December 24 – The Gift

Day 337 of my pandemic. It’s Christmas Eve, 2020, and we’ve almost made it through the year. A couple of days ago, on December 21, for Winter Solstice, I accompanied the Wang clan, my family, to the. River to look up into the sky and see the Christmas Star, a super rare planetary alignment where Jupiter and Saturn will come within 0.1 degrees of each other, forming the first visible “double planet” in 800 years. I looked up, the family ate the traditional lamb soup that is meant to keep our bellies warm until the Spring, and I promised myself a gift. I would be kind to myself and to others, I would find empathy again, and I would stay calm (don’t panic!). If you know me, turning down the snark sounds like Mission Impossible, but in fact, it’s been three days now, and while I’ve come close to losing my cool, so far, so good. 

The fact is that this pandemic played out for me in slow motion for much of the year. Once Chongqing closed its borders and China put all its effort into winning the battle of Wuhan, we simply had to remain very vigilant and careful, react quickly to the rare case before it became an outbreak, clamp down on that area, a smart lockdown, and mass test until we were sure it was safe to open up again. I believe this was the playbook we offered the world, that, and from January 11, the genomic sequence, the guidance to wear masks, and keep social distance, and quickly evolving science, such as airborne transmission, goggles and ocular sensitivity, Vitamin D and ACE2 receptors, and other guidance.

The Moderna vaccine was formulated over a weekend, by January 13, 2020. It took most of a year to test, study, produce, and authorize. But they made it over a weekend before I even knew about the virus, ten days before the Wuhan lockdown and the start of my wild ride, months before the rest of the world woke up to the new normal: a global pandemic, economic lockdowns, bankruptcy, depression, illness, and death. I advocated as strongly as I could for Canada to follow the China model, a strong eight-week lockdown followed by closed borders, quarantines, and testing, which would result in a “safe haven” island of Canada where business would be pretty much normal as long as measures were taken to stay vigilant (such as wastewater monitoring). Many experts said an eight-week lockdown would be an unprecedented economic blow. As I hate to say but say too often, we couldn’t afford the eight-week lockdown, so we bought the two-year one on layaway.

Tom Cruise drew heat from some corners for losing his cool on the set of Mission Impossible 7, one of the few huge Hollywood blockbuster movies working through the pandemic. Recorded audio leaked of Cruise screaming at the crew for breaking distancing protocols, saying that the world was looking to him, insurance companies were calling him, thousands of jobs were on the line for his film, and all movies as people were losing their houses and if these two gophers were going to ruin all that because they couldn’t stand two meters apart, they were going to be damn well fired (I presume out of a rocket if he was allowed). While I and many agreed with the sentiment, others, such as my empathetic and caring community builder friend Devon, said it was an improper use of power punching down and would be more likely to make his folx “hide the bite” to use a zombie movie metaphor. He also took issue with Tom’s tacticool valve mask, not being community caring as he isn’t reliably filtering his exhalations with that. So, in general, Tom got some heat, but the show must go on.

In the last 24 hours, the USA recorded numbers have hit 194,000. The mutation that arose in the UK on September 20 has most likely spread to other areas. A rise of roughly 10% (9.2% last week) a week is an alarming increase.

We hit 500,000 recorded cases in our tiny country of Canada, a gruesome milestone. Many local health experts suggest that the real numbers are 5x to 30x

Local tuna fishermen and ice cream folx in Canada are donating deep freezers to store and transport our vaccines that need to be kept at -70C, making them local heroes and hopefully not contributing to any “fishy news” about the local vaccine. The European medicine agency has met early to authorize the Pzifer Vaccine— getting jabs underway by the New Year.  

The world has 79 million recorded cases but could well be over a billion in actual cases using projected models. We have seen 1.7 million recorded deaths to date. 55.6 million folx have recovered, although some long-term effects that might last a lifetime, such as lung scarring, organ damage, brain fog (an IQ drop of ten or more points), fatigue, or other problems. Trump made America number 1: 20 million cases. India at number two is only half, at 10 million. Brazil is at 7 million, Russia almost 3 million, France 2.5 m and the UK 2.1 m. Canada is number 26 at 528 thousand cases, 14,597 deaths. China is down at number 80, 86,899 cases, 17 new cases today. 4,634 reported deaths. Amazing we used to be at the top of that list by a long shot.

We hope that by March or April, hundreds of millions of at-risk health care workers, elderly and at-risk people will be vaccinated, but the next couple of months will be possibly the hardest of the year for most people. Although China is still mostly safe on our island —- I will probably spend another winter holiday at home, drinking coffee, writing, and hey, once in a while, playing Cyberpunk 2077. It finally came out, with much ire for all it’s glitches and bugs, even getting delisted from the Playstation store, but I love it. For a 30 year fan of the genre, since William Gibson launched Neuromancer in 198X (4?), although I was five then, I supposed it would be 1990 before I actually read it, and 1999 before I saw Keanu become Neo and discovered the Matrix, this genre really shaped my life, and it’s not like I can pass on this game and next year a 10% better, 20% less glitchy Cyberpunk game with Keanu Reeves starring in it will be out. It’s this or a total pass, and I’m too much a lifer to pass. Besides, Cyberpunk has always been a janky, glitchy world, and in that way, it’s perfect.

The UK has closed its borders, or more accurately, France and other neighbors have closed their borders with the UK because of the new mutation that has been identified. Over 40 countries have stopped flights to and from the UK to try to stop the spread of the new mutation. The fact that it’s been around since September now, though, means it’s likely got seeds all over the world; however, it is quickly becoming the dominant strain in London and the South, and it will help to slow it’s growth globally to stop flights, even if only a little. Every bit helps. It is ironic that now that every country in the world has closed their borders to grapple with internal outbreaks of the pandemic, we imagine that if we had simply closed our borders last February, we could have really controlled the spread, but long term planning was not and still isn’t a strength of humans – we are often reactionary to pain.

The new mutation is of some concern to experts who are racing to study it. What we know is that it’s much more contagious and spreadable, especially indoors in poorly ventilated areas. We don’t know if it’s more fatal, and it should still be affected by the current vaccines.

Matt Hancock says the new variant is getting “out of control,” unusually honest for a politician. It’s spreading around the UK but likely has seeded all over the globe. People that left crowded trains from London days ago will be spreading this across the country; by the time we identified the issue, it’s likely too late to stop it. The new mutation, 2020 12, N501 Y, has mutated in the 501st position of the spike protein. It is called so because the N form of the amino acid has been converted to the Y form (N Asparagine to Y Tyrosine). This is important because it’s on the receptor-binding domain. It’s quickly replacing other variants such as D614G (where Aspartate (D) changed to Glycine (G), quickly becoming the dominant strain, in a sense becoming the pandemic. (From November, it was 25% of cases, by December, it’s already 60% of cases in the UK). This variant is more likely to bind into and infect the ACE2 receptor on someone’s cells. Originally, the 614th amino acid (D614) but over the course of several months, it was less infectious, and the dominant strain became the 614G strain, for example. HIV, for example, can mutate several times in a week, making the search for a vaccine all the more difficult, so mutations are quite common, but the fact that we are seeing this doubly infectious strain becoming dominant in time for the holiday spike that will inevitably happen as many people are not canceling holiday plans is concerning. As a friend said on social media, “if you don’t hear about people complaining about missing their holidays, that’s because they aren’t” — but I won’t gripe; what will happen will happen. We’re all exercising our agency.
Now we don’t know if this strain originated from the UK or we just discovered it there; the UK is a hub of genomic surveillance — but with three months from the first case we’ve found, it’s had time to get all over the world. We know it is already in Brazil, France, and South Africa —- although that is a mutation, possibly a naturally occurring example of convergence, like how both squids and humans have very similar eyes, or bats and birds both have wings, despite being quite different evolutionarily. It shares some commonality to the Mink mutation but is not a descendant – convergence is a buzz word today when discussing COVID, and it’s growth. Not to be a fearmongering science bro, it’s important perhaps to mention that a doctor on TV, I didn’t catch the name, in Canada said that if you’re wearing your mask, distancing, and being safe, you’re not likely to catch the virus (any strain), so keep being vigilant and you will hopefully be ok. That may sound harsh to anyone who’s suffering from it, but I think it’s still good advice. Wear a mask, stay home, stay safe.  

WHO Epidemiologist Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove talking with Katie Couric, discussed China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand, Senegal, Cambodia, Germany, Rwanda, South Africa, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Madagascar, Norway, Finland, Uruguay.. on and on, have managed their situations, by working hard, applying public health measures, they have managed the pandemic well to control covid. Studies are confirming the way that it behaves… it’s still controllable. The mutation is one of many, she says, and the vaccines will so far hold up against them. We are aware of them because of the robust genomic sequencing scientists around the world are constantly doing, and she encourages us to trust the science and do our part to support public health initiatives (wear masks, distance, hand hygiene, and ventilate indoor areas well)

If we are to defeat this pandemic and then tackle the pressures of climate change and climate catastrophe from global warming and the looming animal mass extinctions, predicted as a series of catastrophic events from 2020-2030, and then from 2030-2050, we will need to become much better at spending a dime now to save a dollar later. This year has shown me we aren’t that agile or adaptable, but I feel like we may come around sooner or later.

We got a snow day. It’s been years since I’ve seen snow here in Chongqing, and I haven’t had a winter back in Canada since 2014. We drove to fairy mountain with gloves, toques, my snowboarding jacket, and high hopes of a fun time. It really was. It was a special night on the mountain.

The holidays are about family, and time spent with loved ones is a gift.
The holidays are about family, and time spent with loved ones is a gift.

The holidays are always busy, but for my first and hopefully only pandemic Xmas, I’ve got my hands in many pies, or as I misspoke to my father, many pots, and now he’s calling me FivePots, my monk name to replace my childhood moniker, Grasshopper. I’ve managed to wrangle the 24th and 25th off teaching, but I am meeting with my agent this afternoon after a haircut anyway to discuss the book launch the publishers in Beijing have planned for Sunday, December 27, wanting to launch it before the end of the calendar year. They’re flying down from Beijing to Chongqing, and local government officials are also planning to attend, making this a big deal to some locally. My school leaders are planning to come, and also planned to bring some students until virus concerns KaiBoshed that plan. Lots of our family will come and a few of my friends who aren’t busy or working or off on holiday. Friday the 25th, I do plan to spend at home in my PJs and cooking up a nice dinner, hoping some family will come over to share it and some gifts. The foreign teachers will have an evening gathering that I’ll pop by next door also, and then we have a pizza party for the kids at my fav spot, Pizza House, on the 26th. This makes for a very busy few days of rest and relaxation, but I hope it’s enjoyable all the same. Then I will go back to work for two weeks of exam prep with the kids, and then it’s a winter break until school starts back in March. Fingers crossed all goes well, and all is subject to change at any given moment due to new information on the ground and pandemic precautions and common sense.

This takes me back to my gift, of patience and kindness, because running around being mean to people who are suffering just because I warned them and they didn’t act on it doesn’t make anyone feel better. I have to be resigned to the fact that we did our best, whatever our best was, and be patient as we work to improve our best, and hopefully, it will be enough. Whatever happens, I will stay calm, be patient, and be kind, even if I sink with the ship. This is my gift.

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