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.


Add Yours
  1. Maureen Meyer

    I agree with your bottom line-Everybody please STAY HOME! I am so disappointed with how many people are not taking this seriously, thanks to our idiot president.
    We are in full shelter in place mode- I came to Midwest 6 weeks ago to visit my sister and haven’t been able to go home! Glad to hear you are both well! Maureen

    • Hugh Nelson

      Good to hear from you Maureen! Hope life is treating you well, despite this pandemic. There is a lot of conflicting information out there about how dangerous the virus is. As an older person, I worry about what could happen to me, even though most analyses say that I should come through it just fine. Then we read about young people unexpectedly dying from the disease, leaving the impression that it’s much more dangerous than we had thought. Perhaps the glut of speculation has induced a perhaps unnecessary fear (or not), causing this big push for everyone to be isolated. That’s why I think we need to do a lot more testing to sort out what’s really going on.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonjour Maureen! I thought I had already replied – it’s good to hear from you and I’m sorry that you are trapped in the midwest, thought I think that less of a virus threat than to be in the Seattle area now. Unfortunately for us, we can’t count on not getting ill from this virus, and we can’t be certain that if medical resources get strained, we’ll be chosen over others. Thus we are trying hard at least to avoid the risky things that could get us in trouble. Hope you are going well. Both Brenda and I send you our best wishes.

  2. Gabrielle Gaylord

    Loved your informative piece. The State of Washington will go under “stay at home” status beginning Wednesday afternoon. It had to happen and doesn’t change my own life that much. Jim and I have been isolating since last week.
    Loved your commends on Life in the Time of Cholera. Wish I had a copy to read. Stay safe and continue to enjoy your life.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Thanks Gabe! You and Jim have a wonderful place to pass the time in isolation. Always something new to look at. Take care of yourselves.

  3. Jan Hiatt

    Loved your well written and thought out writing! I’m slamming into barriers with others about our age who think, oh, this will be over in a day or two and I can get on with my life. or, it’s nothing,, no big deal. “they can’t just keep everyone inside for months” was my favorite. Life here is different now, I do have some toilet paper and stuff we need, But not infinite. I went to the store last Saturday and found some things that are not mainstream that I do eat and was happy. Walking in the mornings is lovely and I do interact with others. Alex is working from home with his new cat. My phone bill may be bigger though,,, and Peter can’t go to the gym, or swim, and walking is not really an option as his balance isn’t great. Don’t know if he will be able to get the knees replaced this summer. Keep up the great work and thanks for keeping us informed! Hugs to you both, take care of yourselves. Love.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Merci Jan! I was up late last night with my editor (guess who), who was posing problems with my difficult-to-follow composition. After considerable reorganization, voilà! Many of the news articles these days either focus on how many are infected and dead, or they go to great lengths with much data to advocate a particular action such as social distancing. I was hoping to present a simpler view of the whole problem (while also including the plot from a not-too-related novel and a little on the history of vaccines, oh my). Peter has a tough problem not being able to walk and probably having his surgery delayed as well. Brenda used to be able to get a lot of exercise weeding the garden, sliding along the garden beds pulling herself along and moving a pad to sit on. Maybe you can find a plastic pad he can slide around on – or there’s always a wheelchair. Good for the arms, and you probably don’t have any hills. I can see where Alex shift to working from home isn’t too big a shift as long as the security barriers can be overcome. I bet he is already pretty knowledgeable about conferencing software and stuff like that. Hope he is doing well and that the cat is helping out with the house work. Our best to you and Pete, love, Hugh and Brenda

  4. Wanda Taylor

    Thanks Hugh and Brenda. We sure miss seeing you guys at the Farmers’ Market in Poulsbo. Hope that you are able to stay away from this awful bug!! We are trying hard to do what we are supposed to do. Being 80 and 81 now – we have to do what they suggest. Take care – love to you both!!

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonjour Wanda! Brenda and I are old enough to see that we could be among the “not chosen” if we were infected and become seriously ill. French hospital emergency rooms were already struggling to keep up with demand before the virus. Hoping to ride this one out until first wave recedes. Love from both of us to you and to Dave. Not sure when we’ll make it to Poulsbo now, but when we do we’ll be looking for you.

  5. Pat Osler

    I enjoyed your blog on Love in the Time of Coronavirus. I visited Gabriel Garcia Ma’rquez city where he wrote the book. He is considered a very important person. As we in the world deal with this virus, not every country in agreement, This issue of Mitigation or Suppression is in the minds of everyone. Trump yesterday pushed the door open for mitigation, seems strange that the worlds “best, biggest by far”, would throw in the towel disregarding Professionals advice on how to respond. Perhaps I read to much into what he was saying but it is undoubtedly a mistake to listen to him and expect straight, clear facts. How long can the country sustain a lockdown approach and is it worse and more destructive to the future of the country than simple mitigation? Decisions and time will tell,

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonjour Pat! Glad you liked the article. Brenda looked at it last night and recommended a thorough reorganization, so I was burning a little midnight oil to get this out. Glad you stayed with it as I wound around topics. Gabriel García Márquez lived a number of places in Colombia during his life, and he died in Mexico City. His last house I believe was in Cartagena, where we visited in February. The house is a private residence not open to the public, but was only a few blocks from Plaza Fernandez de Madrid shown in the first photo. I think that the President will respond to things as they become available. You can’t do suppression without testing, and we don’t have testing yet. We’re already doing 31 flavors of mitigation, depending upon where you live. Much of the success or failure of this is up to individuals an their local communities. If we have a large number of people dying because the hospitals are overwhelmed as in Italy, there will be enormous public pressure to change course. Let’s hope we don’t get to that. We need to do more now. I think the term lockdown is just a strict form of mitigation. As I was saying in the article, there has to be some plan to get the economy going again. Can’t just lockdown until summer, in my opinion. Aside from COVID-19 and being stuck in your room, hope you are doing well and keeping busy. We’ve seen some examples (perhaps not in Seattle) of agents getting creative with home showings and social distancing to continue to market their properties. These are interesting times (said me knocking on wood). Take care Pat! Brenda says hi and please say hi to Andi from both of us.

  6. Pat Osler

    Enjoyed your blog on Love in the Time of Coronavirus. I have been to Gabriel Garcia Ma’rquez homeland, The country is very proud of him. This virus and the world, our country, face this at a beginning stage. Trump already talking about mitigation rather than suppression of the virus strikes me as not following scientific advice and so we throw in-the towel, so much for fighting a war. Yes, I understand some of the damage this will do to the economy but mitigation seems very premature.

  7. Larry Bartholomew

    Well, Hugh, I guess our summer trip to Paris is off for 2020! Things are not too bad (yet) in North Kitsap. There are a handful of reported positive cases. I had considered some action to prevent crossings of the Agate Pass, Hood Canal and Tacoma Narrows Bridges and the having them discontinue the Kingston Ferry. But then it occurred to me we had to have some way to get supplies delivered to us. It appears somebody is preventing the import of toilet paper right now, so we may have to learn how to use bidets. But then we’d have to hire a plumber, who probably wouldn’t come in. And who knows what the supply of bidets is now? I give up. It’s getting too complicated! I’m just glad we haven’t yet downsized our house!

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonjour Larry! I’m sorry to hear that your Paris visit looks to be cancelled. We have trips back to the US and a mid summer tour in Istanbul that both are looking tenuous also. Despite the low number of cases in North Kitsap, I would guess that there are many more who are infected but not showing symptoms. So if there are 10 reported there might be 110 infected. Social distancing in the short run is the best course until we figure out a way to identify and treat the invisible cases. Good idea to not isolate all freight to Kitsap County. More toilet paper is coming! Hope to see you there at Rotary this Friday. Best wishes to you.

  8. Beverly

    Hello Hugh and Brenda –

    What can I say that others have not? I just want to second (or 5th to 16th) the accolades for such a well thought out article, both informative and incredibly interesting. You are correct that it is not just a medical problem but the economical implications can not even be imagined at this point. I fear I am living in a country that is much more interested in the economical issues than the medical and emotional issues than we need to deal with. It does feel like house arrest, but a small price to pay. I live in a relatively small city (Tucson) where we don’t seem to be thanking those folks that provide all the services that make our lives easy (garbage men, police, store clerks). Thanks again for such an insightful article. Stay well and keep each other safe and healthy. Cheers, Bev (too many years since I had to speak French so I won’t even try!)

    • Hugh Nelson

      Bonjour Bev! Really great to hear from you. I think Brenda replied to you via Facebook. She still recalls the time that you spoke up in French for your group when they were served duck sushi at Val Torrence (I think I have that right). The French are centralized and good at administration, so those in the US might get some good ideas from them. On the other hand, you are where things can pivot very quickly. We hope that at least in the areas where the number of known cases is growing large, people will act in everyone’s best interest by isolating themselves, staying away from others. But in the meantime, we really need a breakthrough or two to give everyone some hope that the virus can be brought under control.Our best to you – stay healthy!

  9. Ardis

    Always enjoy your sojourns into history. You are so well read and I take’advantage it. We may not see you in April then eh? So far I am
    well No virus yet although I’m well into that vulnerable group they keep
    reminding me every day. My hip is my biggest problem and hope to con-queer that eventually.
    Everyone trying to do what health experts tell us to do and hope it accomplishes
    the desired results.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Merci Ardis, Brenda helped me organize this unwieldy piece. Her mom in Spokane is self isolating. We call her every day. The French government has tightened up procedures again – now there are no outdoor markets and you can only go outside for 1 hour each day, and not farther than 1km from home. So we get to adapt – people have suffered worse in other times. Like you we are trying hard not to expose ourselves to this virus. Sorry to hear that your hip is hurting. I hope to see (or at least hear from) you this week at Rotary. Our best to you, love, Hugh and Brenda

  10. Kathryn H. Quade

    Thanks Hugh for a very readable and informative piece. It’s also good to hear you and Brenda are staying positive.
    We are also following the order to social distance after coming home from a most wonderful skis trip to Big White in BC, just before this all became really real here in Kitsap. Life is certainly different now, and will continue for some unknowable future. I only hope we can get ahead of this curve, by taking care of ourselves and heeding Governor Inslee’s directive. Take care and thanks again.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Merci Kathryn! Hope you and Doug are staying healthy. I was envious of the ski pictures you posted. Best to you from both Brenda and from me.

  11. Donna Etchey

    I so enjoyed reading your blog. Very thoughtful. Be safe and hugs to both you and Brenda. Hope to hear and see you at this weeks virtual rotary meeting.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Merci Donna – Hope you are doing well, and I will be at the meeting. I was able to be at last week’s meeting, but wasn’t sure how to make everything work so I could participate. Hopefully I can figure out how to make the camera and mike work this week. Brenda says hello.

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