Days behind the walls

Julija Mazej


When the first news about the new coronavirus in China broke, I was occupied with my project in Rome and had, admittedly few concerns about the outbreak until the virus hit Northern Italy. With a rapid burst of infections some 50,000 people in Lombardy and Veneto were placed under quarantine, and fear spread across the country. The acclaimed Venice carnival was canceled and face masks of a different kind populated the streets soon after. Signs to keep a safe distance were laid out in public places, and hand sanitizers and face masks became more sought-after than ever.

Then, on March 9 a nation-wide lockdown began. Practically everything stopped overnight like a big power outage. All non-essential activities were banned, parks closed and people wearing face masks that used to stroll along the streets were now spotted only in front of grocery stores, standing at least one meter apart. Even the usually overcrowded labs at Istituto Pasteur, normally filled with life, went silent.

Not being able to run experiments in the lab, my PhD turned into computer-based research conducted in my tiny apartment. On the bright side, this has been a good time to immerse into the literature, clarify concepts, and to write. However, after several weeks doing the same things again and again in the same environment, I have difficulty telling days apart; it becomes hard to focus; motivation wanes.

I don’t feel fear. The serenity that surrounds me might have killed it—or perhaps it’s because I am confident that we will overcome this crisis. Given that the farthest I am allowed to go is to the nearest market—providing I have a certificate—I miss freedom. Sometimes that brings a sense of guilt, knowing that there are people in hospitals struggling for their lives. Many have lost their loved ones; many will struggle to keep their businesses; and with rising unemployment, we are all likely sinking into another great recession.

Could we change this by learning from the past outbreaks of Zika, Ebola, SARS, and MERS? It seems as if we are oblivious to the health risks up until they begin to threatenelives, freedom, and economic stability in the developed world. Maybe this will be an epiphany and we will realize that viruses are fought by understanding their mechanisms, strengths, and weaknesses along with our own defence mechanisms. The tragedy of the current pandemic is that we must learn about the virus through infected people, and not through mice or some other model organism. This crisis has reminded me that the research I am working on is important and, bearing this in mind, it will be easier to dedicate more hours to work and studies in the future. There are a lot of covid-19 related questions to answer, and this is the time and chance to feast on them.

Julija Mazej is an Hungarian PhD based in Italy