Reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic

Part 2: COVID-19 and me living the biggest pandemia since 1918

Two weeks ago, EMBL Rome was shut down. Not long after, the whole city followed. This means I cannot leave my home in Monterotondo except for doing groceries or going to the doctor or a pharmacy. Since a couple of days, I cannot even go running. How do I feel about this?

In terms of adapting to ‘smart-working’ from home, I have always liked working in a quiet place. Furthermore, thanks to modern technology, we can continue to be in contact with our colleagues for virtual lab meetings, one-on-one meetings and journal clubs. As Cornelius Gross wrote in his latest post on this blog, for now the general atmosphere among EMBL Rome scientists seems vibrant and creative. It is possible that we will experience frustration or a lack of motivation at some point, but it does not seem to have happened yet. 

Being isolated in my flat, I do already miss the physical presence of people a lot. But I have decided to take this period as a challenge: experiencing solitude, if taken in a positive spirit, can hopefully trigger creativity. The feeling of saudade inspired incredibly emotional fado songs in the Portuguese women who had to watch their lovers while leaving for unknown places on the other side of the ocean. Emotional challenges, like someone’s physical absence, can stimulate reflections on what matters to us. It is almost like being forced to see our lives from a distance, and I want to take advantage of this. 

I also feel that solitude gives us freedom to experiment and more time to dedicate to personal study. And one of my goals for this period is to finally dedicate a bit of time every day to practice darbuka – a small hourglass shaped Middle Eastern drum – and to music in general (besides bioinformatics of course!).

Nonetheless, I have also been feeling anxious during this time. In fact, here is my confession: I feel anxious every time I remember what is keeping me at home. But what is it that causes this feeling?

The fact that I do not know when this whole period will end. The uncertainty. The fact that mathematical models (here a great article about this and here the follow-up from March 19) indicate that – if the measures we are taking are sufficient – we should see a drop in the curve of new positive cases around Easter. But there are different reasons why we cannot directly compare Italy with China – first of all the the latter having applied more strict social distancing measures as well as an efficient strategy of testing and tracing. And even when we reach that point of the curve, we may have to wait even longer (and it is not clear how much) before we can relax such measures so that we avoid a second peak in viral transmission. We will need patience if we do not want to make this effort useless. After this period of strict social distancing, if people actually respect it and the government puts in place an efficient strategy of testing, we should be able to keep the transmission rate low until a vaccine is available even by applying less strict social distancing measures. However, this will depend on people and on our government’s action, thus we – i.e. individual citizens – cannot really control whether something will go wrong.

Being faced with this ‘no end date’ made me think of the movie Paterson (2016, directed by Jim Jarmusch). The protagonist is a bus driver in a small US town for most of the day, a hidden poet the rest of the time. The main theme of the movie is the myth of the ‘solitary artist’, but for me it was another one: Paterson lives an incredibly ‘routine’ life, which is something that would probably scare me if I were in that position. However, he lives in peace with his life and himself, thanks to the fact that he has his notebook with him wherever he goes, so that he can write his poetry.

A scene from ‘Paterson’

Our lives are incredibly busy with input, activities, and people – and fast compared with other realities all over the world. We are of course able to ‘enjoy every moment’ and live each day by itself with happiness. But we often need to remind ourselves that we have a plan for the future. Speaking for myself: I hope this situation helps me to strengthen my ability to stay calm even when I am not sure about what it is going to happen. And, most importantly, to realize that this uncertainty about the future is always true in life (now it is just more obvious!) and that we cheat ourselves when we think the contrary.

In conclusion, we absolutely need to make this ‘special period’ fruitful:

  • as individuals, by doing something that will let us remember it
  • as a society, learning that we can function differently, perhaps more slowly, but not less efficiently
  • as colleagues and supervisors, learning to trust our co-workers and employees because they love their job even when they are far from their offices

And we should remember all these lessons. Let’s write about what we are experiencing, what we are learning. Let’s make something new during this period that survives our time and our memory. 

I emphasize this point because humans tend to forget easily and return to a previous state. Remembering does not seem to come naturally, but to require effort to frequently refresh our memory.

These days, people all over Italy are meeting – each on their own balcony – at the same hour to listen to music together. This gives me hope for strengthening the urban connectivity in cities that might have lost it. However, this will be possible only if we do not forget the importance of things like this after we return to our routine. 

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