Safe distance

I’ve gone back to work after almost three weeks at home. Things changed quickly during that period. The streets are deserted. In the psychiatric unit where I work, there are very few patients and activities, and safety measures are in effect. There’s free food in the canteen for the staff at the NHS hospital next door. Long lines to get your hot lunch, and I was heartened to see so many people together. The macaroni and cheese was decent.

The underground is still running. The trains come every 20 minutes. At the station entrance, signs and messages repeat that transport is for essential workers only, and the rest of the population must remain at home. The station is deserted at 5:00 PM. I can see just two other individuals, waiting far from me on the platform. The passenger car is mostly empty, a sign that people are respecting the guidelines.

Right now it is easier to find people in green areas or parks. The British government authorizes the practice of some kind of outdoor exercise per day, as long as social distancing of 2 meters is maintained. This is an excellent idea. It’s good for physical and mental health, especially with the return of the sun after a long winter. Benches and playgrounds have been cordoned off to prevent contagion. I see a very odd woman in a jogging suit and mask, using a bench to exercise with baby wipes in her hands. In general, people respect the recommended distance — some even shout a warning if you are distracted and approach within 1.95 meters.

A poet who lives in Madrid tells me that he spends the day locked up in his kitchenette in the center of the city, usually asleep, because he hates live online events and activities. He tells me about the repressive of policemen with machine guns who control trips to the market and inspect “essential purchases”. He’s disgusted that people still applaud the police every day at 6:00 in the evening. An hour later they applaud the good behavior of kids during the quarantine. Then they applaud the garbage collectors.

Today they announced that the quarantine here will extend for another three weeks, as we expected. The UK peaked at almost a thousand deaths per day last week, but hospital admissions apparently began to stabilize. The NHS controls people’s access to hospitals by phone. It’s community-centered medicine, not patient-centered. You don’t do a lot of testing here, like you do in Brazil, and you don’t use hydroxychloroquine, but case management is certainly easier and more consistent, because everyone uses the NHS.

When I say that I’m fine, lay people and pessimists send me recently published scientific articles or comment on the risk of my “not developing” immunity. Recent articles and studies (with methodological criticisms) on the subject are leaked to the press. Results are distorted, and anxious people are frightened. Yes, immunity is not linear, there is a variable window of time for the development of antibodies, the tests are not 100% effective, and so on. If there is a very rare reinfection, I think it will be mild. I repeat my litany. Some people are relieved. What will it be like when so many health professionals are infected, recover and go back to work all over the world? Only time will teach us about late immunity to COVID-19. I can’t live in a plastic bubble like that 70s movie with John Travolta. Life goes on.

I come home and spend time with my eight-year-old daughter. On Sunday she was upset and complained to me: “nobody told me it was Easter”. Preoccupied with the pandemic and matters of life and death, I forgot the date. What are holidays now? On the way home, I stopped at the supermarket and bought a chocolate egg (at a 50% discount) to redeem myself. The shelf was still full. I suspect that sales of chocolate Easter eggs have not been very promising this year.

After eating her chocolate, I asked my daughter what she thought about the quarantine. She said there were positive things. It’s good not to go to school, to spend more time with her mom and dad, to watch more TV and use the computer and apps. She’s well-informed. She checks coronavirus news on the BBC site for kids. Suddenly, she said: “the world used to be one thing, and now it’s another. Now it’s a world of headaches”. I asked what she’s been missing during the quarantine. Playing outdoors with her friends. Hugs. She loves to hug. Really, hugging is wonderful. It releases endorphins. What will become of physical proximity in the near future, when this isolation ends?

Virna Teixeira

Translated by Chris Daniels

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