Tag Archives: Spanish Flu

Snapshots of Life In COVID Times

Ruma Sikka, a realtor in Washington D.C., is using Zoom and Facetime to show her homes virtually on Open House days, ever since COVID-19 shuttered her city in March.

“Surprisingly,” she says, “I’m busier than I’ve been before. Since real estate has been declared an essential business, we are open – we just can’t show houses the traditional way.”

Doing things the traditional way is fast becoming a thing of the past as the coronavirus changes how society goes about the daily business of life.

Past pandemics left the societies they visited transformed forever. As we cope with Covid-19, the invisible microscopic monster circling our cities and homes in real-time like its 13th and 20th-century cousins, major social changes are already being seeded.

The Black Death that raged through 13th century Europe and Asia took a human toll but also sparked enormous social unrest. Historians trace a direct trajectory between the impact of the plague and the destruction of feudalism in Europe, leading to the Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance. The Spanish Flu of the early 20tht century crippled economic activity, leading historians to speculate that the economic misery in its wake paved the way for fascism and authoritarian dictators like Hitler and Mussolini.

Today, in the first quarter of the 21st century, a global pandemic is visiting mankind again. It’s been identified and sourced and we even have a DNA profile and snapshot of the perpetrator. The world is at its mercy, practicing social distancing and shelter-in-place while fending off infection with masks, gloves, and ventilators.

In this new dystopian reality that has become our lives, Ruma represents the resourcefulness with which many professions are adapting to the needs of the moment.

As the COVID quarantine encircles daily lives and workplaces, regular folk are adopting new norms – many of which could become permanent social transformations as we battle the beast together.

For Deepa Chakrapani at the World Bank in Washington D.C., teleworking is proving to be a phenomenon that is a lot more productive and viable than expected.

“There are no scheduling conflicts. Everyone is in quarantine so no excuses! We are a lot more focused and…. we are beginning to realize how much we can get done without meeting in person.

She predicts that telework which has been undervalued for years (being reserved for illness or pregnancy), will be reassessed as an alternative to costly travel. It’s a view echoed by strategy consultant Natasha Marwaha, who finds working from her home office more efficient, collaborative, and productive. “I think, going forward, telework will not be scorned as working-lite!”

A real boon is the hours saved on her commute adds Deepa. “Apart from more time at home with my teenagers (who are captive audiences now), it’s given me an opportunity to volunteer as block captain in my neighborhood. I check up on neighbors, especially elderly ones, and make sure they are doing alright.”

“I feel we are living through a social experiment,” says Deepa, “and its product will be a greater sense of community—I think there will be more awareness of the contribution of everyone, in whatever profession or situation, to society’s well being.”

Perhaps this awareness is nature’s antidote to the ‘social pollution’ affecting society. Consultant Rahul Prakash coined the term to describe “…the rise in competitiveness and a constant outward focus towards more” that has accompanied the rise in prosperity in the last decade. The explosion of social media”, he says, “has created a FOMO mode for our lives – more wealth, more travel, more friends, more visibility.”

Rahul, who has worked in Private Equity for 25 years and advises companies in the Mergers and Acquisitions space, says his particular business has stalled due to the economic uncertainty. But the pandemic has pushed a pause button. “We are being forced to disengage from all that extra noise and activity that comes with social excess, and concentrate on essentials, on the essence of life and family.” There is a benefit to the isolation and down time everyone is experiencing.

“It’s hard to predict the economic fallout from this pandemic,” he muses. “Though, I doubt it’ll be a V- shaped recovery.” But one of the more significant economic effects of this pandemic will be how recovery money is distributed, he feels. “The social and economic are all very intertwined in our current economic shutdown.”

Recovery from the pandemic however, will take more than contributions from the federal stimulus package or government handouts. Ordinary citizens are stepping up to help and make a difference, volunteering with food deliveries, sewing masks and donating supplies.

Jason, a medical resident on the front line of the crisis treating COVID patients every day, is Natasha Marwaha ‘s son. His mother worries about him all the time.

“I haven’t seen him in weeks. He’s staying away because he doesn’t want to expose us,” says Natasha. “Everyone is working diligently in his hospital.”

Along with her family, Natasha has started a D.C. based charity to collect personal protective equipment like masks, for essential workers. “Early on in the pandemic, the shortage of PPE worried us, and we wanted to contribute, especially since my son is in the frontline.”

To date, they’ve raised more than their goal amount.

The pandemic is demanding the most of medical professionals like Jason, while changing how they manage their regular patient load.

“Dealing with COVID is like flying a plane while reading the manual,” says Dr. Narain Rajan, a cardiologist who practices in Washington D.C. “You simply don’t know when something you’re doing is going to be wrong, and disaster will hit.”

The crush is peaking at the hospital where he performs procedures in ICU’s filled with COVID patients. “I think we learnt from New York’s bitter lesson and created extra hospital capacity on time, so there’s no overwhelming of resources,” says Rajan, but he worries about going home every day and exposing his wife and children to COVID.

He shrugs off his frontline hero status. “I come home in my scrubs and then proceed to scrub myself thoroughly – we have to live with this risk, there’s no other option.”

It’s an option filled with “a sense of mission and urgency which makes every day rewarding, even while it’s heartbreaking,” says Vandna Kishore, a pharmacist at the FDA. “A couple of weeks ago I was on rotation for emergency authorizations for specific medicines which are needed to enroll patients in trials right away. I was struck by the influx of applications for teens, pregnant women, and young adults who need to be intubated and given these medicines. The applications for pregnant women are particularly hard, emotionally.”

“We are terribly busy at the Agency,” says Vandna. Response teams that include FDA employees have set up screening procedures and testing centers nationally, at critical locations, – some are even in parking lots. “We’ve also speeded up the process of the emergency authorization of the use of certain trial medicines for extremely sick patients, (medicines like hydroxychloroquine and remisdivir) and are fast tracking the process of reviewing how effective they are.”

Healthcare practitioners like her are juggling an enormous workload as they cope with the COVID crisis and its constantly changing landscape.

Vandna and her husband are teleworking as much as possible from home as does Dr. Rajan, who minimizes face-to-face contact with patients for non-emergencies, through online consultations via Zoom or WebX. “I’m shifting to a lot more telemedicine with my patients to limit physical contact. It’s working pretty well, so far, he says. “The new patient-centered approach requires patients to take some of their own vital signs which he monitors, and provides pre-emptive care to keep patients away from the hospital. “I used to have 15-20 patients in the office a day, and now we only see 1-2 of the serious cases.”

Dr. Rajan believes that telemedicine will begin to play a much bigger role in future patient care, since statistics will prove how effective it could be.

But unlike professionals in other fields who feel teleworking has opened new possibilities in the workplace, architect Madhur Khanna finds it cramps the creativity required in the architectural design world. “There’s something about face-to-face consultation when a design is being worked on, which is irreplaceable,” Khanna, who is part owner of her own consulting company still completing projects because construction is an ‘essential’ service.

There is a silver lining to her quarantined life, however. Khanna now takes a walk every afternoon, something which was unthinkable in the hectic schedule of her former life.

“I’ve started thinking a lot more about how we are ruining our planet and how we should go forward from this catastrophe to build sustainable environments in which viruses like COVID have no chance of entry. And I know many others are thinking along the same lines. That is the good I see, coming out of this nightmare.”

Building a sustainable practice is how Ruma Sikka views her future as a realtor, ever since the pandemic put an end to live showings.

At each viewing, she walks through the house with her phone and laptop, showing clients all the features on Zoom or Facetime. “We can even host walk-through groups on Twitch, with new interactive software.”

Ruma is brushing up on relevant technology and networking with other realtors.

The real estate community has rallied vigorously around this slump with webinars on virtual marketing and using technology to augment sales. “We are also trying to figure out guidelines for how we are eventually going to show homes, safely, to clients,” says Ruma.

“All our virtual marketing groundwork will bear fruit once the lockdown restrictions ease,” she declares. She remains extremely optimistic about the prospects of an early bounce back in the real estate market.

“There are many reasons to be hopeful,” she says. “We’ll get through this dark tunnel eventually, to the other side. But life will never be the same again.”

Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.


Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents.

Imagecredit:TheDarkNut, Pixabay

Photo by manny PANTOJA on Unsplash

Invisible Demons Wait in the Wings of History

How the Renaissance Rose from the Black Death in Europe

It was a sunny morning in October 1347, and a gentle shore breeze puffed the shimmering, white sails of Genoese ships approaching the Sicilian port of Messini. Sicily, a town of 100,000 inhabitants was enjoying a fine autumn day. Children played on its golden beaches and the cobbled marketplace bustled with housewives and vendors trading in the fruits of the harvest.

The ships docked, flung gangplanks noisily down and a silent horror, serenaded by cawing seagulls, rolled innocuously into town. Aboard the ghostlike ships were crew and passengers, infected or dead, with many bodies oozing pus and blood from large swollen tumors visible under their armpits and groins.

The citizens of Messini had only heard rumors about a mysterious pestilence called the Black Death, what we know today as the Bubonic/Pneumonic Plague. And now the brutal, unforgiving disease had arrived on their shores – a stop on the trade route that wound around the Mediterranean and through Eurasia, to China and India.

Messini tried to protect itself by burning down the ships and their terrible cargo. But it was too late. Within months, most of its population had perished and the plague, having found a foothold in Europe, began its serpentine journey of terror around the medieval world – a mythological monster with an insatiable appetite for human flesh.

Though societies in the Middle Ages were clueless about the source of the plague (y. Pestis, a bacteria carried by fleas on rats), their reaction to contagion was similar to ours. They isolated and quarantined the infected; in Venice, all incoming ships were boarded and burned if plague or foreigners were found, and alehouses and gathering places were closed.

In other cities, households with infected members were marked and sealed, and its inhabitants not allowed to leave for several weeks. In cities and towns all over Europe people fled blighted areas (inadvertently spreading the pestilence further), or sealed off plague-ridden villages. The dead were buried in deep pits outside city walls and mourners were limited to immediate family or often, none at all, the family being dead or too frightened to attend.

By the time the Plague finished its deathly dance over Europe, at least a third of the population had perished and survivors faced a new world in which the social order had been remarkably transformed.
With the acute shortage of labor to plow the fields, peasants demanded higher wages and refused to accept serf-like conditions anymore. Kings and the Church lost the reverence and fear they had enjoyed in the Middle Ages: royalty and priests hadn’t been able to save themselves, much less the hapless population.

Eventually, the social and economic consequences of the plague led to an age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance in Europe.

How The Spanish Flu Influenced India’s Freedom Movement

The Flu of 1918, a virulent version of H1N1, attacked a world still reeling from the First World War (1914-1918). It snuck up on unsuspecting populations with predatory ferocity and killed nearly 50 million people around the globe.

At the time, the freedom movement Gandhi had stoked in early 20th century India was still nascent – he had a devoted band of followers, but was without large-scale grassroots support. The strength of Gandhi’s fledgling movement lay in the fact that his organization had figured out how to cross strong caste barriers in Indian society, and unite people for the singular goal of independence from colonial rule.

In 1914, India participated in the World War, sending large contingents of native soldiers and British medical personnel to the front. However, their British colonizers had neglected medical infrastructure on the Indian subcontinent for years. When the pandemic hit, India’s meager public health care system was unprepared. Citizens died in droves without care and facilities. Complicating matters further, many British medical personnel were still at the front. Local Indians who stepped in to fill the massive health care gap tended to be Gandhi’s militant activists, who already had a grassroots organization for quick mobilization in place.

The high death toll among Indians – 18 million dead – fueled immense anger at the British. Their outrage meshed with the healing and support that Gandhi’s followers offered the population during the pandemic, and drove people to his anti-British platform in large numbers.

With the power of the masses behind him, Gandhi launched his first Satyagraha.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Plague and the Spanish Flu are striking examples of how a pandemic can dramatically change the societies they strike and steer the course of history. The current Coronavirus Pandemic is writing over our collective future with equal vigor. While its long-term social consequences haven’t played out yet, we are getting our first glimpses of social transformation already.

Even as telelearning and telemedicine become a big part of our lives, the gap between rich and poor has never been as glaring. Wealthier Americans shelter at home or wait out the epidemic, while those hardest hit are lower on the socioeconomic ladder but ‘essential’ – workers like grocery store clerks and sanitation workers who can’t afford the luxury of staying home.

A sense of social vulnerability and social co-dependence is emerging. Leaders are being held to more stringent standards of communication, since life and death are at stake, while scientists around the world are cooperating and sharing information at an unheard-of speed and urgency.

As we ride out the pandemic together, we can be sure that the world we have known with its fragile sense of predictability, its overarching shadow of terrorism, its measured advances in conquering chronic diseases, and its divisive politics, will mutate into another, more insecure, less predictable one.
Please post your ideas on what changes you see coming, personally.
And Stay Safe.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal , contributing editor at India Currents

Image: India: metal rodent traps in a pile; the rat-catchers gather under a grass-roofed shelter to be paid. Watercolour by E. Schwarz, 1915/193
Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)