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A Virus in the Neighborhood

The world is in disarray. The virus has spread to all continents. It has snuck in, even among those of us who are not directly affected. It forces our true personalities to the surface.

Sofie Amalie Klougart

Åsne Seierstad (left) with ice-bathing club friends, Bygdø, Oslo, April 2020

OSLO, NORWAY—One evening last century, I was invited out by a Chinese businessman. Zhao, a former truck driver, had earned a fortune manufacturing PVC tubes in Guangzhou, where the motto went “let some get rich first.” Through the window of his black car, the millionaire proudly pointed out the buildings to which he’d supplied tubes.

At the door of the restaurant, we were met by barks, cackles, screams, and blood. Behind bars, ropes, and mesh, animals—both wild and tame—were bundled together. Cats and rabbits in the same cage, shelves of chubby puppies. There were frogs, rats, ducks, even a peacock. Owls perched on a roost. In a tray on the floor, beetles crawled, in another ants, in the next maggots. Nice snacks, I was told, grilled or fried.

“You choose!” Zhao smiled.

Puppy steak? Owl breast? Cat leg? A flying squirrel?

Not until I arrived at the little aquariums was I able to point. Fish. Lobster. Crab. In the hope of saving a turtle, I chose a snake. The butcher who followed us around fetched the animal with a firm grip, pressed its head onto a block and chopped it off. The headless snake wriggled as its blood poured into a bowl.

A broad staircase led up from the animal market to a dining hall, where guests enjoyed the delicacies they had chosen. We were shown to the next floor, where Zhao had booked a chambre séparée. The waiter served us a red drink from a carafe; strong liquor mixed with blood from the animal I had just ordered killed. The glasses were filled anew with a golden liquid with a greenish tinge, rice wine with drops of gall. The snake’s bitter revenge.

It was the bat of Wuhan that reminded me of the snake in Guangzhou. The coronavirus, which has become the focus of the whole world, most likely originated in bats before passing through another animal, possibly a pangolin (a scaly mammal), and then on to humans. These wild animals lived quietly with their coronaviruses until they were caught, caged, skinned, and eaten.

It is not the first time that nature has revenged itself on us. Human agriculture and animal husbandry caused the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, believed to have started in Mexico; the respiratory disease MERS, another coronavirus originally from bats and first identified in Saudi Arabia, is also known as camel flu. The list is long: HIV and Ebola, too, are viruses that have spread from animals to people with deadly effect.

The world is in disarray. The virus has spread to all continents. It has snuck in, even among those of us who are not directly affected. It forces our true personalities to the surface. In my district in Oslo, my neighbors have become closer to who they really are. Are we in this together?

Via our screens, we watch the spread of this latest virus in real time. Refrigerator trucks in New York. Patients in the hospital corridors of Madrid, a locked-down Rome with carabinieri patrolling. We read about curfews on the continent and open bars in Stockholm. Governments have acted differently and taken action at differing times, but this virus entered our minds at more or less the same time across the whole globe. What does it do to us?

“The virus is a wake-up call,” one of my doctor friends says, standing in a white bikini on a dock by the Oslo fjord. It is an early spring morning and we have just been for a dip in the sea, which is 4º C (about 40º F). Now we let wind and a bleak sun dry us off. “We have messed up nature,” she goes on. “We have exploited it in places we shouldn’t have been.”

The ice-bathing club meets more often. We need the rush, the extracted inner heat that will keep us warm for the rest of the day. We strictly observe the recommendations of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health: no more than five in a group. Only meet outdoors. Stay one meter apart.

“We are all going to get it one way or another,” says Joanna, a cancer surgeon at a private clinic, who has now gotten more patients as the public hospitals vacate beds. “It is only a question of time. The strategy of the government is clear: Norway wants to curb the spread so that not too many get ill at the same time.”

Hege, a marathon runner and the one who always swims the farthest out, is the CEO at one of the main hospitals outside Oslo. She cleared a hundred beds in anticipation of a wave of patients. It is yet to come.

“What’s your opinion on masks?” she asks, as the health authorities have not yet recommended people to wear them unless they have symptoms. Gunhild, the doctor in the white Chanel bikini, gets worked up.

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“It is not enough keeping distance, washing hands, strengthening the health services, not even working day and night for a vaccine—as long as we keep on living as we do,” she exclaims. “We need to change what we eat, how we produce it, not cutting down the rain forest for meat, palm oil and biofuel.”

We have no Planet B, it says on the T-shirt she puts on. “Viruses find new hosts: us. Our own fault.”

We sip coffee, each from our own thermoses. One of us forgets the times we live in and passes around her cinnamon bun.

Never waste a good crisis is a saying in diplomacy. A crisis can make a momentum that leads to a new start. Which businesses deserve billions of public aid? Oil? Air companies? Cruise ship owners? Or should we enforce a greener new deal, the doctors discuss on the way back to their electric cars.

Sofie Amalie Klougart

Riding home from the beach, Bygdø, Oslo, April 2020

I bike the five miles home from the Oslo fjord. I pass the Folk Museum, the Viking ships, the King’s summer castle, before I start the steep rise into the city. Oslo seems closed off, laying quiet. Some shops are still open, a waiter puts out chairs on the pavement. People are allowed to roam around as they please, as long as they follow the recommendations of social distancing. Still, everything has changed.

What first hit my neighborhood, when we understood that we were all stricken, was an unease. We felt vulnerable in our comfortable middle-class lives and grieved at the knowledge that life would never be the same. Soon, our anxiety morphed into a longing for nature. We rushed into the woods.

For Norwegians, nature equals safety. Sturdy and solid. As we like to think of ourselves, too. Stones. Granite. Mountains. Trees we can embrace, branches that shelter us.

One of the strongest memories I have of how grief seeks relief is a father who lost his son on Utøya, the island that was attacked by a far-right terrorist nine years ago. Gunnar told me how the mountains dragged him toward them, how he longed for them, in the hope that the granite masses could relieve some of the sorrow, and help him carry the rest.

We knew this already, didn’t we?—that we are not a nation of culture, but a nation of nature. Once the opera, the ballet, the concert halls were closed, we stormed out of doors. We dispersed, found new paths, admired the sunset from rocks we’d never sat on before, forced our kids away from Fortnite and TikTok. It was as if we all wanted to plunge our fingers into the earth, stop, and ask who we really were, and where this all was leading us.

For half of my life, I have traveled the world to find out what’s going on. Those times are over. Since the authorities asked us to stay in the vicinity of our homes and avoid unnecessary trips, my research has been confined to a few streets of Oslo: to my neighbors and myself. We who, as yet, were not directly hit.

When we spend more time by ourselves, we get closer to who we really are, I realized. My friend Cathrine is a thirteen times national karate champion. She can lift 120kg (more than 260lb) in a dead lift, and one and a half times her own body weight in a squat. As Scandinavia’s strongest publisher, her life is a balance of body and intellect, editing and intervals. The forced isolation that followed the virus was perfect for reading, but her body screamed when fitness centers closed.

A week into isolation, she ordered astroturf for the entire garden and bought a rack for powerlifting. Her husband, who happens to be Norway’s national librarian, laid down the turf and built a new deck, partitioning the garden with a wooden fence so the kids could still play soccer. Cathrine’s new darling stands on the freshly built floor in the midst of free weights, plates, and rods. She has invited me to test her new equipment, and instructs me from a safe distance; front squats, pull-ups, and pec flies.

But she is worried about her own personal trainer, who hasn’t received his unemployment check yet. We wonder what his base salary could be, and how he and his family will live now.

“These times show us how equalizing our society normally is,” Cathrine exclaims. “Those who have a secure salary, a spacious house, a car, and broadband can live quite well. Life calms down, we discover new ways to be together. Those who lack all of that suffer now. We call it essential work, those who run the grocery shops, warehouses, transportation, and cleaning services. Health workers get applause from the balconies, but will it show on their pay checks?”

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Her dog looks beseechingly at her as she talks. “That one is the corona champion,” she laughs, as she fastens a weight plate around her waist for chin-ups. “He’s never been taken out running this often!”

How do you find the timetable for fourth grade while reading obituaries from New York? How do you log your child on to her class chat while refugee camps are locked with chains? How do you navigate Zoom and Teams while studying different strategies to end the pandemic? Curb, restrain, or full lockdown?

From one day to the next, we became teachers to our children. I had often let my kids skip digital homework as daily life was so full of screens already. Now I lacked the knowledge of how the school’s systems worked, and failed in adapting it to the iPads I bought when the schools closed down. New passwords, forgotten passwords, Do you want to update now?

“Choose an animal. Download a picture. Write about it.” My nine-year-old chooses a dog. The exercise asks her to look for information on the Internet. Had she only chosen a bat, so we could have researched together. The bloody bat that is the whole reason we sit here, muddling in the kitchen. Dog, then. We spend the best part of an hour looking for the right picture, there are so many to choose from.

In a break between classes, I greet our elderly next-door neighbor. Many of the small things we hardly noticed suddenly matter and have taken on a deeper meaning. Eye contact, a smile, a hand-wave from a distance. It all hits me in the heart now that nothing can ever be taken for granted again.

We live on a hill, at the end of a park, in a neighborhood of villas, smaller houses and low-rise apartment blocks. You’ll find a bike from a flea market parked next to a Tesla or the neighborhood’s single Jaguar. If you check the voting pattern from the last election to parliament, this district registered very close to the average: only a tiny bit greener, slightly less conservative, while the liberals here are rather more socialist-inclined than regular Labor Party members. The interesting thing in our discussions on the virus is that, for once, our opinions don’t follow political lines, or level of knowledge, but are rather an expression of deeper, personal traits.

A friend on my street is afraid of everything. Trampolines. Carbs. Falling stocks. Bank collapse. Losing control. But nothing scares him more than the Swedish model.

Sweden is the only country in Europe to have imposed no rules of restriction. The schools are open, bars serve whatever you like, even fitness centers are functioning. With a population twice as big as Norway’s, the country’s death toll by end of April was more than ten times higher. Sweden has knowingly let a large part of the population get infected in order to achieve herd immunity before a vaccine is ready.

“What do you prefer? A country run by a government that listens to medical advice and takes the responsibility?” my anxious neighbor asks. “Or the Swedish system of experts battling one another on thin ice?” He doesn’t wait for answers. “We just know so little about this all.”

It has been a month since the restrictions were imposed in Norway, and for the first time, some of us dare sitting in a garden together. We follow the rules of meeting outside, and agreed on WhatsApp to bring our own glasses. We are dressed in several layers of clothing, and enjoy the chilled white that the host has brought up from his cellar. But after a while, we realize, 6º C (43º F) is, even for Norwegians, cold. We are lent sleeping bags to sit in.

“What is solidarity?” the frightened host asks, and again answers himself. “It is for us who are privileged to observe the rules. What’s so bad about lounging on the sofa for a few weeks, anyway? Can’t we just be a bit careful? When did that ever hurt?”

He took his kids out of school before the restrictions were imposed March 12, and makes a point of noting that the consultant anesthesiologist in the neighborhood, who works at Oslo University Hospital, did the same. Because, in the second week of March, the death curve in Norway showed the same indications as those in Italy.

We discuss the “cottage ban,” the new rule that has caused most debate in Norway—because people couldn’t go to their mountain houses for Easter. Being denied the right to stay closer to nature, seemed to be the hardest burden for Norwegians when the world was hit by a pandemic.

The sun shines without warmth. We are offered chips. A bag each. “Take the rest home with you,” the hostess smiles. “Alcohol wipes, anyone?”

Korona-kilos, some complain. But in my neighborhood, the adrenaline is so high that it is impossible to gain weight. We run as if the devil were at our heels. We run from fear and sleepless nights while we listen to podcasts about the pandemic. Farther. Faster. More frequently. Achilles aches. Strained ankles. A sharp pain in the knee. I buy new shoes. A couple of pairs. You never know. I beat my own records on the running app Strava, proving to myself that my lungs function properly. But my concentration doesn’t endure more than a couple of pages of a book. Camus is lost to the chain of news.

One morning I am so sore after the previous day’s visit to Cathrine’s Apocalypse Gym that I can hardly get out of bed when the phone beeps at sunrise. “Fancy a run?”

It is from Marte, the most daring woman of the neighborhood. It is still a few hours until our families wake up, and I hurry to put my running gear on. Marte works in conflict resolution in the Middle East, and she went to Iran just a few days after the country’s major-general was killed by the Americans in Baghdad. As her delegation drew back, in fear of retribution, her view was that Norway would send the wrong signal to the Iranians if it cancelled. There when a civilian plane was accidently shot down near Tehran Airport, she still insisted we should not give in to fear.

Now she runs. With a stone in her stomach.

The stone consists of the fear of what will happen when the virus spreads in bombed-out Syria, in the camps in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Gaza. In areas with a shortage of water, let alone soap. To parts of the world where the health systems are not outfitted like ours, where they lack equipment, infrastructure, medicines.

“Where there is already an emergency, this virus is a catastrophe,” she says.

Her job has taken a hit, too. Skype and Zoom are just theoretical solutions in informal diplomacy. “Everyone who has sat in digital meetings these weeks knows that that is nothing to throw into a conflict where no one trusts each other. People fear being recorded, that there are more people in the room…”

Her long, blond braid dances on her back as worries pour out of her. But in some places, the virus has succeeded where diplomacy had failed: ceasefires have been announced in Colombia, the Philippines, Cameroon, Kurdish Syria—though in Libya they are fighting more fiercely than ever, she despairs. Now that no one is watching.

“Another turn?” I ask.

“Farther on!” she sighs.

We dull our fear with a sprint.

On our way out of the park, I spot a friend who has actually had Covid-19. Rumors had flown about a dinner party that had spread the virus in a whole neighborhood—that is, in our neighboring neighborhood. We watch him walking toward us on the sidewalk with his son and call out to him at twenty meters’ distance.

It is the first day he’s been outside after quarantining, Torbjørn tells us. His wife tested positive, so he didn’t need to be tested, the district’s epidemiologist, who had called the couple every day to check on them, had said. If you’ve been less than two meters from a sick person for more than fifteen minutes, you’re guaranteed to be infected, she had said.

So he had lain down, picking down from his shelves some old novels by Norwegian writer Dag Solstad. Been tired. Some coughing. No sense of smell. Like Solstad, who only uses punctuation when it “occurs by itself,” Torbjørn had dozed off whenever sleep had occurred. The sickness had lasted through three of Solstad’s novels. The sick had had more concentration than I have.

Marte and I are stretching sore muscles by the local bakery when we meet Håvard, the handsome consultant anesthesiologist from the University Hospital, the one who, in mid-March, had called for a full lockdown of Norway. He is about to enter his front door, in running tights.

“I almost have to pinch myself,” he says, coming over. “After crisis conditions at the hospital for weeks, the tide is quieting. We rode the storm out. And we got most of them out alive.” The doctor, who has a red mark on the bridge of his nose from the mask he wears at the ward, looks almost happy, until the strict white coat is back on. “It’s not over yet. It can flare up again. Nature is so strained that new viruses will appear. This should be an eye-opener.”

The bakery line wiggles slowly forward. People stand one meter apart from one another, a little distance from us. Only one customer is allowed in at a time.

We might think we are all in the same race, competing in the categories of hand-washing, disinfection, the rule of one meter, and the rule of two meters. But we are not. We are so very lucky. We have all of these buffers. The starting conditions are not the same for everyone. The truth is that if you suffered from anxiety before, you get panic attacks now; if you were lonely before, now you are isolated. Marte’s words ring in my ears. Where there is already an emergency, this virus is a catastrophe.

Our responsibility is not dissolvable with soap. Our conscience cannot be rinsed away with sanitizer. We dull our existential angst with what’s at hand. A sprint. A power lift. A sleeping bag.

“You choose!” Zhao had encouraged me next to the cages.

We have to choose wisely. Now is time to set a new course, because it is not enough to mend the damage, ease the pain. We need to choose a new path, protect nature better, stop forcing ourselves upon it, so it doesn’t hit back in revenge, again and again.

Sofie Amalie Klougart

Swimming at Bygdø, Oslo, April 2020

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