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19 COVID Thoughts #17

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick”

Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor

“Plague, from the Latin plaga (stroke, wound), has long been used metaphorically as the highest standard of collective calamity”

Susan Sontag, AIDS and its Metaphors

While the bubonic plague was in England, a bale of cloth was sent from London to a tailor in a village called Eyam. As the bale of cloth was damp, the tailor's assistant opened the bale and hung it in front of a fire to dry. Contained in the bale of damp cloth were fleas carrying the plague. The heat unwittingly stirred the disease-ridden fleas. He became the first of the plague's victims. The village decided to quarantine themselves. Human-to-human contact, especially with those outside of the village was basically eliminated so as to reduce the potential of the spread of the pathogen. Hundreds died but not as many as may have without the quarantine.

Looking back at lockdown, its hard not to think of it as a siege. For those who were more at risk cocooning themselves behind glass, closed doors and walls; and for people like me just staying protected from the dangers of the outside. What was scary was —and to an extent still is —the lack of clarity around how the virus spread. Contact was one thing. It was also airborne. It could exist on objects but for how long?

Sontag writes in Illness as Metaphor how the identification of bacteria as agents of disease in the 1880 introduced the first instances of the widespread military metaphor in medicine: “Bacteria were said to ‘invade’ or ‘infiltrate’.” She goes on to note how “talk of siege and war to describe disease now has, with cancer, a striking literalness and authority. Not only is the clinical course of the disease and its medical treatment thus described, but the disease itself is conceived as the enemy on which society wages war.”

Before people were able to properly visit the elderly in nursing homes, visits were attempted through windows. Both of my parent’s mothers live on the ground floor of the same nursing home which made visiting easier. Both said that while it was nice to be able to see their mothers, it was not without its complications. The conversations always happened through glass. Their dementia made trying to explain the situation futile. It was unclear if trying to explain the situation would be worth the effort or if it would add stress unnecessarily. My dad recalled how his mum would get annoyed at him often saying: “Would you come round. I don’t know what you’re saying.” He was just being rude not coming in and talking to her.

I’ve been thinking about the imposed isolation which my dads mum hated. She didn’t know about the situation so didn’t understand the quarantine. It wasn’t self inflicted. It wasn’t by choice.

This visits became more complicated when my Dad’s mum contracted COVID. The initial test had been given because there had been a confirmed case in the nursing home and as a precaution everyone in the wing was given a test. She had no obvious symptoms but following a second test it was confirmed. My grandmother had COVID but was asymptomatic. Thankfully, after a two week isolation she was given a clear bill of health.

The diagnosis complicated the barrier between my parents and my grandmother. Her isolation was no longer for her own protection. It was there to protect others in the building. To protect the people outside. It also changed the value of the visits. Asymptomatic carriers complicated our ability to have relationship with people around us. It opens up a space between health and sickness. Our isolation not just protects ourselves but it protect everyone around us.

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