Back Home, the Persistent Virus

I went for a walk this morning along the estuary that separates Alameda from Oakland.  Clear sunny skies, the nearside of the estuary like glass, reflecting the modest skyline of downtown Oakland. The freeway, not far from the other side of the water, normally going full tilt this time of day, is silent, its persistent rushing sound absent.

It is Spring here – Cherry trees are blossoming as are Dogwood and Myrtle; the Lemon tree in our garden is full of fruit and Jennifer’s succulents are happy.  Judging by a large number of buds populating its branches, our four year old Apricot tree will give a healthy crop of fruit this year. We had rain this past weekend and it has been cool.  I can hear a neighbor’s chickens clucking and pecking happily and another’s dog yapping steadily, nervously, full of energy. Deciduous trees here mostly keep their leaves all winter – those that do not are budding, readying themselves for a summer of photosynthesis and growth.

Spring is a breezy and cool event in Northern California, and feels all the more so coming from the tropics where the temperature and humidity rarely drop below 85 and 80%.

Past a construction site where an old packing warehouse from early last century is being converted into condominiums, through an almost vacant office park (Vacant prior to the virus) to the water’s edge.  Folks walking their dogs, yachts in their slips at the marina, stays clanking against metal masts in a light breeze.  A view of Oakland’s modest skyline across the water.  A Chinese restaurant by the water with machine carved granite lions on either side of the entrance, normally busy with wedding parties, dim sum brunches and clusters of smokers puffing and chatting in an animated fashion, now silent.  

A gaggle of Canada Geese with some goslings strutting along the shore – they seem unconcerned about Covid-19 and are definitely not keeping an appropriate social distance.  Like Jennifer and me, these geese landed here and decided to stay, figuring out that migration was a lot of work and not worth the effort.  Canada Geese are a protected species in California, have no natural predators and breed like, well, geese.  They are a nuisance, eating grass to its roots and defecating all over the place.  I would like to declare a local hunting season on Geese in the Fall – we could serve roast goose for Thanksgiving – but this would not be well received in animal rights circles.

I arrived home three weeks ago – Jennifer (rightly) left me to quarantine so I spent the first two weeks here alone as I had been in Accra, which was a peculiar experience.  An empty homecoming.  Before I had opened the back door a little wobbly from 36 hours of travel, I made my way directly to the garage and got my sourdough starter fed. The sourdough biome seems nonplussed by Covid-19 and happy to get back to work: I guess that it has seen lots of viruses come and go in its 3,000 years of helping humans make tasty bread.  Baking started up again a few days later and, because a subscriber promoted my bread on NextDoor (A site that focused on neighborhood news that seems to mostly attract cranky neighbors complaining about otherwise benign local activities.), I had a flood of new customers.

I transited through Dubai, going East to get West, so as to avoid Europe which was already struggling, and flew from Dubai direct to SFO over the pole, which I still find a remarkable process.  You are in a metal tube with a few hundred other people traveling six miles above the earth’s surface through frigid air at 550 miles per hour.  The tube is dark as we fly through the night, lit by the flicker of seat back screens displaying untold number of movies from all over the world.  Some passengers sleep, bundled up like caterpillars going through metamorphosis, others gaze glassy eyed at their screens, flight attendants in the brightly lit kitchen area, busy prepping snacks and drinks.   The map display shows us passing North over Iran (Here’s hoping we don’t get shot down.), the Caspian Sea, the Western end of Kazakhstan, Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains in Russia, the Barents Sea, the Arctic Ocean and the Pole, and then South over the Canadian Arctic, British Columbia and then to the Land of the Free.

Jennifer and I talked every day by video, as we had when I was in Ghana, which added to the sense of dislocation, but in all it is good to be home, and West Africa now seems far away.  I am continuing to work with a number of my clients there, helping them think through how to get through the next 3 months and plan for better times beyond that. It is going to be tough:  the local economy had not been doing well prior to all this and, with about 2/3s of business activity being informal, executed face to face using cash, the lock downs there are going to crush business activity.  As well, West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria have healthcare systems that are weak and already overburdened – there is no excess capacity for the flood of sick people the virus will generate.  Sadly, I think a couple of my clients likely will not make it and are already getting pummeled.

Jennifer has been back a week and we have resumed our habit of sitting by the dining room window while having our morning coffee and watching the comings and goings on the street where we live.  The 80+ year old spry Asian lady – dubbed “Ming” by Jennifer – on her morning walk, slow and steady and absolutely predictable; you could set your watch by her passage. Dog walkers towing or being towed by their charges, runners puffing their way down the street.  Dogs and their owners look increasingly like one another: the tiny octogenarian retiree from down the street looks as wisp-like and as skittish as her tiny poodle, the strapping young man with tattoos, basketball shorts and a closely shaved head like his no nonsense pit bull.

A few houses up across the intersection an old Filipino lady sweeps her steps with a handheld reed brush like that she used back in Manila.  The guy who parks across the street every day and sits in his car, engine running, calmly rolling and smoking joints, waiting for his girlfriend who lives down the street.

Normally one would see clusters of children on their way to school – younger ones walking briskly, adolescents slouching along – but they are all working online at home.  As are the workers who would be hustling to the express bus stop on Santa Clara, sometimes smoking or nursing a cup of coffee while they walked.  A disheveled fellow either hopped up on something or mentally ill or both shambling up the middle of the street, gesticulating wildly and talking loudly, the virus threat registering nowhere in his febrile brain.  He is in need of a hot shower, a change of clothes and a shave.  A couple of Asian ladies doing Tai Chi-like exercises, swinging their arms, slapping their thighs, stamping their feet while they make their way down Pacific Avenue.

We go for walks twice a day and, per the CDC, wear masks that a neighbor kindly sewed for us.  We walk briskly – Jennifer is a tough trainer – circling away from folks whose paths we cross.   Puffing through the cloth mask reminds me of walking to and from school when a child on the prairies.  In that case you were bundled up with a scarf across your face to keep out the cold: your breath would condense and freeze on the cloth and your nose would go numb as you trudged to and from school in sub zero weather.  There would be snowball fights and numb hands and feet and a tingly feel when you made it home and your appendages began to thaw out.

I am struck by how light it is late into the evening and how sunset and twilight take their time: in the tropics sunrise and sunset are sudden, extreme events and do not vary by time of year.  One minute it is light out and a few minutes later it is dark, comforting in a way as the timing changes little throughout the year.

The Persistent Virus

Our Friend the West Nile Virus

Viruses have only been well understood for about a century, first identified as different from bacteria in the late 1800s when scientists were trying to figure out what caused Tobacco mosaic disease.  They are cellular versions of parasites and are at the margins of what we consider life, lacking most of the machinery of an actual cell.  In comparison to living cells, they are like stripped down malware, needing their host to survive and reproduce, like malware that takes over your computer and propagates itself to other machines.  Viruses do so by hijacking a host cell’s reproductive machinery with their genome they insert into the process, while disrupting other parts of cell activities.

Viruses are much smaller than bacteria – say 1/8th to 1/40th the size of the Ecoli – and are associated with common diseases like the flu and nastier ones like Ebola.  Once in the host’s body (Accessed through cuts, insect bites, blood transfusions, the GI or respiratory tracts), viruses figure out how to attach to a host cell – some envelope it in a skin, others plug into receptors on the cell surface and still others develop a channel through the cell wall to move its genome into the interior.  A tough protective coating – the capsid – protects the virus’s nucleic acids from being damaged while in the host, cloaking its presence from the host’s immune system and giving it time to infect host cells.  In an elegant evolutionary twist, viruses generate side effects in the host’s body that assist their spread – when you sneeze due to the cold or flu (Or Covid-19), you eject +/-20,000 droplets of mucous and it only takes touching or breathing a few of these for the viral disease to spread.  If the viral infection’s side effects get you to a hospital, it is in a happy place.  Spring break for the virus!  Lots of folks with weakened immune and respiratory systems, a large hospital staff helpful in spreading it from one patient to the next.  We’ll probably have a vaccine soon.

Hospitals were largely seen as a place to get sicker and die in, not sources of healing until the ’30s last century, because they were best at concentrating and spreading disease and couldn’t offer much in the way of restorative procedures.  Some hospitals in Texas banded together to form Blue Cross (Now a well know medical insurer here in America), mostly to promote their services and provide an installment plan payment for patients.  World War 2 hit and employers, unable to offer salary increases due to wage controls, added on health benefits – then an inexpensive addition to compensation packages.  The rest is history and a very American one:  marketing and sales aligned with a major disruptive event create an entire new industry.


  1. Donna Friesen says

    Best explanation I have read yet about the difference between virus and bacteria! Thank you for making it understandable Hugh. Glad too that you are settling in at home!

  2. Mary Ellen says

    The caption below the two lions, “kind of like this” — I thought you were saying that’s how you and Jennifer look observing the neighbors with your morning coffee. 🙂

  3. Colin Hewens says

    Hi Hugh
    Another glorious piece of your eloquent writing to conclude the series.
    We have been in self imposed isolation for seventeen days now, the fifteenth day of New Zealand’s official lockdown.
    Life in our peaceful rural idyll has not changed markedly. Less journeys to town for essentials only and undertaken by Steve our nominated shopper. His mother had relocated to our place sixteen days back, so having three people here has been the biggest alteration. We have a list of projects to get completed in the four weeks and are gradually equally adding new things and ticking off others completed.
    We are staying reasonably sane and safe, Steve is in charge of a couple of sprayers containing meths, with which he sprays everything that enters the property. Our income has remained relatively stable, ( thanks NZ Government) although our investments have taken a temporary tumble, we expect them to return to normal within three years.
    Daily dog walks are quieter and the occasional person we encounter keep the stipulated two metres distant, while we exchange pleasantries.
    Our National new infections seem to be declining, yesterday being down to 50 for the first time, so there is a gentle air of conditional optimism hitting the less extreme offerings in social media.
    May God bless us all in the year ahead

  4. Jason Zielke says

    Hugh – Thank you for sharing your stories and experiences. I read the essay above about the-19 and the evolution of hospitals aloud to my family this morning and we were all educated. Peace jz

  5. Welcome back home.
    I have a nephew who is passing some of his time making bread now, too, although only a loaf or two at a time. The shelves of flour in our local Safeway were quite depleted yesterday. You probably have a special supplier and special flours, do you?
    From your description I think I would enjoy the northern California climate. What could be better than a lemon tree in one’s yard? 🙂
    Happy Easter

    • Hugh Morgan says

      Yes, I buy my flour in bulk (50 lb bags) from a mill North of the City and have been giving folks a few pounds here and there as they need it. We still find, even after 20 years here, the idea that lemons grown on a tree in our backyard kind of remarkable. : )

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