“Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone, stay away from other people”
Frightening words haunted a 13-year-old girl every night in her dreams. In the fall of 2011, an American thriller called Contagion was released, and these words were spoken by Kate Winslet, playing a CDC researcher. The movie was filled with ultra-realistic details about the spread of the novel pathogen, the effects of the pandemic on the public and the resulting global chaos. Having realised the vulnerability of humankind to tiny creatures called viruses, that 13-year old—me—decided to become a virologist. Ever since I have always wondered what it would be like to live through a real pandemic like the Spanish flu of 1918 or the Hong Kong flu of 1968.
In January 2020, I started my new journey as a young virologist under Prof Ron Fouchier in Erasmus MC. While I was celebrating my new job in the INITIATE consortium during the kick-off meeting, people thousands of miles away in Wuhan were kept in lock-down due to the spread of new novel pathogen SARS-CoV-2.
More than 11 research groups and 110 researchers work in our massive Viroscience department on the 17th floor. The people there are enthusiastic, hard-working and filled with curiosity. Bumping into people in the busy walkway while waiting for the PCR room was part of daily life. Then, suddenly, the whole department was empty— except for three PhD students and one technician. The next day our department head and group leader announced the official lock-down of the entire department—except for coronavirus research. Like many other PhD students, I was very frustrated and disappointed. I felt like my identity as a virologist was mugged by the word “pandemic”. Reading coronavirus news and checking the number of cases was the only contribution I could make to society.
The initial days of lock-down went by with lots of polar-bearing; my small (20 square meter) apartment has no living room. As someone new in the Netherlands, there was no one I could turn to for a good chat. That made it even tougher to keep my spirits up. In 21 years, I have never celebrated my birthday alone. A dull and monotonous routine replaced all my birthday plans and excitement. Work was difficult: it was a challenge to be productive in the confinement of a tiny room surrounded by the stillness of a stopped world. And, as an international student, it was demoralising not knowing when I would be able to see my family again. Zoom helped: my parent’s words “Naanga nalla irukoam sami”, which means we are fine darling, made me feel at ease. Keeping mentally healthy is one of my concerns. Occasional beach trips and happy hours with my group reminded me of normality, happiness-even at 1.5 metres apart.
As a 13-year-old girl watching Contagion to a young virologist living in lock-down, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and studying Pandemics as history. And, one inescapable lesson is that we didn’t learn a lot from that history. Now that I’m living through one, “how we are going to prepare for the next one?” is the question that now fills my thoughts.
Susma is an Indian PhD based in the Netherlands