17 March 2020 – Tuesday – #2

The Spanish government reports 11,178 cases of Coronavirus, and 491 dead.

I spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about how to go outside. This isn’t the way I expected to spend my time when I moved to Barcelona.  I read two pieces on Covid-19 prophylaxis, one is extremely thorough with instructions including the use of UV to kill the virus. This seems like a little bit of overkill to me, but it has lots of details I hadn’t considered and good reasoning. The other is a post on a Facebook Barcelona Expat page from a woman who was in Wuhan. This seems a bit more practical. There is always a debate about facemasks when someone recommends them, whether using them works and whether it takes away from the supply for medical workers. I don’t have a strong opinion, but I won’t use them unless I’m sick. More important for healthcare workers to have them right now.

I think my prophylaxis strategy will be to bring things to the apartment and leave them in the foyer for a few days, except the produce, of course. Not sure what to do with produce yet. There are two refrigerators here, so there may be a dirty and a clean refrigerator. Next step is probably to strip and take a shower, leaving the clothes in the foyer for a few days or until I can wash them. After a week here without anyone else entering, I feel like the chance that there are active Covid-19 viruses here is nil. So it’s a matter of keeping out new active virus. I have plenty of food, so there’s no hurry to go out right now. I’m short on toothpaste and suntan lotion, though. There is a stronger anxiety about forgetting to buy something than before. More lists!

Haven’t figured out an exercise regimen, but that’s on the list to research. My fantasy was to ride a Bicing bike around town with no traffic. Bicing (which is like Citibike and all the other bike rental services now run by Lyft in the US) crushed that fantasy yesterday with a notice that Barcelona closed down the service (see below, translated from Catalan by Google). Getting a Bicing card was one of the best things about moving here and you can only get a card if you’re resident, so it felt like a significant milestone to take my first bike ride. So now what? I have a 20 meter terrace. 50 laps back and forth is a little over a mile. I will feel like a hamster.

Health concern: does Covid-19 transmit on produce? I ate a raw tomato last night and a raw pear yesterday afternoon. I bought them Saturday, but still. I woke up with a throat that felt sore until I swallowed. Now it’s fine. No fever. Anxiety.

There’s news about Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. First human tests of a candidate vaccine start in Seattle. Some anecdotal reports of cures were posted in the past week. A Twitter thread says “chloroquine (a cheap malarial drug), Gilliad’s remdesivir with interferon-beta (in clinical trials from COV-19), plasma from recovered patients, and a steroid (methylprednisilone)” have been used successfully in China. The thread is useful for insights in the way Covid-19 interferes with blood chemistry by kicking out iron from red blood cells (hemes). Another anecdotal report from Australia says Lopinavir/Ritonavir, another HIV ARV, seems to be curing Covid-19 patients. Neither of these HIV ARVs are used in Truvada or Discovey, the common medicine used for PrEP.

As an AIDS survivor, I’m happy there’s research and positive treatment reports, but skeptical that anything will move the treatment needle in the next six months. A human vaccine trial takes months and then pharmaceuticals have to scale production. If any non-vaccine treatments using existing drugs work, the advantage is they’ve gone through trials and are already in manufacturing. Most countries will reach peak infection before any of this could be available at scale. It may help significantly in managing Covid-19 after peak infection so people can get back outside and the economy can recover.

Good news from the US: testing is over 10k per day for the first time. The US has been testing at about 0.02 per 1,000. South Korea, which has turned the corner in large part due to 10k tests per day, has been testing 4 per 1,000. In the absence of any treatments, before peak infection, testing is an important way to manage down the peak. After peak infection, testing is the only way to manage people moving around without initiating a second peak.

I spent time yesterday on money, moving things around, paying off credit card bills and doctor’s bills. Why yesterday? Well, I use a mail service that scans and shreds my mail in the US. I had a problem because the original 1538 USPS form I had notarized in the US, the form that confirms I’m who I am and not, I suppose, a terrorist, was for the wrong mailbox (I changed my mailbox number to one that’s easier to remember). I didn’t find out that I needed a new 1538 until mid-February when the vendor wouldn’t scan my mail because the vendor didn’t have a proper 1538 for me. Overseas, the cost effective way to get something notarized is to visit the local US consulate. It costs US$50 and you need an appointment.

The consulate was a little more of an adventure than I anticipated. I had to turn off and surrender my mobile devices. Then I sat in a small stuffy waiting room with other people who needed new passports or visas. I sat for a long time because the notary staff was 45 minutes late for my appointment. No mobile, nothing to keep my hands busy. I sat thinking about Covid-19. There wasn’t much I could do but wait while the man behind me coughed. Finally I got the notarization, scanned it at my neighborhood copy shop, and sent it along to my mail service vendor. That’s why I didn’t get my bills until yesterday.

P.s. The Barcelona consulate is basically closed now because one of its staff tested positive for Covid-19 and everyone is in self-quarantine.

In other government news, Spain closed its land borders yesterday. Citizens and residents can enter. There are a few other exceptions. Also, I figured out that the police are issuing fines for people out for a walk. I saw a report about that on the Expat Facebook page referenced above. Also, one of my Catalan friends reported the same and told me the authorities closed 200 bars in Catalunya on Saturday, the first night of the shutdown. The Covid-19 numbers continue to go the wrong way here. Looking at Italian numbers, it will take a while to peak. Lots of anecdotal information. Brad said that in areas of Italy that shutdown early, the infection has peaked. I haven’t corroborated that, but it indicates that until there is a general shutdown, infections increase.

Speaking of Brad, he had an open Zoom video call yesterday. Everyone else on the video were Brad’s nephews and nieces. News from Washington, DC is that the bars are still open, but clients have to sit at tables spaced six feet apart. News from Guatemala is that the US is recalling all its aid workers world wide. Brad’s niece in Guatemala is serving in the Peace Corp.

I also did a family video using Marco Polo, a service one of my nieces works for (remotely). I heard from my sister and the niece who works at Marco Polo. My sister and her husband are effectively self-isolated in Berkeley where the governor has ordered people to self-isolate.

I’m getting the sense the US is starting to take Covid-19 seriously. The president had a disorganized news conference that took far too long yesterday. It seemed like a metaphor for the administration’s response, disorganized and taking too long. The president praised reporters for maintaining six feet separation while his administrators stood behind him shoulder to shoulder on stage. It’s the first time he admitted there could be a recession and he said he thought peak infection could be in July. Those are important concessions that indicate he might be taking Covid-19 seriously. Might. It looked to me like he was ready for a different job. He’s only comfortable as a cheerleader and it’s hard to cheerlead a pandemic, especially when you can’t hold rallies.

A friend from Las Vegas told me he was laid off from his hotel job Sunday. He’s in isolation with his family having trouble sleeping.

A friend in Paris heard about the shutdown there returning on the train from London. He cried on the ride.

A friend in New York City is concerned her employees, who work in her home, are not taking adequate Covid-19 precautions. This friend is in a high risk category for Covid-19. We talked about strategies for communicating with younger employees the responsibility of following Covid-19 protocols.

A friend in Sao Paulo is convinced he has Covid-19 and is freaked out by a cough that keeps him up at night. He’s worried about Covid-19 transmission from Starbucks cups. He also went out clubbing last weekend. He agreed to see a doctor.

A local friend who works at a remodeling company says he’s still going to work. He needs the money.  I asked him to guard his health.

16 March 2020 – Monday – #1

Last Tuesday I started self-isolation in Casa Solar, the name Brad and I gave the Barcelona apartment we share. On Saturday the Spanish government made self-isolation the rule. Saturday I finished shopping and took a 45 minute walk. Yesterday no time outside except on the huge terrace. Today it’s dark and rainy, so I probably wouldn’t be outside much anyway.

Brad left a little over a month ago to secure a Spanish visa, the no lucrativa visa I have, and sell his San Francisco house. When he left, neither of those seemed particularly risky. The Spanish government approved Brad’s visa last week. He’s supposed to hear tomorrow from his broker about offers on his house. With the markets tanking and travel restrictions changing frequently, it’s hard to know now whether Brad will be able to conclude a sale and to return. In theory, he returns May 1. At least that’s the reservation he has.

Airlines are cutting back flights. For instance, American is cutting back international capacity by 75%. Frederick called Saturday to say he was flying from Germany to the US the next day. The airline told him he might be the only passenger. That can’t last long. Passengers arriving to the US over the weekend were greeted by a new policy that everyone had to self-quarantine for 14 days, most at home and few in government facilities. No warning, no information on the flights. The policy changed and thousands of people were stuck getting through customs, which didn’t seem to know the new process. Of course lots of people probably infected while waiting in line to clear customs. No one wants to get on planes with folly like this.

Self-isolation is weird. I’m having lots of conversations. I chat with people all day long. The chatting starts with locals and, as the time zones wake up, moves across the Atlantic to the east coast around 2p local and then to the west coast around 5p local. I also chat on the “dating” sites. Nothing can come to fruition, of course, since everyone is isolated. I read a post yesterday that the Italian government is forbidding threesomes and orgies. It was amusing, but really none of the men I’ve met here wants to meet up for sex until this is over or under control. I don’t know if I can wait until 2021.

So isolation is physical. I tell people I feel like I’m practicing to pilot the International Space Station solo or to fly to Mars. I’m plenty busy every day, but I never actually see anyone. Last night at 8p local, the whole of Barcelona stepped out on its terraces and opened its windows to applaud all the people working to save us from Covid-19. I was talking with Leslie, who could hear the applause over the phone. I was touched by the simplicity of the gesture and the togetherness it created, even at distance. I cried a little about that.

I should be getting more done. That’s what everyone says, me included, with all this time at home. But it’s difficult in the face of uncertainty to concentrate and organize. I’m lucky to get in two hours of writing. I feel guilty I’m not writing four or six hours. But there’s news and new chats and things I need to do, like laundry or cooking. It’s important to check in with everyone. It feels good when people check in with me. Kiko did, and I was really surprised. Some people seem born to check in. Ruben and Laura seem to know just the right time.

It’s like AIDS on steroids. During AIDS, I’d find tidbits of information about gay men dying. It was mentioned occasionally in the local papers, but more often in gay rags like the Bay Area Reporter. Just snippets at the beginning. I heard things from friends on the soccer team. Eventually there were books on the immune system and lengthy magazine articles. Organizations formed, political and health. It all took years. If you need a reminder about how poorly the Reagan administration responded  to AIDS, here’s one.

With Covid-19, the world has changed in that month since Brad departed. There are new graphs every day or so of mortality. Here’s one example:

Information like this took months or years for AIDS. We’re two or three months into Covid-19 and Financial Times has these amazingly useful charts. Others have other amazing charts.

I’ll point out that Spain, where I’ve been living since the first day of the decade, has the steepest mortality slope. That’s a bad thing. On a log scale, that’s a really bad thing. About ½ of reported deaths are in Madrid. Barcelona is ⅕ or ⅙ of Madrid in mortality, at least right now. That’s scary, especially reading the reports from Italy right now where the healthcare system is so overwhelmed that people over 80 are simply turned away. Spain’s rules aren’t as rigorous as Italy’s, so I’m concerned that Spain won’t turn the corner soon enough. But who knows? It’s hard this early in to know for sure how much is necessary to reduce the rate of infection.

I’ll also point out the US is on a great trajectory in this graph. I don’t think it’ll hold. US reporting has been bad. The federal government completely blew the opportunity to get a lot of test kits out early, enough to manage containment of the virus. It’s still way behind. South Korea, whose curve is flattening the way a country should want, is testing something like ten thousand people a day. The US has done something like ten thousand tests total over all time. So, I think the US trajectory is the result of bad measurement, not the result of good results.

Maybe the most embarrassing part of the response was a news story yesterday that Trump is trying to buy a German scientific company so the Covid-19 vaccine they’re developing can be used only in the US. I didn’t believe it at first, even though the story came from a respected source. Then the proposed deal was confirmed by the German government. The news indicates Trump is, as always, using his position as president to make money for himself. It’s obscene. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it’s worse than Reagan’s response to AIDS.

Speaking of money, I sold over half my stock holdings last week, on the day I started my self-isolation. My broker said, given the US government’s lack of coherent response, he wouldn’t try to talk me out of it. Of course I’m worried about money, but not panicked at this point. My resources were a little thinner than I would have liked when I moved here. I could start social security payments now, but it’s to my advantage to wait for 2-⅓ more years for a higher payout, assuming, of course, the US government will be able to make payments in 2-⅓ years. It’s hard to imagine I don’t have enough cash to make it 2-⅓ years and hard to imagine social security going bust, but no one knows how hard this will be on the economy. Will the dollar tank? How long will a recovery take? Is it a depression? No one knows for sure. Spanish factory workers stopped working today. If their management didn’t ask them to, they did anyway. Who knows how long? How do free markets function in catastrophes?

Speaking of money, I also realize how disadvantaged people can be without technology. As one example, after I washed my wallet by accident last month, I switched to Google Pay. I now make almost all my transactions with my smartphone. If not that, then a contactless credit card. With smartphone payments, no physical contact, no signature, no touching money, paper, or pen. It’s a small thing, but cash is a possible medium of viral transmission. Using a smartphone means I don’t have to consider cash very often when I’m figuring out decontamination. My friends without smartphones or without smartphone payments are at a small disadvantage. Is it as bad as sex without condoms during the AIDS crisis? Probably not, but no one knows.

How Covid Diary BCN started

I arrived in Barcelona on the first of January. It was glorious to start the new decade here. Great people, delish food, dozens of barrios to explore. The Covid-19 virus was a blip in the news.

By the time I’d found an apartment with my friend Brad and moved in my furniture, Covid-19 was spreading outside China. Brad flew back to San Francisco to get his visa. Before he could return, it was time to for him to isolate there and me to isolate here.

In Barcelona, I’m finishing a novel set during the AIDS epidemic. After a few days in isolation, I found myself having difficulty concentrating. My editor suggested writing a diary, an amusing suggestion since half the chapters of the new novel are journal entries. After a week or so of writing Covid Diary, I was better focused. The diary, though, was starting to feel more like a project. Having searched through AIDS records while writing Dear Mustafa, I realized writing a diary of the Covid-19 pandemic could have value not only for my novel, but also perhaps as a useful record of time in isolation during a pandemic.

Covid-19 is turning everyone’s lives upside down. For me, that’s on top of a new life as a gay expat adjusting to a different country, its language, and its customs. Writing Covid Diary helps me figure out what’s going on. I hope it also helps others who read it.

I’d love your help! If you have tips, questions, ideas, or just want to talk, please reach out. No promises. Like everyone else who’s along for this disastrous ride, I’m doing my best. Pandemics are better with friends, as long as they’re at a distance and wash their hands.

I actually wrote this post on 25 March, the day I moved COVID DIary from Google Docs to this blog. I’ll end with a post I made on Facebook on 15 March 2020:

this is the end of my first day of state imposed self-isolation in barcelona, the end of my 6th day of self-imposed self-isolation … i’ve spoken or chatted online with a dozen friends … everyone is worried, only one was really panicked … it feels like the AIDS crisis on steroids to me … after a week, i think i might be training for a stint driving the international space station solo … it’s not bad, but it’s weird … at eight o’clock this evening, everyone in barcelona went to their windows and terraces and applauded those of us working to stop covid-19 … it was a lovely five minute ovation, neighbors looking across the way at neighbors … the city came together momentarily … covid-19 is revealing who we are … many of us are clinging to our routines … many of us cannot imagine a life in quarantine … many of us need to blame someone … but at eight tonight, it was lovely in barcelona … the applause was a simple gesture … that’s what counts in the coming months, the simple gestures we make that expose our humanity … estamos juntos