Covid-19 Journal #14 June 6, 2020

Donkey Pulling Wagon of Hay (north of Tashkent, June 6, 2020)

My mother used to tell me stories about her family owning a cow in the small town of Caspian, Michigan where I grew up. In the 1940s, many families owned cows. My mother laughed at the memories of negotiating with her siblings who would have to fetch the cow from the “cow pasture”, a big grassy hill overlooking the town. In Tashkent, some families still own livestock and on my long bike rides around the city in the morning, I usually run into several cows, goats and sheep. Today I saw several trucks and buggies with hay as well. Even in a modern city of close to 3 million people, the village is never far away.

Grounds of the Museum of Political Repression

The photo above is of the park of the Museum of Victims of Political Repression in Tashkent. The large complex is on beautiful urban park land along the canal and across the highway from the Tashkent TV Tower. The museum remembers victims of Soviet repression, from the time of Stalin to independence. I should go visit the museum. I appreciate the wide streets, the secularization and architecture the Soviets left, but many Uzbeks probably suffered under the regime.

A classic Soviet-era apartment building

I love getting out in the mornings before traffic starts to explore the city. The sun is rising around 5:00 AM and it is relatively cool at that time of day to cycle. I always find new streets and mahallas. Exploring a city by foot or bicycle is the only way to truly to get to know a place.

One of the many interesting pathways in Tashkent

Covid-19 Journal #13 – May 16, 2020

Teams are disinfecting parks and playgrounds in anticipation of opening on Monday. I took this photo on my street yesterday.

I am trying to figure out the mortality rate of Covid-19. There has been an immense amount of information and troublingly, conflicting information about this novel coronavirus. I guess this is the “fog of war” of the uncertainty involved in fighting this enemy disease. I have seen estimates ranging from 2% to 5.8% depending on the date, place and organization. What makes it difficult to calculate is many infected people do not show symptoms and are never tested. There is some error also with the number of deaths, but I would say the error of number of cases is probably greater because of this lack of testing. I found this State of New York study that tested 15,103 people in grocery stores and community centers throughout the state. For non-Americans reading this, the state of New York is big and surprisingly rural, with “Upstate” New York compared to my sparsely populated birth place of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. So the study covered not only the dense metropolis of New York City, but also sparsely populated areas that border Canada and stretch almost to Cleveland, Ohio. That study found a total12.3 % of those people tested had antibodies to the coronavirus and logically, a higher percentage in NYC (19.9%).

Extrapolating this out to the entire population, this article on estimates that the current known number of deaths should be doubled and the number of cases should be multiplied by 10. That would mean a mortality rate of 0.28%, which is about 3 times more deadly than an average strain of influenza. The analysis goes on to show that 89% of the deaths were people with an underlying condition and for people under the age of 65, the mortality rate is 0.09%, which does not take into account, underlying conditions. These mortality rates will be probably change as more data becomes available.

In thinking about the situation here in Uzbekistan, I will compare it to California. The two are approximately the same size in area, with Uzbekistan having 8 million less people (think California minus the Bay Area). With significantly more testing and probably more accurate data, California has around 75,000 confirmed cases with over 3,000 deaths. The Uzbek Ministry of Health statistics report approximately 2,700 confirmed cases with 10 deaths. According to these statistics, there are probably a little over 300 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Tashkent, with a population of 2.5 million, about the size of metropolitan Sacramento.

The country is starting to open back up. The government divided the country into three zones, red (shut-down), yellow (partially open) and green (fully open). Tashkent is a yellow zone. They are loosening restrictions starting Monday to allow for cars to travel anytime between 6:00 AM and 10:00 PM and more businesses are opening. Parks, soccer fields and green areas are re-opening but will be limited to the number of visitors at any one time. They are resuming some national flights and trains, but the country is still closed until at least June 1.

“The End of October” Lawrence Wright

I am still diving into epidemiology (even though I cannot pronounce the word) and read Lawrence Wright’s “The End of October”. It is a novel about a world pandemic that he started writing in 2017. It is good timing for the book to come out in 2020 and it is on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Wright got a lot of things right! In the novel, the president puts the vice-president in charge, governments decree quarantines all over the globe, many people denying it is serious, etc. The source of his fictional influenza is a mystery until the very end, and for those of you who have not read the book, I will not spoil it. He named it the Kongoli Fever, which came from an HIV detention camp in Indonesia where the disease first came known to the world. The mortality rate of Kongoli is significantly higher than Covid-19, 30% which causes two major wars and a massive breakdown of society everywhere.

I absolutely loved the book because it was a thrilling story combined with lessons in public health, virology and history. You can see Wright did a lot of research and he has won prizes for his non-fiction. I want to read his books on Al Qaeda and the state of Texas. But his writing is so good, that even though you are learning a lot, it doesn’t feel like a lecture. The main character is Henry Parsons, a CDC virologist.

Below are some of my take-aways from the book:

  • “Disease was more powerful than armies. Disease was more arbitrary than terrorism. Disease was crueler than human imagination.” I agree with that and it is illogical to spend more money on fighting terrorism and boosting our military than we put into public health.
  • espalier – a fruit tree trained to grow flat against a wall
  • Researchers found there are 100 billion viruses in a single liter of seawater. The total number of viruses on earth is estimated to be 100 million times more than stars in the universe.
  • 8% of the human genome includes genes from ancient infections.
  • kvetch – Yiddish for a complainer
  • Influenza A is more virulent than Influenza B. Tamiflu is a drug that is effective against Influenza A because it inhibits an enzyme that helps produce more virus.
  • The 1918 Spanish Flu infected 500 million people worldwide and killed as many as 20% of people infected. It was an H1N1 hemorrhagic flu that turned lungs into a “bloody froth”.
  • “Typically, with a pandemic, you have 2 or 3 big waves of contagion before it settles down and becomes the normal flu you get every year.”
  • I want to know more about Albert Schweitzer, the French doctor that fought disease in West Africa. His fundamental principle of morality was “good means maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”
  • anodyne – inoffensive
  • One major reason pools are chlorinated is that polio, an RNA virus like influenza, spread through fecal matter.
  • vaccination comes from the Latin “vacca” meaning cow which is a reference to milk maids who were immune to smallpox because they were exposed to cowpox. This was discovered by English doctor Edward Jenner in 1796.

Covid-19 Journal #12: May 9, 2020

I am still healthy and looking for the positive aspects of quarantine. Spending lots of time at home with my wife and children is just incredible. We are getting closer to one another and I think we will all look back at this time as special. My children\ are teenagers and friends are becoming more important, but being stuck at home with us has been such a gift. Today for example, I helped Owen with filling in recommendation forms and we are talking about universities and careers, Ocean and I went for a bike ride this afternoon along the Ankhor Canal and Oliver was such a firecracker last night, helping us with the TIS Zoom Quiz Night. He is so funny!

The merchants of the Alay Bazaar (market) are taking hygeinic measures to stop the spread of the virus through the handling of fruits and vegetables.

The Special Commission of the Government is loosening restrictions slowly. People can drive from 7:00 – 10:00 AM and 5:00 – 8:00 PM without the special permits. They declared Tashkent a “yellow” zone so more stores and businesses are opening but not all of them. They cancelled May 9 “Victory in Europe” day celebrations here, which is a big deal in the former Soviet Republics. After a hailstorm last night, they did have fireworks downtown. I could see them on the far horizon from our second floor balcony.

Schools are still closed, mass gatherings of over 15 people are banned, you still have to wear a mask and there are police everywhere through the city. Ocean and I got our temperature checked before we went into the Makro supermarket and they gave us plastic gloves to wear.

Korzinka, a big supermarket chain, is enforcing physical distance laws and limiting the number of people in their stores at one time.

My early morning bicycle rides have been so therapeutic for me. Before around 7:30 AM, I have the city to myself. I’ve been able to access formerly busy highways and cross intersections easily, that before the quarantine, I never would have been able to. The 30 kilometers of exertion daily have calmed by psyche.

Normally this highway would have high traffic, but mostly open roads

My bike rides are also allowing me to discover more areas of the city. I had to stop and photograph the Suzuk Ota Mosque and Mausoleum Complex . The government recently restored the 14th century complex that was built for madrassa founder Suzuk Ota, who in the 13th century, founded a school and mosque that focused on teaching woodworking and other crafts. It is a huge area with parks, school buildings, etc.

Entrance to the Suzuk Ota Complex

Covid-19 Journal #11: Ride to Kazakhstan and a Broken Toe

The start of the border crossing between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

I finally made the ride from my home to the Kazakhstan border this morning. It is about 26 kilometers (15 miles) from my door to the border as a straight ride north through the city of Tashkent to the border. The outline of the borders of Uzbekistan looks a bit like the boot of Italy but flipped and turned sideways. The capital city of Tashkent is located near the toes, with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan on the top (north) and bottom (south) of the foot and Krygyzstan surrounding the toes. Tashkent is the capital because when the Russians conquered the area in the 1800s, they made it the capital because the major cities at the time (Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva) were under the control of Emirs and they wanted a place to call their own. That is why it is not in the center of the country. You could ride the four countries in one day if they had open borders like within the EU. However, border crossings are cumbersome and often impossible.

Map of Central Asia (courtesy of Wikipedia)

They were a product of late-Tsarist and early-Soviet census data, ethnographic and orientalist scholarship, and also in part of the process of raionirovanie – identifying supposedly rational and viable economic units, and ensuring that each new state met minimum criteria for becoming a full-blown Soviet Socialist Republic: these included a population of at least a million, and a capital city connected by rail.

 Inevitably, the process of drawing national boundaries in a region where these borders had never existed before, where bilingualism and multi-layered identities were common, and where divisions of language and ethnicity often fell along the rural/urban divide, created many anomalies. Among the sedentary population, a wide range of older identities – Sart, Khwarazmi, Ferghani, Samarqandi, Bukharan – were subsumed under the label of “Uzbek,” which, before 1921, had only referred to particular tribal groups. Tashkent and Shymkent were both cities with a mixed population of Europeans and Uzbeks, surrounded by a hinterland populated largely by Kazakhs. The former ended up in Uzbekistan, the latter in Kazakhstan. Tajik-speaking Bukhara and Samarkand were surrounded by Turkic-speaking countryside and ended up in Uzbekistan, a decision which rankles with Tajikistan to this day.

Morrison, Alexander “Stalin’s Giant Pencil: Debunking a Myth About Central Asia’s Borders, (February 13, 2017)

During the quarantine I’ve been able to ride freely throughout the city before the police begin manning the checkpoints at 8:00 AM. As it is loosening, I am able to ride past 8:00 AM, although there are more cars on the roads. However, there is much less traffic now than before which has the benefits of cleaner air quality and easier bike riding. In some ways, I’ll miss the days of quarantine which might be coming to an end this month.

The spread of Covid-19 in Tashkent, if the Ministry of Health and World Health Organization figures are accurate has been kept in check. There are 630 confirmed cases in the city with 9 deaths in the entire country. Uzbekistan being double landlocked and not in tourist season, was never a major hotspot for the disease. The government took strong measures starting in mid to late March to physical distance the city. Now that it is May, they are slowly loosening restrictions with cars now being able to move from 7:00 – 10:00 AM and 5:00 – 8:00 PM. There is less of a police presence i the neighborhoods, although they are outside my house today. They are friendly and we have a good relationship with the mahalla (neighborhood) leaders and they let us come and go as we please.

Livestock on the roads and gas pipelines are two common sights of cycling in Uzbekistan
The Mazhid Mosque is located on highway M39 on the way to Kazakhstan

I broke my toe a couple of weeks ago. I was annoyed at having to clean the kitchen after dinner and was stuffing Tupperware and things in the refrigerator. A large, glass Tupperware full of leftover chicken fell out of the fridge from shoulder height and landed right on the end of my middle toe. The last bone of the middle toe was had a thin crack at the end. I have been taping it to the adjacent toe as there is nothing much else you can really do with it. Thanks to the Coronavirus Cycling Opportunity I’ve been able to continue to exercise through cycling while my toe is healing.

Happy Birthday Oliver!

Oliver’s Covid-19 Birthday Zoom Party – April 30, 2020

Nadia was a superstar mother to organize a meaningful birthday for our son Oliver. He turned 15 on April 30 and due to the quarantine, we could not invite friends over or go on an outing with friends. Instead, Naida contacted the mothers of Oliver’s friends around the world and they had a Zoom party. Oliver had friends from his time in Serbia, Japan and Uzbekistan online. He was so happy! Oliver is an extrovert and lives for his friendships and connections to others. Besides gaming, hanging out with friends is his favorite thing to do. The expression on his face and mood during and after the Zoom call was priceless. I was so proud of Nadia for providing such a thoughtful event for her son.

We sang happy birthday, had a homemade chocolate cake, and ate his favorite meal (chicken coconut curry with rice) on the patio by the pool. Without the pandemic, we never would have zoomed in so many people and they would not be available.

Reflections on Living Abroad

An old acquaintance sent me some questions about living internationally for an assignment he is doing for his university study. It gave me a chance to reflect on the choice of me living outside of the USA for most of my life.

  1. Where do you live, or did you live? For how long?
    1. I live in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I arrived in July 2019. I am a long-term expatriate who has lived in Colombia, Bolivia, Australia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Serbia and Japan for over 25 years.
  • What do you do there? Work/type of work or are you a student.
    • I am a director of an international school.
  • What made decide to live abroad?
    • Wanderlust; novel experiences; escape the ordinary life (to me at the time) of rural Michigan
  • What was the process to move like?  Complicated? What sacrifices did you make to move?
    • The schools that I worked for helped with the moving process, which was complicated but once you do it a couple of times, it is much less daunting. You lose extended family and old friends when you move abroad. This is somewhat less so with today’s communication technology, but it is not the same as living near relatives.
  • How long did it take to learn the language or did you already?
    • I do not have a gift for languages so it is always a struggle. Most of my work is in English but through my years working in Latin America, I consider myself fluent in Spanish. My Serbian/Russian is improving and I can get by quite well. I didn’t have enough time to learn much Japanese which I regret.
  • How far did you assimilate into the local culture? Did you live right in with the locals or are you staying close to other English-speaking nationalities? Do you have an immigration status there? Do you use their social programs like healthcare?
    • Living in a foreign country long-term is different than visiting the country. However, working at an international school you are somewhat in the expatriate “bubble” and it takes effort to connect with local culture. Some countries are more difficult than others to connect with. There may be religious, linguistic, economic barriers that make it harder to truly experience a local culture. It is also different today than when I first went overseas in 1992 with the internet. We have our VPN with Netflix, HBO and Sling subscriptions and it feels like we consume the same media as Americans. This was not the case when I first moved to Colombia.
    • I am politically liberal/left I think in big part to seeing health care and higher education in other countries. I think it is a shame that all Americans do not have access to good health care and that university is so expensive. It is making me strongly consider never moving back to the USA, especially in my retirement years.
  • Are you still participating or up to date with what is going on in the United States?
    • Very much so, it is easy to follow the news in the USA. My lifestyle however is significantly different than if I was an educator in the USA. I am a registered voter in my home state of Michigan.
  • Do you have plans to ever live in the United States again.
    • No plans but if the right opportunity came up, I would consider it.
  • If you could sharing a funny or interesting story about something you had to adjust to when you moved there.
    • Every country has its unique characteristics. Uzbekistan is very laid back and the people are gentle and open-minded, not the image that is in the media when you hear about “the ‘Stans”. The Education Minister yesterday in an interview said that they are not going to announce they are canceling final exams for students in grades 5 through 11 in public schools because he didn’t want the students to quit studying. The country is currently in a lockdown and public school teachers are giving lessons over television for the past three weeks.

Covid-19 Journal #10 – April 16, 2020

The government is arranging for mobile mini-markets in neighborhood in Tashkent. This morning, several trucks came with produce and police and neighborhood elders set up tables. My neighbor rang our bell to let us know that the market was ready. I walked over and saw eggs, potatoes, onions, etc. for sale. We have been getting groceries delivered via private taxi and didn’t need any, but it was nice to see the government helping people. The markets are meant to reduce numbers at the larger markets around the city, thus increasing social distancing.

The Ministry of Health reported 1,349 cases of Covid-19 in Uzbekistan. The number of confirmed cases continues to grow with more people being tested. The average daily growth continues to increase, mostly because of increased testing. The Prosecutor General reported 42,782 violations of quarantine regulations. Interestingly, most of them, 39291 were committed by men and only 525 by women. Almost all (40,000) of the violations were not wearing a mask, which is mandatory here if you are out of the house.

The Plague – Albert Camus

Police are posted on all streets to enforce the quarantine. Tashkent, April 11, 2020

Of course I had to re-read Albert Camus’s The Plague during quarantine. It is a timely read and I wanted to get a different historical perspective on this pandemic through literature. The novel was first published in 1947 and it is a classic pandemic story. I could see parallels to what is happening today to the progress of the disease in the novel. The story is set in Oran, a coastal city in French Algeria, where the Nobel laureate author was born, experiences an outbreak of bubonic plague. Like today, government officials ignore or take lightly early warning signs and act too late to stop the spread. Slowly as numbers increase restrictions are put in place until the entire city is locked down and no one can leave.

The School of Life gives an excellent analysis of the book

Camus looks at the pandemic through a variety of characters including a priest, a fugitive criminal, a visitor to the city, etc. which allows him to explore religion, relationships, meaning, etc. The main character is a physician Bernard Rieux, who is on the front lines of caring for the sick and is the hero of the story. This plague is much more deadly than what we are experiencing now, but there were ideas to think about. I liked Rieux’s focus on “common decency” and treating others humanely, even in such a horrible crisis. There was another part of the story where city officials were looking for people to dig mass graves and help bury to hundreds of dead. They thought that it would be difficult to fill these positions but “poverty showed itself a stronger stimulus than fear”. That idea is sticking with me as we are looking to when and how our lockdown will end. One of my main takeaways from the book is to reinforce the idea that life if fragile and no matter how important we think we are or our actions, in the end, what matters is treating others humanely and enjoying the ephemeral pleasures life brings.

Coincidently, I found this dead mouse in the lot next to our house. In The Plague, the first sign of the disease is massive deaths of mice and rats of the city.

The book also made me think of what Algeria was like before the Algerian War and independence. It is inconceivable today to have a large population of French people living in Algeria. The country is closed off to most of the world.

I was listening to a podcast describing Korea, Taiwan and Singapore’s mobile phone tracking system to control the spread of the virus. Uzbekistan is doing a low-tech version of this by posting police and military on every street and are requiring pedestrians to register with them as they leave their home and when they come back. (see photo above from my street)

Covid-19 Journal #9 April 11, 2020

This is my 13th day of strict quarantine and our fourth week of reduced movement. I walked to the corner of my street, two houses away, once in these 13 days. Other than that, all of us have been on lockdown inside our home.

Ollie and I are bonding through table tennis

I am going a bit stir crazy not being able to ride my bicycle! However, the extra time we are spending as a family is such a great gift. Yesterday we enjoyed a virtual dinner with our good friends in Romania, Claudiu and Vesna. We were best friends when we lived in Belgrade and we spent many a weekend afternoon and evening hanging out with each other. This quarantine has rekindled our friendship. During dinner, Owen and their son Marc had a Rubix Cube competition (see video above) and Owen afterwards, in true Kralovec form, entertained us by jumping into our pool twice. This is after heavy snows on Wednesday night! As I write this, it is 64 F / 18C with a cool breeze and rain forecasted for this evening. Oliver and I am bonding over daily games of table tennis. He is growing every day and is now much larger than me. Ocean and I had a nice talk in bed last night after her and Nadia watched the movie, Little Women. I woke up after the movie ended and we talked and talked in bed. She is such a good person!

City officials are setting up mini-markets in mahallas around the Tashkent. (Asa L. photo)

The number of confirmed cases continues to rise to 639 (see my chart below) with over 70,000 people tested. The WHO and Uzbek Ministry of Health have been working closely together and I am generally impressed with the measures the government is taking. Tashkent is almost on a total lockdown with severe restriction on cars, bicycles and pedestrians. There is a police desk on my street that checks everyone walking by. We are all waiting for the next government announcement as this current set of restrictions is in force until April 20. Many people expect it to continue. One of the challenges here as in many places in the world is the lack of testing. Uzbekistan has a population of over 32 million, means less than 1% of the country’s population has been tested so far (70,000). They are rightly focusing on people with symptoms and contacts of those people. Only 3 deaths have been reported. I notice more people are now thinking about how to go back to normal social conditions. A good sign!