As the death toll surges here in Queens, New York, now the “epicenter of the epicenter” of this global pandemic that is threatening to deluge us, it is blatantly evident how inter-dependent we all are with each other: humans, animals, the planet. We are all in the same boat.
I have just finished calling my relatives to ask them to earnestly pray for each other and for the world for forty days. Right. Forty days. Just like Noah and his loved ones did inside the Ark. Noah, the Biblical lockdown personality.
Another lockdown historical personage is Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl who went into deep hiding in a warehouse in Nazi occupied Holland.
The circumstances are different but the menace to human survival is the same.
As soon as I nervously put down the phone, I gaze blankly through my kitchen window, pondering what lies ahead for the human race. I cannot help noticing the empty robin nest standing prominently on the branch of the pine tree. I have been waiting for my favorite migratory songbirds to come and augur the Spring. They are not here yet. Perhaps my windows are so steamed up that it would be wrong to say that my eyes are not fooling me. I focus at the shapes outside again, but the nest is indeed empty. The robins have not come. My heart skips a beat. I interpret it as a bad sign.
Is this a losing battle? The governor has just “closed the valve,” and the order is to stay at home. Stay put. This is plain logic. This virus is not a living organism; it is a protein molecule. It has no intentions, no mind of its own, but when the opportunity arises, it automatically jumps into new hosts and increases exponentially. A viral pyramid scam.
The logic is if we can keep people who test positive – and the number is legion as I write this – from spreading the virus, the common sense solution is to limit interaction. Then the ill persons can get well without infecting the others. So let’s, for heaven’s sake, let’s stay home, or stay in the hospital – or in the coffin.
At breakfast, I listen to the news and cannot help feeling anxiety rise over me again. A nurse is being interviewed and says that unless we put the entire country under lockdown, they will be forced to practice “wartime medicine.”
I have this sudden impulse to go out now to buy a few important food items at the nearby Key Food Grocery while there is still time. I need to be in half battle gear, so I have my mask and gloves ready.
Psalm 57 calms me down: “And in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge until these calamities have passed by.” My favorite robins outside my window come to mind again. Once, during a stormy day, I worried that the nestlings would get soaked in the rain. To my astonishment, however, I saw the mother robin spread her wings to cover and protect her nestlings. I wish they were here right now.
I step out of the house donning my face mask and wearing my gloves. When will this thing end? When will I be able to go back to our favorite restaurants and parks? How is it going on now in my beloved hometown Naga in the Philippines?
I continue walking with my shopping cart in tow. My neighbor Tom waves at me from his window. He is in his late seventies. We have this urge to talk to each other, not just the usual “how’re you doing” bit, but I stop a couple of meters away from him.
“Hi Tommy! Physical distancing.”
“This is scary, Manny. I have COPD and asthma. I can’t go anywhere.”
I can relate. The older we get, the slower our immune system works, increasing our risk of infection. “Stay at home, Tom.”
“Right, Manny, I cannot fathom why the young ones in Miami do not get it.” He is referring to the Spring break partiers in Florida.
“It is not too difficult to do,” I speak extra loud through my facemask. “Come to think of it: these kids spend so much time and energy inside their houses, sometimes never leaving their rooms or beds playing online games, texting, binging on Facebook, Skype, Viber, Tiktok, chatting on messenger, shopping online, ordering food. Now that they are being asked to do just that, they complain.”
“The older ones are no less inculpable.” I am referring to that Tampa Church pastor who defied physical distancing and preached to his followers tightly packed to the gills.
“This is a war, Manny. We should act like soldiers.”
“You bet, Tom. Our ancestors were called to wars that took them to hell and back. They eagerly signed up. Some even lied about their age to get the chance to serve their country. Now people are being asked to stay at home and they complain.”
“We can win this war if we surrender the “I-me-mine” to the “we-us-ours.”
“What brought this about?”
“We have abused Mother Earth.”
“The locust invasion in Kenya was a warning smoke that something was wrong.”
The image of an orangutan trying to stop a bulldozer, as the latter smashes the base of a tree in Borneo comes to mind.
I tell him about the things this pandemic has made me realize: I know now how animals in captivity (in zoos, aquariums, animal farms) feel. I know now that nature is our strongest ally, but we keep destroying it. I know now that taking care of Mother Earth is taking care of us. But we have destroyed her by bush-fires, by massive logging, by mining, by trophy hunting, by greed.
We have driven wildlife into close proximity with us. They could handle the virus; we can’t.
The worst pandemics in recent history – HIV, SARS, Ebola, MERS, Zika, and now COVID-19 – arose from our destroying wildlife habitat. We want to talk further but I had to move on to beat the grocery line.
“Wash your hands often, Tom.”
“God bless you, Manny. Keep safe.”
At the grocery, I pick up a bundle of garlic, a couple of loaves of bread, eggs, cans of sardines, some avocados and fresh fruits and vegetables.
When will this end? When will the world get back to work? When will the kids get back to school? What will the world be like when this is over?”
Meanwhile, our scientists are racing round the clock to seek a vaccine and an antidote. The scientists give me the impression it’s a moving target – or targets – before we hit the mark: COVID-19 survivors’ blood plasma transfusion, hydroxychloroquine sulfate with zinc and azithromycin, Prodex-B. And suddenly the FDA comes out with the advisory that Prodex-B treatment is baseless. Can’t we at least give it a shot?
My heart goes to the real heroes of the human race: the nurses, the doctors, the hospital health workers, the police, the soldiers, the janitors, the volunteers, the civil servants, the grocery workers, the farmers, the market vendors. I think of the brave doctors who lost their lives so that others may live. I think of the air ambulance medevac mission plane that exploded at NAIA, killing all eight passengers, heroes all.
If there is one thing I learned from this crisis, it is the conviction that we cannot go back to business as usual. The word “independence” (survival of the fittest) must be replaced by “interdependence”(survival of the kindest), as proven by these heroes. They have fashioned the new normal.
I think of Noah and his extended family inside the Ark. Forty days and forty nights. No Wi-Fi, no Facebook, no Skype, no Viber, no YouTube, no TV, no windows, the main entrance door sealed. Only the frightening sound of the torrential rain and the rising waters outside going unabated 24/7. They were on their knees praying. They waited in faith; they waited in hope that God would take care of them. He did. It is a story with a happy ending.
I think of Anne Frank and her terrified companions hiding inside the “Secret Annex” in Nazi occupied Amsterdam trying to remain alive for twenty-five months, until discovered by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz and later to die at the concentration camps. It is a story with a tragic ending.
Which is it going to be? Will our fate turn out to be like Noah’s or will it be like Anne Frank’s?
Back at home, from beyond my kitchen window, I hear a gentle tapping on the glass outside.
It is a robin perched on the window ledge carrying in her beak a freshly plucked leaf.
Manuel Ojeda Aureus is a 70-year-old man who lives in Queens, New York. He is retired and writes articles for a local newspaper in his hometown in the Philippines.