I was tempted to call this post “A Day in the Life of Iwan Denissowitsches French Sister”, but reconsidered quickly because I didn’t want to be disrespectful to either the millions murdered in the Gulags nor Alexander Solschenizyn. It would’ve been catchy, though.
We have been in self-isolation in our house and small garden since the middle of last week. It was a rapidly evolving decision to shutter ourselves in after I came back from my last physical therapy session à la méthode McKenzie. I had worn gloves to open the doors to my therapist’s building and office, and I used my coat sleeve to open the door to his WC before leaving and I didn’t get close to any of the other patients. Was that enough? I didn’t see my therapist using hand sanitizer, but then, he didn’t actually touch me. He just demonstrated the exercises I was to execute on an upholstered treatment bench covered with a disposable sheet. I then repeated those movements on that very same sheet. Had he changed it after the patient ahead of me? Didn’t it look kind of crumbled? How easy it is to drive yourself nuts!
I washed those gloves as soon as I got home. They are made of beautifully stitched light grey suede and they are quite special to me. My grandmother used to use them for her daily morning exercise on her horse Jassa, roughly 50 years ago when she was the same age as I am now – my grandmother, not Jassa. When I started university, I lived at my grandma’s for the first two semesters. Gradually we developed certain routines in our communal lives. For example, before driving to the stables, she would make a Müsli for her breakfast. It consisted of some diced apple and banana, lemon juice, oat flakes, raisins, hazelnuts, and cream. She would leave a small bowl of Müsli for me on the kitchen counter so I wouldn’t go to classes on an empty stomach. This was also where she would dry her gloves after washing them in the utility sink in the far corner of the kitchen. Washing one’s suede gloves simply mean washing one’s hands in the Age of Corona, while wearing gloves. You diligently soap each finger, the in-between-the-fingers spaces, palms, thumbs, and the back of your hands. Rinse. Repeat. Then dry your gloved hands with a towel to soak up excess moisture and remove the still wet gloves. Take the handle of an old-fashioned wooden cooking spoon, inserting it into all the fingers, one by one, to separate the layers of leather. Finally, dry the gloves dangling from those cooking utensils. Since my grandmother went riding most mornings, there were usually gloves suspended over assorted crocks on the old, wooden draining board in her kitchen, right where she left the Müsli for me.
In order to restock the fridge and pantry after our first full week of seclusion, we had to go shopping. Currently, that is a potentially life-threatening activity for us old folks, but deliveries aren’t part of our lives here in the smalltown hinterlands of provincial France. One of the supermarket chains in Cognac called Auchan offers the next best thing, drive-through shopping. One orders online and picks up the order outside the store. Lately, this has been advertised as No-Touch-Drive-Through where you pull in and open your trunk, they load the purchases into your trunk and you drive off into the sunset.
I set down at the computer in the morning around 9hrs30 in my pajamas to work my way through the virtual Auchan shopping aisles. Three hours later, I was still in my PJs and ready to jump out the window. Owing to the extremely high internet traffic, the website was operating at a snail’s pace, switching again and again to a “we’re doing maintenance and will be back in a few minutes” page randomly alternating with “Oops, page not found” instead of loading the requested pages. Such fun! Some food choices were limited, but basic kinds of pasta and rice were available, and even toilet paper. Since my shopping basket tally reverted to zero several times during this lengthy ordering process, I checked out well before ordering every item on my long list. I just didn’t want to push my luck. My allotted pick-up time was roughly 24 hours later.
En los tiempos del coléra* one has to carefully consider how to emerge into the outside world. Firstly, one has to print and sign the government form in which one pledges on one’s personal honor that this trip to the grocery store is unavoidable. Then the customer and order numbers have to be verified in the Auchan app on one’s phone. Shopping bags have to be loaded, plus an insulated bag for frozen items. The person venturing out has to be outfitted with washable outer clothing, a gaiter** in place of a mask, disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, and courage.
Although I encountered a checkpoint along the way, the Gendarmes waved me through without demanding my paperwork. I suppose a grey-haired old lady in a batterie-powered mini-car posses little thread to the community! The pick-up @AuchanDrive worked very well and was so efficient that I backed into our garage with my load of groceries in no time flat. That’s when the real work began. Since any number of people had touched the groceries and our bags, and we now know that the virus lives happily up to five days on assorted surfaces, everything had to be wiped down with alcohol and then repackaged if at all possible. After that chore, the shopping bags were sanitized as well, and the car door handles, the steering wheel, stick shift, not to forget the little button with which I fold in the side mirrors so that the car fits through the narrow garage door, and the car keys, naturally, everything had to be wiped down, including the table in the utility room were all our groceries had awaited their individual bath. That done, gloves disposed of, I stripped and loaded the washing machine with my potentially contaminated clothing. Next came personal sanitation. Throat gargling with an antiseptic mouthwash which isn’t actually anti-viral, but tastes so bad that it must be a corona killer, how could it not be? I also washed my glasses in hot soapy water followed by a long, hot shower for myself.
I may be paranoid, but the CoVid-19 illness scares me deeply, both for myself and my husband. In Italy, healthcare personnel and facilities have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of seriously ill patients. Protective clothing for nurses and doctors is no longer available in many places so that health care personnel can’t properly care for patients, instead, they succumb to the virus themselves. In Italy, ER doctors are forced to make a dire choice, a life-or-death choice. Who will get the ventilator, who will suffocate in panicked agony in some hospital corridor, alone, utterly alone? To be swiftly and unceremoniously cremated, although, even some crematoria have now reached their operational capacity.
I can not regard any of these issues neutrally because I grew up engaged in discussions of medical and scientific issues. And I spent the majority of my working life as a cellular biologist in three different medical schools. Therefore infectious diseases are neither new nor scary for me. What is scary is the speed with which this new viral fellow spreads its wings among the global population. What is truly scary is the administrative molasses through which our alleged leaders are dragging their feet instead of showing a proactive initiative. China originally denied the existence of a new coronavirus, but anyone paying attention knew by the end of December that something awful was brewing. Yet, for the two following months, there was very little, if any, thought given to preparing for a possible pandemic. Plants could have been retooled to manufacture ventilators and face masks, for example, triage centers could’ve been created, negative-airflow ICU cubicles could have been built, but no, instead, it was called a hoax and scaremongering. I don’t know how many times I responded to Facebook comments which pointed out that tuberculosis is worse, seasonal flu is worse, that there are just a few old people dying. Well, thank you very much, this old woman isn’t quite ready to die yet! And the shame of seeing young adults frolicking on beaches because “this is my time”, “this is spring break”, and “I don’t care what you think” is plain unbearable in light of the thousands that have already died. Where are the parents of these bozos? Why don’t they cut off tuition for cushy student lives and instead let their offspring work as delivery drivers to supply nursing homes with much-needed supplies?
But most of all, I can not regard any of these issues neutrally because I watched helplessly when my sister-in-law Felecia slowly suffocated during the endstage of lung cancer. I’ve seen the panic in her eyes when she couldn’t get the oxygen her brain needed to keep the encroaching madness in check. I remember how she fought us with furious strength to run away from her hospital bed in a desperate quest to find that oxygen that her lungs could no longer process.
I hope to never again have to see that panic in the eyes of someone I love.
*Gabriel García Márquez, paraphrased, original title: El amor en los tiempos del cólera, 1985 or Love in the Time of Cholera, 1988
**In the frozen North of America a gaiter is not so much protective footwear than a kind of endless scarf protecting one’s neck and lower face against icy winds.