COVID19

The first time I heard of the coronavirus was on Jan 23 2020. A Chinese postdoc at a UPenn robotics lab I was planning to join was telling me about how a mysterious virus had been rapidly spreading through her home country. At the time, I vaguely remembered reading about a new virus originating from Wuhan, China a couple of weeks back, so I made a mental note to check if the two viruses were related after the meeting. I later learned that the coronavirus in question had originated from Wuhan. At the time, it seemed like a disease endemic to China and I put it out of mind till the end of February, when things started to get slightly more serious. Though the US only had a few cases at the time, it was quickly starting to become clear that the disease was a) no longer endemic to China and b) very contagious. I started obsessively checking coronavirus tracking web dashboards, much like how I used to check live cricket scores during the 2019 Cricket World Cup.

Two weeks later, the situation started taking a turn for the worse. We got an email from UPenn on March 12, stating that the campus would be closed for the remainder of the semester. In hindsight, this was a prescient move, though at the time it felt like an overreaction to a disease which wasn’t fully understood.

Things rapidly started spiralling out of control in front of my eyes. Day by day, the confirmed cases in the US kept mounting till it had overtaken Italy as the most infected country in less than ten days since I had received that fateful email from Penn. This was no longer something I could casually regard like cricket match scores or the weather. It had become something very real.

The last six weeks have been the hardest I have experienced in a long time. Graduate courses continued in flow, and although there were some concessions in the workload, the work that was there took much longer to finish. Motivation and productivity plummeted. It was amazing anything got done at all when you factor in the hours spent everyday checking for live updates on the virus. Cutting out my daily half-an-hour walk to campus and back was making me go stir-crazy. That said, I was seldom bored, for it’s hard to be bored when you’re stressed.

On some level, it’s hard to believe that the world is in disarray. With millions of people under lockdown, things are unusually peaceful outside. It feels like the onslaught of data about new infections has come to define the pandemic and how to react to it.

I am glad that I stumbled upon a Harvard Business Review article, That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief as it helped me contextualize feeling something which I never had before. At the moment, I would say that I have reached a kind of wary acceptance with the current situation. However, I am frustrated that several opportunities (including an internship!) and plans are now shuttered because of the virus. Many decisions I made during the start of the semester were not made considering a global pandemic on the horizon. Suffice to say, most of these decisions turned out to be the wrong ones.

I have also been thinking about this virus on a more meta level. In no particular order, some of the things I have been thinking about are:

  • In the last few years, there has been an increase in awareness about the deleterious effects of social media. The post-mortem of the 2016 US presidential election and Brexit highlighted how the terabytes of personal data mined by Facebook and its cronies could be used to manipulate people. Yet, now with life virtually online all the time, we are far more dependent on (and thereby influenced by) social media than ever before. With a particularly crucial US election this year, it is troubling that we could see a repeat of what happened in 2016.
  • The American life could not be worse set up for dealing with a pandemic. In the US, excessive consumption is a way of life and freedom is an uncompromisable right. The pandemic, on the other hand, necessitates frugality and strict impositions on personal movement. It is telling how much at odds this is from typical life in the US from how confused the government’s initial response to the disease was in the beginning.
  • The speed at which awareness about COVID19 has spread is impressive. Yes, the media cherry picks reporting cases of people blatantly defying stay at home orders, but the general compliance of mask wearing and staying at home has been good. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that mask wearing still hasn’t caught on in Philadelphia even though there are much more people outside these days.
  • The pandemic has resulted in a large drop in vehicular emissions. The air quality in Indian metropolitan areas such as Bangalore and Delhi has never been better. Will this inspire environmentally friendly policies and increased usage of public transport in the long term?
  • “Somebody is to Blame for This”. It is much more satisfying to think that this is the product of some organizational failure than just a freak accident of a nature. Who can one blame? The CCP for suppressing news about the outbreak? The US government for botching the coronavirus response in the crucial first weeks of the pandemic? The WHO for its “noble lie” of suggesting that masks were ineffective in containing transmission? It is exasperating how the issue has been fucking politicized. These failures will be case studies for future generations of what not to do during a health crisis.
  • (More optimistically) As a budding roboticist, will the pandemic kickstart innovation in automation? Could we finally be seeing robots integrated in our daily lives in the next few years?

The only thing worse than the pandemic itself would be if the world goes back to the status quo after it’s over. This is perhaps the only opportunity we will get to reflect on what really matters and how that should define policy-making decisions over the next decade.

Despite how grim things are at the moment, I remain optimistic for the next year. At least in the US, medical facilities are no longer overcrowded with patients. There are thousands of smart people researching possible treatments. Some vaccines have shown promising results in animals and some, such as the Oxford/AstraZeneca’s ChAdOx1 have even started Phase 2 trials in humans. It is expected that we will learn more about the response of the vaccine in the next few months. Until then, we will have to do something we all have become intimately familiar with doing recently, wait.