Pandemic Journal: #2


By 2020 humankind was fully virtual, and a bit more robotic and a lot less human. They were too busy fighting each other, to notice that nature was lurking around the corner ready to aggress against them. Nature chooses its own moments, it does not ask for permission, neither does it knock on one’s door before obliterating it. There are no grand announcements of Nature’s arrival, it simply attacks. It chose this moment to aggress against man, again, and it did not do so lazily. This is not the first time modern, virtual, robotic humanity, practicing the scientific method expertly, would confront nature. However, it may just be the first time in living memory, humankind would confront nature in its fullest rage.

For a virus to cause a pandemic that could potentially kill millions, it needs to maintain a delicate balance between contagiousness and deadliness. Deadly viruses like Ebola for example, are unable to cause pandemics, because patients get severely ill that they are immediately hospitalized and isolated; more often than not ending up dead within days.

In the 1918 influenza pandemic, the virus managed to maintain this balance, killing many, yet doing it at a rate that allowed it to be passed from one individual to the other spreading widely across the globe. In 2002 SARS broke out; it was deadly and it was contagious. However SARS is only contagious after the patient becomes symptomatic laying gasping for life in a hospital bed. 

COVID-19 mastered the balance between deadliness and contagiousness artfully.  What started as a generally mild virus, deadly to the elderly and those with chronic health conditions, or so we thought, has now raged on for a full year and is promising with its new mutants to continue its spread.  It is contagious even in asymptomatic patients, allowing the virus to move from one patient to the other without becoming symptomatically visible. It is smart and devious in that sense; it does not ask permission, it moves swiftly. It enters homes and spreads amongst families, at first giving a sense of false security, only to hit  loved ones viciously. 

In Palestine, there was a sense that the viral copy we had most of last year was  a mild one.  Today it is safe to say that this sense is no longer true.  As I write this, we can no longer pretend that the virus is life threatening to the elderly and the sick. Additionally, reports of symptoms rendering the young ill for weeks further confirms that no one is safe.   

One thing for sure, the lock down failed, at flattening the curve.  A year of on again off again lock downs and we find ourselves in face of a climbing curve, the higher it climbs the less concerned people seem.  It is not that lock downs are ineffective.  If history is the greatest teacher then there are many lessons to learn from the Spanish Influenza Pandemic. In fact epidemiologists rely on historical knowledge to inform their present day responses.  So by all accounts lock downs when community infections hit a high should have been effective and should have flattened the curve and stopped the virological spread.  But, we were never in real lock down, where we?  While the lock down seemed to apply on specific neighbourhoods and the center of one particular city, Ramallah, life proceeded business as usual elsewhere. Weddings, large gatherings, shopping sprees continued with no one to stop them.  

 While it is easy for leaders to turn and say this is an example of bad citizenship, that somehow the people have failed to act responsibly, this kind of rhetoric is inaccurate and seems to only relieve leaders from their own responsibilities. Those responsibilities being, planning, decision making and implementation. 

Starting with the lack of a serious set of measures for those who do not wear a mask, who do not adhere to social distancing, and continue to hold social gatherings with no precautionary health measures,  people will continue to not take heed of any decisions.  In addition to the selective implementation of rules and regulations, so this cafe/restaurant or bar (you fill the blank)  is open beyond curfew with no questioning, allowing its patrons a prolonged social gathering, while the falafel stand belonging to the old man and his sons whose only source of income is the number of five shekel sandwiches sold that day, gets shut down right at curfew, or maybe even five minutes before.  And the lack of a clear plan on how  the government will take care of its people, how will they compensate the daily falafel stand, or nawa’em boy.   And how will they pay off the debts of the restaurant owner and the mortgage of the Maitre Di with four children at one of the most popular restaurants in the city, as  they undulate between closures and openings.  Additionally, the lack of true governance beyond major city boundaries as per Oslo accord agreements and zoning.  Plus the contradictory messages received daily,  like on the eve of announcing that Palestinian hospitals are operating at 100% plus bed capacity, only to announce that all stores are open leading to the piling up of people like sardines no social distancing and a negligible number of masks in markets.  All of this have lead to a lack of trust in leadership that is unfortunately trickling down throughout society, and leading to one inevitable outcome…disaster. 

Death will lurk around the corner of every street, every harah and every family.  If illness is the nightside of life, then night has definitely fallen on Palestine and it may be a long time before the sun shines again. 

Yes, pandemics go beyond borders and pose a threat to humanity as a whole, however, rarely has a disease not been politicized with marginalized groups, and cultures paying the highest price. Palestinians are no different. And the pandemic has exacerbated our plight and has been a rude reminder of how low we place in the world order in terms of access to resources. The state of Palestine is a state under occupation after all. One can wonder if it is even a state these days.  In the coming few months we will be disabused of  our delusions of grandeur that plague us as a nation, as we cower in front of nature and roll into the night of life. 

We managed in the last year to corner ourselves into a health vs economy vs education (do not even get me started on schools) debate.   That is not the debate we should be having.  We should be having a serious conversation on how to open? how to implement regulations?  how to push onwards without paying the highest price…human life. 

We should have been having conversations on how to increase hospital capacities, how to support and protect our overworked and underpaid heath workers, our best and brightest.  The conversation should have also been about what relief can be offered to families who rely on per diem pay, should a lock down become inevitable. 

Instead document upon document of regulations for every single sector was put out, and shared widely with no real follow up.  The only sector that operated like there is a pandemic, outside the health sector, and in my opinion did so like a champion, is the educational sector.  

We hung our hopes on immunization.  But in Palestine the vaccine remains elusive.  Not only because we are a country rich in dignity, and poor in resources, but also because we failed to have the right conversation, the right debate.  Who will pay for the vaccine?  Should we act like an independent state and perhaps bite more than we can chew, or should we ask the occupying force to take its legal responsibilities and vaccinate the nation it has oppressed for decades?  And should the vaccine become available, how, and when, and who will get vaccinated first?  And who will make sure that the process is transparent, equitable and fair? But we did not have this conversation, and we remain looking down a dark tunnel. 

Life will go back to what it is, there is life after a pandemic. The world today is living proof of life after the Spanish Influenza. But the road of return is long, arduous, and heavily priced. 

For my conspiracy theorist friends, I pray this is all a conspiracy, not nature in its fullest rage, and biological history repeating itself…

“By 1918 humankind was fully modern, and fully scientific, but too busy fighting itself to aggress against nature. Nature, however, chooses its own moments. It chose this moment to aggress against man, and it did not do so prodding languidly. For the first time, modern humanity, a humanity practicing the modern scientific method, would confront nature in its fullest rage.”
The Great Influenza, John M Barry

For Pandemic Journal #1, please click here

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