Pestilence and Perspective

I set out for northern Vietnam on the brink of a pandemic.

How it began

I live in the undeveloped countryside of southern Vietnam. 5 hours away from the concrete beast that is Saigon. There are no malls here. No apartment buildings. Not even a VinMart. The only other person who speaks English is my employer.

5 days before I would be departing on a week-long reprieve from nothing, I was summoned to the police station.

With the aid of my employer acting as translator, I was asked to give a detailed account of everywhere I had been within the last two months. My travels had taken me home to South Africa, through Turkey and Qatar, Saigon and even across the Cambodian border for my visa. I was asked whether I had been in contact with anyone from China, and if I had experienced any flu-like symptoms. How the fuck would I know if I had encountered anyone who had travelled from China? I answered, “Not that I’m aware of,” and, “No,” respectively, my teeth gripping together in an effort to stay polite and calm.

After being found bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was set free to scamper off into the wilderness…only to be called back the next day.

Another statement. A twinge of annoyance. I was clearly healthy. This time, the man asking my employer questions appeared to be an official from the Department of Health. Did I have any travel plans? “Yes,” I answered truthfully, “On Sunday I am heading to Cat Ba Island for 4 days, then Hanoi.”

Things got strange

2 bus rides, 1 flight and a speedboat brought me to Cat Ba Island. My hotel was a 10-minute walk from the tourist street into which most hostels and pubs are packed. Strolling around town, I was greeted by several dozen locals minding their shops, eager for business. Passing restaurants, I saw staff engrossed in animated conversation, each establishment spilling out a different style of music. All the seating areas were empty. A lot of Cat Ba’s tourism comes from the Chinese, who were under quarantine. There were hardly any people. It was just the way I liked it.

I got to Hanoi on the 5th of March. They identified the first positive case of Covid-19 in Hanoi on the 6th.

The district was quarantined. Blocked off, streets sprayed, no one in or out. The authorities responded quickly, with militant efficiency.

An unavoidable sense of dread was settling over the city. It was as if the panic and pollution emulsified. The air was thick with it. You breathed it in and it settled on your skin.

Many language centres had closed their doors permanently.

The cute boy I was supposed to stay with that weekend had received notice that his centre would remain closed for another 3 months. With no means of making an income or paying rent, he had no choice but to pack up and head home to South Africa.

Things are not the same

Noone has been left untouched. We are all experiencing this. We may be feeling it in different places and in varying degrees of intensity, but we all share in this dis-ease. This global stress-test has shown us where our failures lie — as a civilization and as individuals. The world has been sick for a long time.

Things are not the same.

One virus forcing another to adapt. This is what accelerated evolution looks like. It’s not pretty, or neat, or convenient. It’s an unwelcome reminder that our desires, emotions and the human psyche — they’re all secondary, yet inextricably linked — to healthy biological function. Not only as individuals, but collectively, as a species. And nature doesn’t give a fuck about our feelings.

Upgrade your brain. Feed your passions.

Just as those with a stronger immune system are less prone to sickness; those who fortify their minds are less susceptible to pathological ways of thinking.

Just a human, sharing thoughts and experiences with other humans. A little mad, but sometimes charming. www.giabarnard.com

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