Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, Cartagena, Colombia

Photo from Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, where parts of the movie _Love in the Time of Cholera_ were filmed. This square also contained the cisterns for Cartagene’s water supply, fitting since cholera spreads through contaminated water.

Much of the news each day is devoted to describing problems with a new coronavirus, COVID-19, which has been spreading over the world since the beginning of 2020. Typically people try to ignore it, hoping it will go away. Then suddenly it sweeps through in a terrifying manner, and there is panic. Governments are left with an impossible situation, trying to protect their population while at the same time keeping an economy running so that businesses and people don’t go bankrupt. It’s a kind of a love story, where the girl must choose between two suitors she loves, hoping to choose one without hurting the other.

There were six world cholera pandemics in the 19th century. The third pandemic brought the disease to South America in the mid-1800s. In February, when COVID-19 was just starting to spread in China, we were on vacation in Cartagena, Colombia (South America), home of Gabriel García Márquez, the famous Colombian author. He wrote Love in the Time of Cholera, a story spanning the period from about 1880 to 1930 that follows the lives of two main characters, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza. Florentino, a passionate, artistic man, is struck by love at his first sight of Fermina. She is swept up by the same longing for him. Fermina’s father won’t allow her to see Florentino, and the family moves away to keep her at a distance from him. Still the couple exchange love letters.

The family eventually returns home. There, a third character, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, meets Fermina when he is called to examine whether she has cholera. The doctor verifies her good health and starts to court her, much to the liking of her father. The doctor has become rich and famous after ridding the town of cholera. He is a logical thinker who is driven to find fame and success.

Dr Urbino proposes to Fermina, and she rationalizes that, as much as she loves Florentino, she really hasn’t spent much time with him. She makes the logical choice is to marry the Doctor. Thus they are wed.

Florentino is disconsolate and swears his undying love for Fermina, despite being rejected as her suitor. In French en colère means angry; Florentino is choleric. He realizes he can somewhat ease his emotional pain by having trysts, so he starts to keep count of the number of his affairs. Sometimes he has fun. Sometimes there are terrible consequences. He never marries.

Meanwhile Fermina and Dr Urbino raise a family, have a comfortable life, and are widely respected in the community. Yet they have disputes, and the doctor is unfaithful. Like in any marriage, life is less than perfect. Years pass by, everyone grows old. One day Dr. Urbino falls off a ladder and dies. As soon as the funeral is over, Florentino appears before Fermina to again court her. She repulses him, but he is persistent. He has become head of a river transport company and is himself successful. She eventually gives in, and they settle together in old age.

This love story is a kind of dance between the three characters, and likewise, treating a pandemic is also a kind of dance until there is a vaccine to protect people from it. The city of Paris has a long history with vaccines, starting with cholera.

Large monument to Louis Pasteur at Place de Breteuil, Paris

Large monument to Louis Pasteur at Place de Breteuil, Paris (click on photos to see larger version)

A cholera vaccine for chickens was first discovered almost by accident in 1879 by Louis Pasteur, a microbiologist here in Paris. He was the first to understand the concept of a vaccine. He also made important discoveries in wine fermentation, inventing the process known today as pasteurization, widely used to preserve milk, wine, and other foods. Pasteur invented the vaccines for rabies and anthrax. I got my last cholera shot at the Pasteur Institute, which he founded and where he is buried. The search for a new vaccine is important to our story.

Love in the time of Coronavirus is perhaps just as intriguing as Love in the Time of Cholera. The government of every country on earth is faced with an impossible situation involving two things it loves. One, the economy, provides the means to live for everyone in the country (as well as for the government), but the economy requires a great deal of interaction between people. The other love, the people themselves, is threatened by a disease that will infect and kill many of them should they work to make the economy successful. Governments faced with this dilemma have chosen so far to protect the people, but it is killing their economies, perhaps promising financial and employment losses greater than any we have seen in our lifetimes.

Paris Marché Saxe

Paris Marché Saxe with police patrols and places marked to indicate where to stand in line.

Here in Paris we are under a pretty strict protocol. We can’t meet with anyone. There is no getting together with other family or friends. This is central to limiting the spread of the disease. No one knows who is infected. We can only go out to the grocery store or the pharmacy or the doctor or for exercise by ourselves (which still allows walking the dog should you have one). Access to stores is controlled to limit the number of people inside. There is a line at the door. At the outdoor markets, there are marks on the ground by the vendor stalls to keep people waiting in line at least one meter apart.

The French have issued a form that you must carry to show the police that you are outside for an authorized purpose. Your actions need to conform to your stated purpose. Parks and monument areas are off limits, even for those who want to exercise. People have been instructed to limit outdoor trips to a 2km radius from home. I was checked for my form and activities by a police patrol on Saturday. They forbid me to cross the Champ de Mars on my way to the grocery store. We wash our hands every time we come back in the apartment. We disinfect reusable bags after getting groceries.

I run alone regularly and go to the store for necessities. Otherwise I am here in the apartment. It’s not really a problem since I have plenty to do, study French, listen to audio books or read (in French and English), work on the Poulsbo Rotary web site, on home office projects I’ve been neglecting, and on keeping up with friends and family via FaceBook, e-mail, etc. Brenda does much the same. She goes to the outdoor markets. She also has a video workout session each week via FaceTime with her fitness trainer, as well as other fitness workouts from the internet. We’ve been scheduling movie rentals to have a date night that we can look forward to. The food in France is still excellent, and Brenda is a fantastic cook. We are not suffering.

I attended a Poulsbo Rotary Club online meeting using Zoom, a teleconferencing Web site and app. The meeting was really quite effective. Applications like Zoom could meet many needs as group congregations continue to be banned in the coming months.

Every night at 8pm, Parisians open their windows and applaud our healthcare workers for their efforts in combatting the virus. In my mind we extend these thanks to the police, rescue workers, sanitation workers, delivery personnel, and everyone else who still goes to work each day to supply the public with life’s essentials.

You can think of COVID-19 as an iceberg – what you see is only a fraction of what there is. When you try to calculate how fast the virus is spreading, you must make assumptions about the huge number of the already infected that you don’t officially know about. Many infected don’t ever have symptoms but can still spread the disease. I made an estimate of the growth of known active cases using assumptions from an article by Thomas Pueyo. Based on what is known now, the true number of active cases must be much greater than the number of known cases. Social distancing is necessary to slow the real (unknown) number of new active cases so that the known active cases, accounting for recoveries and deaths, can remain within the capacity of the medical establishment. If you can make the number of known active cases go down, you can be sure that the number of unknown cases is reducing by an even greater number.

COVID-19 cases in France and US

Known active COVID-19 cases in France and the US vs theoretical exponential rise as of 22 March

I have been plotting the number of known active cases in France and in the US versus the predicted exponential growth of known cases using Pueyo’s original assumptions. As you can see, the curve of active cases in both countries appears to be diverging from the predicted exponential rise if there were no controls. However, the rise in the US is still troubling.

A more recent article from Thomas Pueyo exhorts the US to do more now and outlines some ways to proceed once the initial surge of cases has flattened. Though the time to flatten the initial peak can be as short as a month with strict social distancing, the course of the recovery may be much longer, perhaps 18 months with some lesser social distancing measures still in place. Brace for big changes in how we interact socially.

Social distancing is a temporary strategy to buy time, not a fix, and will be financially devastating if it continues for a long time. Strict social distancing now will shorten the time of economic devastation. How can the government give some attention to her other love, the economy? We need to figure out how to test everyone rapidly and easily. Who has COVID-19, who doesn’t, and who has recovered and is now immune? Once we know this, we can figure out how to get people back to work.

Besides universal testing, we should consider other strategies:

  1. Use of drugs already approved for another purpose, such as hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, in combination with azithromycin, to lessen the effects and shorten the recovery time. French doctors are having success when starting treatment before severe effects take hold.
  2. Use of a cell phone app or other means that identifies everyone with the virus and is able to track with whom they have had recent interactions. This method has been used successfully in South Korea and China. There may be privacy concerns with doing this in the west.
  3. Isolating everyone over age 65 and sending everyone else back to work. This could still expose millions of younger people to deadly consequences, and isolating the elderly will be difficult to control.
  4. Development of a vaccine – they say it will take 18 months.

Our leaders should insist that the bureaucracy act urgently to evaluate treatments that mitigate the disease or to evaluate for approval any proposed vaccine. These are tricky processes that require care so as not to do further harm, but stopping the spread and protecting those most vulnerable is urgent. We need a revolution in reviewing and approving solutions or many many will die.

As is apparent, the plot of Love in the time of Coronavirus is still under development. I’m confident that a world working furiously to solve these problems will be able to produce unexpected solutions. I ask you to practice strict social distancing, even if not yet mandated by your local or federal government. Keep your distance from others outside of your home. A lot is at stake here.

A Tale of Two Cities – Part 1

Place de la Bastille

The Bastille is long gone, remembered only in the pavers that outline the building walls crossing the square. The city gate to the Faubourg would have been behind the bicycle at left. (Click photos to enlarge.)

I’m reading Charles Dickens’s novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” in French. It is a story of London and Paris before and after the French Revolution. I’m only part way through, and not sure I understand everything that is happening. Here is what I know so far. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to pick up the book.

Our story starts with a banker (Jarvis Lorry) traveling by stagecoach from London to the English coast. It’s dark and cold and everyone is afraid of thieves who rob stagecoaches along this route all the time. Their coach fights up the hills through the mud. The horses are exhausted. A stranger appears along the road. Guns are cocked. He has only a message for the banker. He is to meet someone at Dover. The banker hopes the others in the coach were asleep.

At Dover the banker meets a young woman (Lucie Manette – about 18 years old). She is very afraid of her circumstances, and the banker keeps trying to convince her that it’s only business and she just needs to trust in the logic. They take a ship to Calais, in France, and then proceed somehow to Paris.

They show up at a bar in the neighborhood of today’s Faubourg Saint Antoine, just outside the city gate near the Bastille. The bartender, Mr. Defarge, leads them to a room upstairs where there is a man working diligently to make shoes. He doesn’t notice them as he keeps at his work. He has been imprisoned for a long time in France and seems to have lost his mind. The bartender and the banker try to approach him without any apparent success, while the young woman hangs back in fear. Then she comes to the front, comforts the man, her father, and after some time easing his pain, they all depart for England.

Back in London, there is a trial for a man accused of treason, Charles Darnay. He calmly awaits his fate. The punishment for conviction is death by the most horrible means – body separated into many parts. The King has a prosecutor and a couple of witnesses. They, upon questioning, appear to be witnesses for hire who say what the Crown wants them to say. There is a jury. Two other witnesses are the rescued prisoner, Dr Manette, and his daughter Lucie. It seems that they were on the ship and the stagecoach from Calais to London with the accused. They don’t seem to remember anything incriminating, but the crowd of onlookers is stuck by the image of rapport and consolation given the accused from these witnesses. There ensues a story of the two lawyers for the defense, the lion and the jackal so to speak. One is competent, the other is drunk and pitiful, but they compliment each other in their results. Ultimately Charles Darnay is acquitted and spared his life.

Years later, in London, Dr Manette lives in a peaceful house in Soho, shaded by a plaine tree. He has recovered (supported by the constant attention of his daughter) many of his previous faculties, but he is still haunted by the nightmares of prison. Occasionally he paces, but his daughter Lucie sees him through it. His shoe making bench sits in the corner of his bedroom. The banker, the lawyers, and even Charles Darnay are all visitors at their home.

Quartier Bastille narrow street

Typical street in Faubourg Saint Antoine as it might have been (sans street art) in 1780

The story shifts to Paris. There is a Monseigneur (a French nobleman of considerable wealth and power) whose day’s success or failure is determined by the quality of the service of his breakfast chocolate by his four servants. He has no idea or consideration for the lives of common people, who exist only to serve him. In the neighborhood Saint Antoine in Paris, there is another, similar minded aristocrat, the Marquis St. Evrémonde. The Marquis stands in line that morning for a long time hoping for an audience with the Monseigneur, and then departs Paris in a fury at being ignored.

The Marquis’s carriage runs down and kills the son of a man named Gaspard as the carriage races through the streets of Faubourg Saint Antoine. The hard-hearted Marquis offers Gaspard a coin for his trouble. Mr. Defarge, the bartender whose business is nearby, comforts Gaspard. The Marquis also gives him a coin for his trouble, The bartender hurls it back into the carriage as it speeds away.

The Marquis is absolutely convinced that his success depends upon his keeping the lowly people in their place. He takes his entourage to the countryside, where he has a château. Along the way he passes through a town where folks are gathered around a fountain. There are many stories and mentions of the Marquis. He recognizes in the town near the fountain a road mender whom he also saw earlier along his route through the countryside. The man asks him about the people in chains beneath his carriage. I don’t understand this part. Are these people being dragged along or are they hitching a ride (or neither)?

Upon his arrival at the Chateau, the Marquis is informed that a guest is expected that evening. Eventually they meet – it is his nephew, who uses the fictional name Charles Darnay. They dine together. The nephew says that his uncle needs to change his attitude towards the people, but the uncle says that it cannot be done. The nephew, who is also to be the heir of his uncle’s estate, renounces his claim to his inheritance. He sets out for London. That night, someone stabs the Marquis to death in his sleep.

Back in London, Charles Darnay realizes that he is in love with Lucie Manette. He approaches her father to reveal his love and to assure the doctor that above all else, he wishes that the close relations between the doctor and his daughter continue. He asks the doctor’s blessing, and offers to reveal the truth about his name. The doctor demurs. It will remain a mystery until the marriage. Meanwhile the lion lawyer decides that he must marry Lucie. He tells the jackal that he would be advised to get married too, should he ever be able to find someone compatible. Then he sets out to announce to Lucie his intentions, but along the way he stops by Tellson’s bank to see his friend Jarvis Lorry. After the lion announces his plan, the banker tells him he would be a fool to ask for the hand of Lucie. Though completely incensed, the lawyer accepts this analysis that his plans would certainly fail, and withdraws. After all, there must be better fish in the sea for someone with his impeccable qualities.

Meanwhile, his jackal failed partner visits Lucie and tells her what a failure his is. She responds with compassion and tries to inspire him. It’s an interesting exchange, and you wonder where it is going when it ends.

The scene shifts back to Paris. The bartender from Saint Antoine, Mr. Defarge, and his wife operate together a secret society aimed at overthrowing the King. She knits all the information that they discover into meaningless pieces of clothing. They don’t know if revolution will happen in their lifetimes, thus they play for the long term. Today, there is a man from the countryside who comes to the bar (the road mender). The bartender takes him upstairs to a private room to ask him to tell his story to himself and several friends, all named Jacques. The stranger tells of seeing a tall man named Gaspard, who was dragged through the village and taken to the prison. Horrible things had been done to him, and he was executed for killing the Marquis.

Gaspard à la Nuit

Restaurant Gaspard à la Nuit in the Marais near the Bastille.

I’m eating the other day at a restaurant in the Marais near rue Saint Antoine. On my way home, I pass a restaurant named Gaspard’s. I think I’m really on to something. I’m at ground zero for A Tale of Two Cities. After all, the Bastille was just a block away – that must have been the Doctor’s prison. The restaurant is La Gaspard de la Nuit. I think maybe we ate there one time – just to add to the intrigue.

I check out Gaspard de la Nuit on Google. The original reference is a poem by Aloysius Bertrand in the 1830’s. Gaspard is a man who lends another a book. When the borrower attempts to return the book, he finds that the lender is the devil. In 1908 Maurice Ravel turned this idea into one of the most difficult pieces ever for piano, La Gaspard de la Nuit. I haven’t determined why the restaurant chose that name, but I doubt is has anything to do with the tall man executed for killing the Marquis. Funny how we think we’re on to something, mais no.

Our adventure with the Tale of Two Cities will continue…

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On the Nile river proceeding south from Luxor

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US Embassy Paris

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Champs de Mars in the snow

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