Taiwan was COVID-free heaven from the very beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Taiwanese, experiencing SARS in 2003 and facing quite high mortality, became very suspicious when something weird started to happen in Wuhan in the winter of 2019, and started to check and eventually ban flights from China. Thanks to a quick reaction, strict anti-pandemic rules and also the perfect cooperation from the Taiwanese people, Taiwan managed to escape the first several waves which were plaguing the world, with just a few hundred positive cases and handful of deaths. At the beginning of 2021, Taiwan was even considered COVID-free heaven, a refugium worth hiding in, while the rest of the World is fighting with new waves, lockdowns and restrictions. But heaven eventually turned into a jail. Because there was no COVID, people were not eager to vaccinate, but instead became quite scared of COVID breaking in. At the beginning of 2022, when most of the world opened and rushed to return back to pre-pandemic times, Taiwan remained closed, with strict rules about wearing masks everywhere, disinfection, tracking, ban for foreigners entering the country and also strict quarantine rules on arrival for those who could enter. Terrible news from China about their enforcement of the zero-COVID strategy finally led to slowly relaxing the anti-pandemic rules and eventually abandoning the zero-COVID strategy, but it was (and still is) a slow process. I was really looking forward to leaving all this for a while, after 2.5 years of not being able to go back home or anywhere else. To experience freedom, to finally catch COVID, and to come back.
So I did. I went back to Europe, first to Czech to see my family, and then to Spain for the conference. I was careful not to catch COVID right away, because I needed to attend the conference and didn’t want to bother with it while travelling and socializing. I was careful, used respirators all the time and washed my hands as much as possible, something others around me in Europe had already forgotten (and sometimes evaluated with spicy comments like “see that dick with a towel on his mouth”). But still, on the fourth day of the conference in Spain I felt lazy, tested by rapid test, and bingo, I was positive. I isolated myself in the hotel, with pretty mild symptoms, wrote an email to all my colleagues with whom I spent time the last three days to warn them, and started to take a rest.
COVID itself was no biggie; sneezing, a bit of headache, fever, sore muscles and joints, some cough. Tiredness was perhaps the most obvious. It came in waves, and every time I felt as if I would faint instantly and had to nap frequently. Coughing became really annoying and was the reason I visited my doctor when back in Czech, to get some pills. But the scariest problem, which evolved eventually and lasted for quite a while, was the brain fog. I knew there was “something like that”, as I heard about it on the news and from some friends who experienced that. In my case, it was an almost complete inability to concentrate, causing a pretty short attention span. At its best, I was not able to concentrate on one thing for more than five to ten minutes. If I tried hard, I felt dizzy and even felt as wanting to vomit. That really frightened me. My brain is perhaps the only part of my body which is useful, at least in the long run. I need to think, concentrate, contemplate, and if I suddenly cannot, what will I do, and will it come back? My job as a teacher and researcher is dependent on my brain. How will I pretend I am capable of thinking when I am actually not? And what else could I do? I never learnt any skill, any other profession. Without my brain, I am useless. It was depressing.
These symptoms lasted long three weeks before they started to recover, and even now, when I am writing this on the flight back to Taiwan more than a month later, I feel I am not quite there. I still have troubles expressing myself, especially if it is under pressure or in English. And I get tired quickly when I am thinking about something, especially if I have to multitask. I think that I need a backup plan. Something for the situation if the brain fog comes back and does not recover. Next COVID wave (although I hope those will already be milder and milder), or simply unavoidable ageing.
But maybe I am not alone in that? I was listening to a discussion about artificial intelligence on Economist the other day and strongly felt as if some of the speakers had the same problem as me, with longer times to find the right words and express themselves. What if, after COVID, the whole of humankind becomes a bit slower and a bit more stupid?
At least, the period of long COVID was not entirely useless for me. I rested a lot, because I had to. First in a self-imposed quarantine back in Czech, so that I don’t bring COVID to my parents. Then in Croatia, on holiday with my parents; I tried to go hiking with my Croatian friends twice, but felt like a lazy turtle unable to move. And then another week in a small room under the roof of my grandma’s house in the village, alone. It was a period of an exhaustive heatwave, but the village house was fine, cold even in hot summer. I did a lot of sleeping, some reading, a bit of diary writing, and every day I took a bike and went shopping in the neighbouring village for some goodies, an exercise which surely put me out of order for the rest of the day. I could not have such rest if I decided to have one, because, in ordinary times, I simply couldn’t afford that (and perhaps would die of boredom).
Everything bad is good for something (Czech saying). For me, COVID helped me to rest, contemplate about my life, and think about a backup plan, what to do if my brain says bye bye. Maybe I should learn how to work with wood and start making furniture…