An escape from quarantine

The hills and valleys of central Arkansas seem an unlikely location for the largest gated residential community in the United States, but that’s exactly what Hot Springs Village is. Stretching across two counties and encompassing just over 53.5 square miles, this unique development was begun in 1970, a vision of developer John A. Cooper Sr.

Since then, it has mushroomed into a thriving “small town” with a population exceeding 13,000, characterized by individual communities that center on a network of lakes and golf courses. Hot Springs Village has the feeling of a leisure-oriented community, but it is not age-restricted. Indeed, yellow buses transport approximately 1,000 children to one of two school districts outside the gates during a normal school year.

One enters the village, situated approximately 16 miles from historic Hot Springs, through one of two main gates. Visitors are issued temporary dashboard permits, and are immediately introduced to another world. Tall pines, lush greenery and an abundance of birds and wildlife dwell here in the Ouachita National Forest. There are deer, squirrels and chipmunks, occasional bears and red fox, and a resident bald eagle. Humans live in harmony with the creatures, and fishermen routinely pull large fish from the recreational lakes. It seems far removed from touristy Hot Springs.

Hot Springs Village is an incorporated township with paved streets, city sewers, dedicated water supply, its own police and fire departments, and many of the advantages of an urban lifestyle. However, within its gates, it has a distinctly rural feeling and an ambience all its own.

Churches, banks, restaurants and a handful of small businesses exist within the gates, along with healthcare offices and other signs of modern life, but they do not scream their presence. There is no neon. Residents can gather for morning coffee and doughnuts, but must venture outside the gates to shop for groceries. However, a thriving farmers’ market operates during the season, and additional commercial development is part of the master plan for the community.

My husband and I had an opportunity to visit old friends in Hot Springs Village for two brief days last week. Both Texas and Arkansas have begun to relax the Coronavirus quarantine procedures somewhat. We did not know what to expect, but a break from “stay-at-home” orders was in order.

We drove our own car, booked two nights in a thoroughly sanitized condo, wore masks in public, toured the village, and enjoyed our meals at properly-spaced tables on outdoor decks, attended by congenial masked and gloved servers.

We had wonderful meals, reminisced about old times with our friends, enjoyed a leisurely pontoon boat ride around the perimeter of Lake Cortez, one of 11 within the boundaries of Hot Springs Village. We shared our concerns and perspective about Coronavirus recovery, and acted somewhat like children on holiday.

We visited golf courses and watched socially distanced players practicing their swings , drove past now-mostly-empty tennis and pickleball courts, watched the antics of friendly chipmunks and listened to birdsong. The community’s indoor pool and fitness center, library and performance venue are still closed, and the restaurants that have reopened are limiting hours as well as patrons.

It was a much needed break from the quarantine routine, and a temporary glimpse of “almost normal” lifestyle. Normal is still unattainable in the here and now, but it seems even more vital now to move beyond the fear. Back in Texas, we are again aware that these are unusual times for everyone, but the reality of the past two months has begun to feel overly restrictive.

We learned, once again, that faraway can be a matter of mindset as well as distance, and that two days spent in an out-of-the-ordinary manner can be a much-needed tonic. We both look forward to scheduling that first haircut, and to more excursions to places both near and far. We returned home with a sense of hope and a renewed purpose.

Hopefully, the time is not too far away that we can travel unrestricted, give family and friends real hugs, and get on with the business of living well.

We’ve been here before . . .

. . . and, no doubt, we will be again.

The last global pandemic did not occur a century ago. The 1918 “Spanish Flu” was epic, but there have been more recent versions that were widespread and devastating, causing more than one million deaths worldwide and upwards of 100,000 deaths in the United States. But hardly anyone remembers.

It is important to point out that the Coronavirus crisis of 2020 is not without precedent; only the actions we have taken are unprecedented.

Dr. Deborah Birx said as much in the Good Friday Coronavirus Task Force Briefing. “We’ve never before taken a national, or a global, approach to mitigation. This is unprecedented,” she said.

Dr. Birx did not specify what was done during the 1957-58 Pandemic and the 1968 Pandemic. I cannot help but assume that, during her career, she studied those health crises, and that she is familiar with the statistics. Granted, the country was not shut down, and widespread stay-at-home orders were not issued.

However, schools and businesses in some states were closed, makeshift hospitals and treatment centers were mobilized in some cities, citizens were urged not to travel if it was not necessary. Fear and uncertainty were widespread, and the number of infections grew steadily over the course of several months. In the fall of 1957, at the start of the school year, localized outbreaks resulted in high absenteeism, and businesses reported that between 10 and 20% of the work force was affected.

In 1958, there was a second wave in the United States, more devastating than the first the previous fall. There are normally second, and even third, waves of infection. Some, like AIDS and Ebola, never go away but are ultimately controlled. They are hardly newsworthy, but they are often devastating.

News coverage, however, was very different in the mid-20th Century, described as “low key,”  and social media did not yet exist. There was no daily death count reported by the media, even though it is now conceded that about 40,000 Americans died in the fall of 1957 due to the flu. The first wave of infection was more deadly for children and young adults, while the second wave in 1958 seemed to target people over age 65.

A Century of Pandemic Experience

The 1957-58 pandemic is known as the “least deadly” of the three major 20th Century pandemics. Statistics vary, but the official estimate by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 1.1 million deaths globally, with approximately 116,000 in the United States. A vaccine had been made available in late August 1957, but it was deemed to be only 45 to 60% effective. Officials still recommended that Americans take advantage of the “flu shot.”

This particular influenza, identified as an H2N2 strain, disappeared after only 11 years, according to an article, “Influenza Pandemics of the 20th Century,” by Edwin D. Kilbourne.

In 1968, however, another virus would appear, this time a new strain that would prove more troublesome and more deadly. Once again, it spread rapidly, but its severity would depend on a variety of factors. Now categorized as an H3N2 virus, it remains to this day the “major and most troublesome influenza A virus in humans,” according to Kilbourne. First identified in the United States in September, this pandemic also claimed the lives of approximately 100,000 Americans and at least one million people worldwide.

Another flu made an appearance less than a decade later, in November 1977. Although it was generally mild, it was again a variant of the previous H3N2, termed a “juvenile age-restricted, global pandemic.” It appeared first in the Soviet Union, and was initially termed the Russian flu. It targeted children and young people, thought to be susceptible because they had not developed antibodies to this particular strain of virus. About the same time, a return of the H1N1, which was the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, was noted, but in slightly different, mutated form. Interestingly, the 1977 virus continues to confound researchers.

CDC reporting of infections and deaths has changed over the years, but by looking quickly at available statistics, the range of American deaths during the 1977 flu season could be placed between 6,000 and 43,000.

The Reality of Pandemics

Anyone age 70 or older might have a faint recollection of the Asian Flu in the late 1950s.  Some memory of the 1977 Hong Kong Flu should linger with most Americans who have reached about age 50. The Russian Flu seems perfectly forgettable unless a family was personally affected by it. Finally, we should not forget the 2009 flu that circulated the globe in 2009 and 2010. That one, unlike the two previous, was most serious in children and young adults. Older adults, particular those over 65, were more likely to have some immunity from the virus, even though it was a novel strain of H1N1.

Why is it, then, that there seems to be an American amnesia about these previous events? The “seasonal flu” that causes little alarm these days is a sobering reminder that these old viruses are still around. Also, every year, the flu claims the lives of between 6,000 and 70,000 Americans, based on CDC estimates. Every new epidemic has similarities to past pandemics. According to epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, many seasonal viruses are just enough different that previously-developed treatments and vaccines may offer some relief, but they are not foolproof. And no sure prevention or cure exists for any viral infection.

Like everyone else, I have never seen anything quite like this. I do, however, have some memories of 1957, 1968 and 1977. Recently, through research, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about plagues, pandemics and the recurrent spread of virulent viruses.

It’s not the current number of infected, nor even the number of deaths that has me most concerned. I feel for those who become seriously ill, and I weep with those families who lose loved ones to a new respiratory virus, one for which there is no known treatment, and about which little is known. All of us are affected. I know with certainty that our “normal” will never be as it was.

But I also lived through the polio scare, measles and chicken pox, and knew of smallpox and tuberculosis. Even the plague. Yes, it too still exists. Bubonic plague cases are not uncommon, to this day, in the Mountain states, but it is a bacterial infection and it is spread differently, through direct contact with infected fleas. *(There are some researchers who now believe that the Black Death of the Middle Ages was not the plague at all, but a rapidly-spreading, highly-infectious virus instead.) 

Looking Ahead to Post-pandemic life

What is most memorable about the 2020 pandemic may very well be the international reaction to it, the effect on global economies, and the disruption of every aspect of our lives. It was informally tagged COVID-19 because it was first reported to the World Health Organization office in China as a novel form of pneumonia on December 31, 2019. On February 11, 2020, is was officially christened as SARS-CoV-2, because it is a “genetic cousin” of the 2002 SARS virus. 

Just in case you didn’t know, there are only seven coronaviruses that have been identified: Four cause the “common cold,” and three are the triggers for SARS, MERS and the current pandemic. Whether that should make us all feel better or lead to additional worries is debatable.

However, whether there is a second wave of the current novel Coronavirus, or it continues to be a seasonal viral infection much like the H1N1, it’s foolish to assume there will be no more epidemics — even serious pandemics — in our lifetime. They happen regularly. And there may be more novel coronaviruses identified in the future.

To return to Dr. Birx’s statement about global response. No, governments have never before acted even remotely as they did at the onset of this infection. (Well, maybe the Black Plague?)

The response in 2020 is unprecedented not only in scale, but in geography, economic upheaval, and in disruption of normal activity. Self-isolation, mandated shutdowns, cancelled classes and closed schools, shuttered businesses, perceived shortages of healthcare equipment, sickness and death are by no means localized phenomena. But we have become a mobilized and global society, and that allowed the virus to spread quickly throughout the world.

Statistics and Sadness

The truth is that we have been here before, even though we have forgotten. Is it perhaps more normal than we think?

On Wednesday afternoon, April 2, the number of confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19 surpassed one million. The number of deaths related to this new virus stood at not quite 51,500. Nine days later, at about noon in my time zone on Saturday, April 11, the statistics were horrifically different: 1,724,736 cases confirmed globally, and 104,938 deaths.

One week later, according to the daily statistics, there were 2,256,844 confirmed cases worldwide, with 154,350 deaths. On April 18, the number of fatalities in the United States was edging toward 33,000. To my horror, this morning, just one day later, the number of deaths has passed 39,000 in this country, with 742,637 confirmed cases in the United States alone. Global deaths now are over 162,000, with 2,355,676 confirmed cases.

Thankfully, the number of new infections seems to be slowing. American hospitals have not been overwhelmed as originally feared, but in other nations, the outlook has been grim. Still, though, it’s necessary to compare the number of deaths with the totals from other 20th-Century pandemics to gain a better perspective.

It’s a terrible thing to feel quite this helpless in a time so filled with scientific knowledge and modern technology, isn’t it? 

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts I have dubbed Corona Chronicles.” The first was Twists of fate, published February 14, 2020, before the spreading viral infection had actually been declared a pandemic, followed by Faraway and the here & now March 23, 2020, and Look for the silver lining on April 17, 2020. There are more to come.

Look for the silver lining

My grandfather was fond of saying that every cloud had a silver lining. I know now that many of his generation grew up looking for any hope they could cling to during the hard times of his time. He, after all, survived two world wars, the Great Depression, dust bowl and drought, tornadoes and floods, a pandemic, several epidemics, the early loss of brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews to disease and farm accidents, and his own increasingly ill health in later years.

Sadly, his “later years” didn’t last long. I was just barely a teenager when he left this plane of existence. But I remember, as a young child, walking with him on summer days when clouds began to form in the Montana sky. He would point to them and say, “Look now, look up to see the silver lining.”

I believed him then. I look still for those silver linings.

Today, more than ever. There are signs of hope all around us in these difficult times. It gives me hope that, despite this unexpected and unwelcome health crisis, the American people will band together not only to survive, but to flourish. Somehow, I believe it’s not the hard times that have the ability to crush us as a resourceful nation, but rather the easy times. As a nation, we seem to be at our best during times of crisis.

I smile at the countless uplifting social media posts that proclaim “We are all in this together,” and “This will end.” I am buoyed up by the willingness of so many people to sew face masks for complete strangers. I am heartened by the patio chairs springing up on front lawns throughout the nation. Neighbors are getting to know one another again, in this time of social distancing.

I see it in the countless ways that small business firms are pivoting and taking action to survive now, plan for the future and find new ways to protect not only their investments but their employees as well. I am humbled by the commitment of doctors and nurses, and, as usual, of emergency responders.

I understand the push to get back to some sort of normal, and I sense the feelings of loss that are so pervasive. But then I see on the news the pictures – and the sounds – of Italians singing from their balconies, of orchestras and choirs all over the globe in virtual concerts, and of volunteers turning out in force to pass out food and deliver needed supplies. Craft breweries and small whiskey producers have shifted gears to produce hand sanitizers. Other companies have pulled out all the stops to manufacturer needed supplies for healthcare professionals, to deliver lunches to those front-line workers, and to do everything possible to “flatten the curve.”

We are all intent on stemming the tide of despair that is the only thing that can defeat us. No doubt the hard times will not come to an abrupt halt. The economic burden on individuals and small business will last even longer, I suspect, than the stay-at-home orders.

Still, I can’t help but weigh in on the side of optimism. Life will never be the same again. But, perhaps that’s part of the good news. Just today, it was announced that we are on the path to reopening at least parts of the country and of commerce. It was also announced that initial tests of new drugs are promising. Perhaps a treatment for this dreadful viral infection is not far off. Hopefully, a vaccine will follow. 2020 will not easily be forgotten, but if my grandfather were here I’m certain he would point to the clouds, flash me a quick smile, and ask if I see the silver lining.

I have looked up at clouds, and I have looked down on clouds from far above. I have to confess that I am still watchful for that silver lining. This time, I believe I might hesitantly answer, “Yes, yes I see a bit of silver.”

Faraway and the here & now

As a child, I was captivated by people who lived lives very different from my own, and by the sounds of words spoken to a different cadence. The pull of the unfamiliar was strong. I do not remember a time when I didn’t want to experience far away places.  I never outgrew the wanderlust. Today, the sound of a foreign language is still music to my ears and the promise of a trip is reason enough to pack up.

And speaking of music . . .

I knew the words to this popular song from the 1940s from an early age, and I still hum the tune occasionally.

“Far Away Places” has been a kind of theme song for me for as long as I can remember. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the name of of my blog!

And those strange-sounding names; oh, yes! They still beckon, more now that I realize my traveling days have been temporarily suspended by the nasty Coronavirus.

A chance mention recently of Dame Vera Lynn brought back all those early memories. The wartime “darling” of servicemen and their families during WWII just celebrated her 103rd birthday. She used the occasion to take to the airwaves, releasing a video urging British citizens to “keep smiling and keep singing.”

It’s quite extraordinary!

The haunting melodies and poignant words of her music characterized wartime separation, with words such as “Please say hello to the folks that I know. . .” and “don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again.” Also, “It’s so hard to say goodbye.”

Classics of the time include “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “A Nightengale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World,” along with “We’ll Meet Again,” “Far Away Places,” “Lili Marlene” and many others. So, today, when we face a future with a different kind of uncertainly, and we are newly and unhappily physically separated from family and friends, it seemed appropriate to play a lot of Vera Lynn melodies as I sit working from home — alone — at my computer.

Vera Lynn is still strikingly attractive and, from all reports, still healthy. She’s a remarkable lady, as I learned, topping the UK Albums Chart at the age of 92 with a new release of old favorites entitled “We’ll Meet Again.” At the age of 97, in 2014, her music once again scored a Number One hit with the collection “Vera Lynn, National Treasure.”

During the war years, Vera Lynn had a radio program and toured India, Burma and Egypt to entertain British troops. In later years, she became involved with various charities, including those benefiting ex-servicemen, disabled children and breast cancer. Her last public performance was outside Buckingham Palace in 1995 as part of the golden anniversary celebration of VE Day, and she sang again that evening at a public performance in London’s Hyde Park.

If you want to see her in action at a 1990 Royal Variety Performance, just click here.

In addition to a long list of honors for her efforts, in 1975 she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

So, here’s to Dame Vera Lynn for taking me on a trip today, not only down memory lane, but also into a world of hope, just as she did for so many during those long ago war years. Let’s all act with the conviction that all will turn out well, and that we’ll all meet again in better days, to share good times and good food in faraway places.

Twists of fate . . .

. . . and other thoughts about travel to the far reaches of today’s shrinking world

As I have said before, and with apologies to Lee Marvin as well as to Lerner and Loewe, I was born “under a wand’rin’ star.” Wanderlust is real!

I am hooked on travel! 

As a freelance writer, I have convinced myself that it is also “my business” to be as informed as possible about popular worldwide destinations, off-the-beaten-path places, interesting excursions and inviting cruise ship itineraries. I enjoy every minute of it, and I keep a running list of possibilities that appeal to me for my own getaways.

I started out as a working journalist at a daily newspaper, and I remain a “newshound” to this day, eager to tell stories about people, places and events. I don’t regret leaving that part of my life behind, but I still sometimes miss being an active “participant” in major news events.

I have been following the Coronavirus outbreak in China with great interest, for all the above reasons, and also because of the serious worldwide health implications. My husband and I listen avidly to the live reports from David Abel and his wife Sally, British citizens on board the quarantined Diamond Princess. But we have watched events unfold, and remained only interested bystanders half a world away.

Until two days ago

Our next planned journey was to have been a trans-Pacific sailing on the 2,200-passenger Celebrity Millennium, scheduled to depart Yokohama, Japan on May 10. We had flight reservations that would have given us a few days in Tokyo prior to the cruise, and allowed us to see friends in Vancouver, B.C. following disembarkation, prior to returning home. We were concerned, but relatively confident that the spread of the virus would be contained during the next 90 days, and that our trip across a vast stretch of ocean would proceed as scheduled without risk.

On Wednesday, we were notified by Celebrity Cruises that the remainder of the Asian cruise schedule for “the Millie” had been suspended. Our cruise and others were to be canceled. The ship would sail early to North America in preparation for a summer season of cruising Alaska. No other details were offered. We shared the disappointment of thousands of other passengers whose vacation plans had instantly been crushed. 

For this single ship of this one cruise line, five sailings were canceled, affecting thousands of booked passengers. Route changes and port cancellations are announced daily by other major cruise companies, and the ripple effect is enormous. Not only is there a huge economic impact on the cruise lines, airlines, hotels and excursion operators, but necessary logistical issues are mind-boggling. 

As we faced the task of canceling reservations yesterday, I ran across some forgotten notes in a travel folder of ideas for 2020 travel. And, to use one of my current favorite expressions, I was gobsmacked.

I had written:

“RT Tokyo — 15 days — Jan 20-Feb 4. Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam. Diamond Princess — cabins available at good prices — air about $925, estimated”

They were just some quick notes that I hadn’t acted upon, choosing instead to begin the year with other trips, lured by the prospect of the journey from Japan to Canada with 10 relaxing  days at sea. I booked another, shorter, closer-to-home trip for early in the year, and moved on.

Reading that scribbled note, I realized that had I made another decision several months earlier, my husband and I would currently be quarantined aboard Diamond Princess in Yokohama harbor. I imagined the weight of the fear that we might test positive for a worrisome new virus, now bearing the name COVID-19.  It was a sobering thought, even though for just an instant I thought about the stories I could tell about that experience!

More news . . .

Earlier today, Royal Caribbean, the parent company of Celebrity, announced that two of their ships will spend the next several weeks offering complimentary cruises to fire-fighting crews and first responders in Australia and California. There are also plans underway to deliver needed supplies to health authorities in China and Asia. We will miss our own time aboard the Millennium, but we are happy to know that the ships will be used for other good purposes.

In addition, I cannot help but smile at the Facebook post of a member of the pastry crew on board Diamond Princess. I know there must be some moments that come close to despair for the quarantined crew, but this is truly an example of indomitable spirit!

Now that I have had another day to consider, I am convinced more than ever that travel is “life-changing.” I still believe that travel is always a good idea; it just doesn’t always happen the way we would choose! 

We certainly hope that all passengers and crew aboard the quarantined ship are able to return home well and resume their normal lives as soon as possible. We will continue to watch the reports, and to follow the mounting efforts to control this virulent virus.