I — Black Swan Cometh

“But a lot more people die of Hepatitis B or Pneumonia, or for that matter of traffic accidents! This COVID humbug is sensationalist media and Whatsapp University,” I was holding forth, with the righteousness of a clueless.

We were with friends at a restaurant. The date was 13th March 2020, and WHO had raised the severity of infection to a ‘pandemic’, the previous day. In the last two weeks, COVID-19 had moved from a tragic aberration in some distant corner of the world, to the topic on everyone’s mind. We had just returned from a fat Indian wedding and planning the next vacation before it got too warm. Covid, to my mind, was someone else’s problem.

One friend was busy on Google “well, the world over, 128 K have been infected, and 4,700 have died! Top reported cases are China, Italy, Iran, and South Korea.” The mention of neighboring Iran rattled a bit, and my argument lost a little steam. Mr. Google further droned–“The transmission rate is same as Spanish flu, SARS & TB at 1.5–3.5%. Measles or Chickenpox transmits faster, but they have been successfully inoculated. Medical experts say that 80% of the infections will be cured by just staying at home but 20% will need hospitalization, of which 6% may need ICU treatment.”

My wife looked at me and said maybe we should buy those masks that CNN and BBC are recommending. Post dinner, when we walked out, the pharmacy next door was selling a box of surgical masks for about a dollar apiece — we didn’t buy. Little did we know that our next outing to a restaurant will not happen for 6 months, and the masks will disappear from the market in 48 hours!

In the following week, the country shuts down — schools and colleges close sine die, Work from Home protocols established, restaurants reduce occupancy, hotels down shutters, gyms stop, flights banned, quarantine norms established, and marriages celebrations and such events canceled. An entire residential district in Dubai is cordoned off for weeks, door-to-door medical checks conducted, police roam on streets at all hours, fines issued, and streets disinfected with drones and spray-trucks. The world over events like Expo 2020, Tokyo Olympics, Wimbledon get deferred, or canceled; travelers, vacationers, honeymooners find themselves stranded, with no flight to get back home. Like falling dominoes, countries outdo each other in imposing lockdowns.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,”–Lenin

The world, as we recognized it, collapses — Markets crash–S&P drops by 24%; Crude oil from January high by 51%, in March, and then goes on to a negative price in April! Gold, the safe haven, creeps up from $ 1,480 to more than $1,600. Margin calls start arriving.

Tomas Pueyo on 19th March publishes a viral blog post — Corona virus: The Hammer and the Dance, packed with data modeling, exhorting the USA and Europe to take more drastic actions. He dubbed the period of lockdown to squelch the disease as “the hammer” and the subsequent period of living with it as “the dance.”

With kids in the USA, and parents and family in India, we straddle two different universes.

In the USA, media coverage is all about pandemic, but their president is busy with golf. In India, media coverage is anything but pandemic, and Central Government is in the afterglow of snatching another state from the opposition. The Ministry of Health is downplaying the virus. And our India friends are content with milk-turmeric every night.

In this hyper-connected world, there is a need for a coordinated response, but WHO is floundering. There is a huge disparity in emergency responses — Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea invoke a coherent plan, having learned their lessons from the SARS 2008. Europe and the USA are wrong-footed. Italy and then NYC have gone for a complete shutdown. Infections and deaths have been doubling every three days in the USA, Spain, and Italy. The world is turning darker by the day.

Over the next weeks, my own emotions swing wild–from anxiety about not enough being done or swiftly, to all this being a media baloney. The lines dividing fear and reason, panic and patience, uncertainty and faith have blurred.

And the truth is upon us — anything that exponentially spreads needs to be feared, and any problem in any part of the world is only one flight away.

II Pandemonium

In Dubai, companies announce salary cuts, send staff on furloughed leave, and the loss of jobs looks imminent. One can’t get in a bank without wearing a mask and supermarkets layout stickers at 6 feet distance to avoid crowding. Landlords defer rent collections in UAE, and the homeless in the USA may stay in hotels, free of cost. Over 50% of the world population is in lockdown. Government and Central Banks are throwing kitchen sinks at the economy to fend off this pandemic and yet coming short. New terms like WFH (Work from Home) PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), Social Distancing enter everyday conversations.

India now wakes up to the gravity when the Supreme Leader invokes the celestials and asks the country to ‘Thali Bajao/Diya Jalao’ quackery. When the Gods pay little heed, he imposes a countrywide lockdown from 24th March midnight, at a four hours’ notice, with scant planning or consultation.

Schools and university students are thrown an unprecedented curveball. Classroom lectures were canceled, semester shifted online, campus living vamoosed, graduation ceremonies denied, intercity or international travel restricted, they now face weeks/months of enforced isolation and shortage of basic goods. Yet they process this bizarre life lesson with poise, dignity, and empathy. They lose their innocence early; they gain their wisdom fast.

Doctors are tasked with an existential paradox — Who to live and who to die? Other than emotions attached to human life, there were ethical and legal issues. But with the shortage of medical infrastructure and growing influx of patients, medical front liners and doctors face a dilemma — should the ventilator be given to a 26-year-old with two young kids or a 70-year-old retiree.

It’s a horror movie, the car has careened off-road and falling off the cliff, now hurtling down the rocks, turning over, and over… slo-mo 24 fps… and no idea if it’ll stop against a boulder, or crash in a fireball in the valley deep below. And I am in that car…f*#k! Everybody that I know is in the same car…

Feels surreal, like seeing a dystopian movie or a bad dream… hoping to wake up any moment in a cold sweat. It’s bizarre that until recently, this was someone else’s problem, far away, and our conversations were of the next vacation plan, or restaurant recommendation. Those moments of certainty and contentment look distant, from another life.

These are some of the changes that emerged in a matter of weeks -

  • Extended travel restrictions — tourism and hotels industries shattered, massive loss of jobs
  • Social gatherings, celebrations, marriages, religious congregations restricted. Violators get heavy fines
  • Anxiety, loneliness, depression rise. Telemedicine grows
  • Takeout and home delivery everywhere; E-Commerce and Amazon stocks rock
  • The arrival of remote therapy, yoga lessons, coaching, pets training, social games, zoom parties
  • Death of branch banking and physical payments–customers move online
  • Churches, Mosques, Temples, Synagogues–closed
  • In Dubai — mass disinfection with the drones, traffic radars capturing curfew breakers, E-Pass to even step out of the house.
  • Industries and distilleries repurposed to manufacture Hand Sanitizers, Face Masks, and PPE
  • Force Majeure everywhere — too many contracts broken
  • Peak unemployment — increased automation, remote capable workforce
  • Government forced to spend on health care–and stockpile medical equipment
  • U.S. states bidding against each other for PPE and commandeering essential supplies of Germany and Canada
  • Empty NYC streets, quiet Times Square, deserted Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. And WA forwards of wildlife creeping into urban space!
  • Rise of xenophobia /racial scapegoating — Hindu versus Muslim in India, Asian Americans, and Jews in the USA. They call the pandemic a Chinese virus, China’s bio-weapon, 5G Hawaii banned
  • Front-line workers hailed from balconies yet they’re scared to go to their own homes
  • Pockets of purpose and joy, even in the midst of loss and pain — NGOs swing into action, Langar Seva/ public kitchens serving free food to all.

III — The narrative changes

Shutting down the entire world was an unprecedented step, a terra incognita into which the governments had walked in. Human life is an emotive issue, and that predicated the initial responses. Contrarian ‘Herd immunity’ assertions were more nuanced, and they clashed sharply with popular opinion — UK tried to go that route, but soon changed course. Democracies after all are meant to cater to public sentiments.

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer.

As summer months rolled in, the economic costs of total lockdowns showed-up–Unemployment numbers ballooned and social welfare budgets busted. Politicians sat on the horns of a dilemma. They now argue that the solution should be proportionate to the problem. The public policy space, occupied only by medical science so far, now called Economics & Finance to the table. The narrative started changing to cost-benefit analysis. Economies could slowly open up. Efforts were made to revive demand that was kneecapped since the March lockdown.

As better data rolled in, the medical protocols also evolved to realistic levels, and it allocated limited resources accordingly. Much lauded “Bhilwara model” in India (that bolted down a kilometer radius of any detected infection) quickly gave way to posting a quarantine notice at the home of the infected person.

Everywhere, the government pushed to open up the economy. It shifted the onus for taking precautions back to citizens, and many felt betrayed, abandoned. Overnight the public was asked to grow up, make prudent choices, and live with the consequences! To some, it even felt like Russian roulette. The boot was on the other foot now.

Left to their devices, and forced to get out for their livelihood, masses found comfort in populous half-truths and unproven hypothesis–‘the germ will not survive in summer temperatures’, ‘Indians have innately higher immunity because of pollution levels’, ‘mutation spreading in our country is weaker than Western Europe’, etc. Similar stories played out in Brazil, India, Mexico…

“We, the poor, are immune to the coronavirus” — Miguel Ángel Barbosa, governor of Puebla, Mexico

Pandemic exposed predictive powers of astrology, palmistry, and such other pseudosciences. Yet the traffic on these online sites spiked to an all-time high! In times of distress, more people clutched at the straws, ambiguous promises, in the quest for answers.

I too wondered if all this is happening because I didn’t forward that email to 10 people!

IV- We are all in different boats

Meanwhile, the pandemic was doing what it does best–growing, morphing, receding, spiking across the planet. And the world was responding to it in diverse ways.

In March in the USA, NYC has tested three times more than LA, and found its discovery rate 10 times more! Experts claimed it’s the urban density, use of MRT, and LA’s early move on social distancing.

Sweden took a contrarian approach to Norway and Denmark, going for the contentious ‘Herd Immunization’, and kept its cafes, playgrounds, gymnasiums open. Experts claimed Sweden has different demographics, only one big city, and better public self-restraint and sense of responsibility.

UAE went for gradual tightening or loosening of a screw, like an analog regulator for controlled brightening of a light bulb or the volume dial on the radio.

India on the other hand chose the on /off binary with an abrupt countrywide shutdown.

Pollyannas of social media coin a hashtag–“We are in it together!” #weareinittogether! Well, sorry, I don’t see how? We are not in it together. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.

  • For some quarantine is optimal — a moment of reflection and reconnection, in track pants and flip-flops, with a coffee or a cocktail. For others, it’s a desperate financial and family crisis.
  • Some want to or have to go back to work because they are running out of money. Others are willing to kill them for breaking the quarantine.
  • For those living alone, it’s desolation and heartache. For others, it is peace, rest, and quality time with the extended family, after a long time.
  • Some are discussing the treats for next weekend, others were concerned if there would be enough food for the weekend.
  • Some are spending 2–3 hours every day supporting their child with online schooling. Others are spending 2–3 hours per day helping their child with online schooling, on top of 10 hours work shift.
  • Some have experienced the near-death of a dear one, some have already lost someone, and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it. Others don’t believe it’s a huge deal.

We were in the same storm, but not in the same barge, and our journeys were unique.

It was important to look beyond what appeared at the first glance. Not just look, but actually, see. We were moving through a time when our perceptions, needs, fears, and realities are quite different. We needed to realize that and be kind.

(continued — part II available here)

PS–Though the memories above of ‘a year that wasn’t’ are personal, the experience of the pandemic has been universal. I would love to hear from you of any incident or life lesson that stands out. Please drop a comment.



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Ajay Goel

Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.