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Social distancing: Coping and hoping for the light at the end of the tunnel

In the unusual case, where one is asked to stay at home, it becomes difficult to comprehend the real need for it or its imposition against the freedom that we hold dear. Through this story, Ravi Kiran Kasula, a student at Yale, recalls his observations, and presents his findings during his stay-at-home period to contain the spread of coronavirus 

Social distancing: Coping and hoping for the light at the end of the tunnel
Bengaluru, First Published Apr 1, 2020, 8:17 AM IST
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It was not just any other day. In the early days of March this year I was planning for new experiments at Yale and we had been hearing news about the crisis in Italy. Harvard gave a notice to convert all the classroom teachings online, sent a notice to labs to shut down by March 18. Schools were shutting down too. Yale, only a few days later decided to conduct all classroom work online, but still let the research labs continue. Later that week, Yale decided to shut down labs too.

I went to the lab meeting. We had ordered pizza. Most of the lab members were present. A few minutes later my boss joined us. Tension in the room increased as we all knew what this meeting meant, because we were given a heads up about the topic we were going to discuss. The first two hours, a couple of members were to present their work and the third hour was to decide the future of the lab and how to tackle the current pandemic situation.

My boss compared the situation to the influenza pandemic in 1918. He told us non-essential experiments would be stopped for at least two weeks and that the situation would be re-assessed after that. He gave us two days to wrap up everything, stay home and take on social distancing to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

He said, "We are at war, and what do we do during war as civilians? We duck our heads."

We will still hold lab meetings but online, from our homes, he proceeded to say, asking people to write their pending papers and read scientific literature. He also proposed the idea of holding a journal club meeting where one person, each week, would present an interesting research paper related to our projects. For me, I have started to see some decent results for my project. But I did not have enough data at this point to write a paper, so this meant I had to halt the experiments I was conducting. This has resulted in me having a little extra time in my hands. I decided to use this time to catch up on non-scientific literature.

The next day I went to the lab only to throw the samples I prepared to conduct experiments for the following week. I met a friend at work, and we chatted for a while about her paper that was soon to be published in a nature communications journal, which is a big deal. I am collaborating with her for my project too. She works a lot. If someone were to go to the lab in the middle of the night, they would find her working on the microscope. During the day she prepares her samples or plans for the next set of experiments and orders. It was evident that she was upset about the situation as she still needed couple of experiments for the review community to finalise the publication, and the shutdown of labs meant she will see a lot of delay for her publication. "I do not know what I will do, Ravi. This is who I am, I like to work, do my experiments and I want to finish my paper. This is very frustrating," she stated.

I did not want to think too much and be depressed about the fact that I won't be able to do my work, which only recently started showing some positive results. I opened the book Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. I usually read non-scientific literature only when I commute to work by bus. I had 60-70 pages to read, which I finished by the evening lying down on my bed. I closed my book and sat on the stool in front of my bookshelf staring at the books I want to read next. I was deciding between, Crime and Punishment, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The last days of Socrates for prose or if I should read poetry like The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry or re-read Yeats. After a while I decided to read The Last Days of Socrates. I grabbed the book and lay down on my bed and I saw Lumiere - my acoustic guitar whom I named to mean light.

For the next three to four days I finished reading the book, practiced on my guitar and when the days were sunny my roommate and I went to the park and setup a slack line between two good trees to do some physical workout. I would call my friends, cousins and family, watch YouTube videos of Trevor Noah and John Oliver on coronavirus and attend lab meetings online. In one of the lab meetings my boss said that this lockdown may go on for at least another four to six weeks, which made me sad. Thijs was the price we had to pay to flatten the curve, to reduce the rate of virus spreading, so that hospitals could tackle the situation. I could not get myself to open another book for the next four days, I would just strum my guitar or watch Netflix. There seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel. 

I am a sceptic, and it comes with the profession, I guess. I have a bleak viewpoint about the world in general, so it is very difficult for me to focus and appreciate the small things in life. The days when I began to feel a little depressed, I started watching a YouTube video about the effects of the virus on the human body. The immune system trying to fight the invasive virus increases the inflammation of the lungs making it harder to breathe, meaning lower levels of oxygen in the body. In adverse conditions, in people whose immune systems are weak, or in the cases of old people and people with pre-existing immune and respiratory issues; kidneys, liver and other organs might shut down. To prevent the adverseness of facing such a situation, ventilators are used to pump more oxygen into the body. It is not a cure. It is a way to allow the body from falling apart and outlive the virus. After the video ran its length, I walked outside the house into the porch thinking over the content in the video and took a deep breath. The freedom to breathe easy by staying home was a revelation. It is a privilege to be able to breathe, take in fresh air without struggling, I thought. Such a small act of breathing that we take for granted is so much more precious today.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. We will come out of this, maybe not in a week or two. But if this is what it takes to keep ourselves and others safe, I will stay home and appreciate the life that is given to us. You too need to stay home and stay safe. A little discomfort is better than being dead. This time it is not just your life. Others are also dependent on your decision.

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