficiency, I don’t know exactly what would feed my personal hunger.

Last month, I installed a goal-tracking app on my phone with items like, “morning exercise,” “read before bed,” “sleep before 11,” “limit phone use to 1 hour,” and so on. I managed for two weeks before I started ignoring the notifactions. This morning I noticed that I’d gotten completely accustomed to chastising myself as I look at the notifaction stating that I’ve missed my streak for the 14th day in a row. Basically, I gained extra weight in internal guilt.

Like a chronic dieter, I have to first learn how to listen to what my body and mind need before putting them on a diet of assorted “good habits.” This month, the goal-tracker’s getting the boot. My only goal is to find the little things that satiate.

Start

It’s a little less fuck the patriarchy and a little more gather the faithful, 
              the architects, 
              the incendiaries,
              the beautiful brainiacs.
And this is the start.

There’s a wisdom in the world that tells us all to put in our time. Drawing lessons across days in fortified walls where, softly painted in white-washed intentions, we emerge more palpable for immersion into revolutionary ranks. CEOs setting their KPIs ask me my 1, 2, and 3:

  1. What do you want to do? (Increase global access to essential medicines).
  2. How will you do it? (Cue economic x’s and policy plans—the good stuff).
  3. Why will you do it? (To alleviate pain. Always, to alleviate pain).

It’s the last point where I tend to diverge from my cloistered colleagues and it’s given rise to the true list I want to be: honest and fearless and kind.

This year, I will leave academia and in that departure, I hope to convey my gratitude to those who have trained me. With humility, acknowledging what my mind could not have seen years ago: that my view of the world and myself needed breaking, strengthening. And with pieces now joined in new ways, I can thank those before me for knowledge and drive and empowerment—

the tenants of their institution I can respectfully hold while passing them by saying:
               Trust me.
               We’ve got this next part.
               We’ll do it right.
Now let us begin.

At Her Feet

Raat ki rani—Queen of the night.
Sitting beneath her, words softly chanted
at the base of this plant blooming in darkness.
Saturated stillness as she transcended

to spiced air thick at Coco Beach, that blue coast of Dar.
A riptide. Left suspended in deception of
flowered sweetness
she lands on a Punjabi night, sitting silently
in Sector 8 (the name, that name sounding
already of dystopian fate).

Ringed through an ocean and four states to this place,
and who was I?
Who was I to stop her flight?
Her world divided, and who am I?
To say she isn’t right.

In frantic expectation her open eyes see me
my father’s dark tone, her own wild hair,
all rooted here in a world unknown.

Roots will twist and weave, in unending strife
to an undying glow. And who is she?
Rootless and light.
For what does she yearn, if denied that right?

Her rootless flight.

Screaming now at the days she was deprived.
Screaming now at the love she cannot find,
Screaming, screaming to get out of the sun,
-it was never meant for me.

And who am I to cry back at her?
A heart can split in so many ways.

“Create”

“Create before you consume.” It’s a line from a fictional guru – a gently satirized instafamous narcissist dealing with unresolved trauma coated in turmeric lattes and crystalline water. I’ve been reading a bit more fiction recently and it really blurs the boundaries of creation and consumption. As a reader, you sometimes end up doing half the work in making the story come together. That’s my favourite – the freedom to let your experiences, concerns, subconscious thoughts intertwine with another’s and give a story multiple dimensions. I like reading reviews after I’ve read a book just to see all the different interpretations one text can take in the hands of its readers.

That said, this level of “creation” (and I know it’s a stretch to call it that) seems to be all I can muster these days. At least my creation and consumption rates are balanced – I’m not consuming much of anything besides fiction and sweet potatoes either.

I don’t know why. I have time. I should have mental energy. I guess I just don’t see the point?

It’s always the same refrain in my head,

“why write if it’s all been said.”
“why paint when so many people do it better anyway.”
“why play the piano when you’re not naturally talented.”

The same general pattern of thinking plagues my ability to think of satisfying work options.

I know it lacks some fairly fundamental logic. I mean, why breathe if 7 billion others are doing it too. But I’ve been like this since I was little.

Even writing this seems stupid. I’m only doing it because I have an awkward amount of time between having finished my book and needing to go pick up my mom.

And that time just ran out.

Frumpy frog in water

frog.jpeg(I wish I could write about world events, or history, or science…but recently all I can muster is more angsty musing on myself. You’ve been warned.)

Before I moved to London, I read Marie Kondo’s book on organisation and minimalism, and I’m ashamed to say…I used her powers for evil. Instead of curating a small universe of carefully selected and cared-for items, I curated a collection of lovely things…and then never replaced anything as they inevitably wore out. There are lots of excuses for this: stress, loneliness, hatred of shopping in London, the financially-devastating-but-ultimately-life-making decision to take a gruelling, low-paying academic job to be closer to my person, etc.

Over time, everything got duller, thinner, more worn down…and I carried on. Three of your 10 shirts became too dilapidated to wear in public? No problem! You have seven shirts left: one for each day of the week! Ran out of make-up? No problem, just wear less and stop looking in mirrors. No hair dryer? Just used your partner’s 10-year old mini travel hairdryer. Don’t like your hair? Just throw it in a bun always and pretend its not happening.

In parallel to this, I started travelling frequently (the kind where you only ever have time to remove clothes from the suitcase, clean them, put them back, and go). Full days on airplanes, exercise foresaken, love of making veggie-ful dinners after work stamped down….

For a while all of this is fine. Until one day, 18 months after I’d Marie Kondo’d the shit out of my life, I realised that I hate the way I look and feel. It may sound ridiculous, but I owe all of my thanks for snapping me out of this slump to Queer Eye.

What I thought would be a fun show about makeovers was actually about personal transformation, and about the connection between physical self-care to mental self-care. Now, I no doubt am touched with depression…can’t manage to follow through on most things, good feelings are muted and bad feelings are on full-volume, and my motivation to take care of my body/appearance is pretty much gone. I can’t deal with all of this at once, but what I can do is take physical self-care seriously as an intermediate step.

I’ve started exercising. I’ve started eating a healthy breakfast, and making smaller and veggie-ful dinners. (I’ve lost 6 pounds in a few weeks without too much work, and my pants fit again…) I’m forcing myself to buy one item of clothing every other week (socks and underwear don’t count). So far, I’ve purchased two shirts (albiet the same shirt in two colors…) I am taking care of my skin with a proper cleansing and moisturising routine. I just bought make up.

I am taking baby steps out of the near-boiling pot of water, and probably unsurprisingly, each day I am feeling a bit more positive.

 

Professional Pride

Happy Nowruz! March 20th marked the beginning of Spring and rang in the Persian new year. During Nowruz, family and friends gather around a spread laid out with 7 items that start with the letter “seen” (س) and represent things like life, vitality, reflection, health, abundance and so on.

I did it wrong. No family. No spread.

Instead my brain was cycling through its usual panic about what consistently feels like the wrong career track – and the sacrifices made to be on that “wrong” career track (see above – no family, no spread). I’m honestly not sure any other career track would’ve made a difference in my revulsion towards my professional identity. I feel that I would’ve found some way to be a contrarian regardless. Still, when my brain is doing this marathon, I can’t help but wonder,
“what if?”

What if I had become an engineer or a doctor. You know, a real profession. One that is easily recognizable as being important and contributing to society. One that has a sense of community and belonging associated to it. (I know, I know. It’s not that black and white. But I barely control this thought process once it gets going).

My favorite human was recently inducted into a real profession. My little sister is all grown up and calling herself an engineer – iron ring and all. Canadian-trained engineers all get presented with an iron ring in “The Ritual of Calling of an Engineer.” The ring is small, rough-edged and worn on the pinky of the dominant hand to symbolize “the pride which engineers have in their profession, while simultaneously reminding them of their humility.” Wikipedia has more on this. The ring ceremony involves an existing engineer presenting the ring to a newly-minted one. My sister’s ceremony was on Sunday. She’d been excited about it for months and I wanted to know how the ceremony had helped set her up for transitioning from “student” to a member of a professional body. The following exchange ensued:

Me: Do you think the ceremony makes a difference in how engineers see their careers? do you think that it makes you feel more a part of a profession, more supported, part of a community? Did it trigger pride?

Sis: Yes to the community, cause the whole purpose of the ceremony is to “unite” the engineers and promise to contribute to society while supporting each other (literally by all holding a connected chain and taking an oath)
I wouldn’t say the ceremony necessarily triggered pride cause it’s so old and hasn’t been changed that things are very “christian male oriented”
but the ring itself yes, cause obviously it’s recognized by society as a symbol of hard work?

Me: What elements are “christian male oriented”?

Sis: umm they read a couple poems that are supposed to be the basis of what an engineer is but there’s a ton of christian references (that I wouldn’t be able to tell you cause I was tuning in and out for exactly that reason cause it was of no interest to me) and one of the main poems they kept referring to is called “sons of Martha” and they kept saying an engineer is a son of Martha

Me: hahah Who’s Martha… I’m getting Atwood flashbacks.

Sis: before one of the poems though the master of ceremonies literally apologized that it was about to become very christian. That was amusing.

Me: Do you feel like there’s space to change that?

Sis: umm not sure about changing it, cause it’s something that’s been around for like 100 years

Me: Do you think the ceremony is a good thing to have overall? vs not having it?

Sis: yea I think so because the main part of the ceremony is the actual giving of the ring by an engineer that has promised to support you and like, introduce you to the “values” of being an engineer
does that make sense?
like it’s better than just picking up an iron ring

Me: the sense of continuity within the field?

Sis: Yea

Me: So, are you proud of yourself? (I’ve been showing your iron ring photos to anyone with eyes so … we know where I stand)

Sis: =D =D =D of course! And something else I’m proud of – they said the ring is rough around the edges to represent how an engineer is rough around the edges/intricacies of their brain and society appreciates/needs that.

Me: Hey, I’ve been calling you rough around the edges for yeeears! ❤

My ulterior motive with this exchange was to have written proof to come back to later should she tumbles down the same career malcontent rabbit hole I seem to love so much. A receipt to show her that she started out her career with pride and a sense of professional integrity. And there will always be a way to tap back into that. In her case, she just has to glance down at her right pinky.

Cross-posted from femails.org