If I had told you a few months ago that caring for the elderly, working supermarket check-out, and nursing are among the most dangerous and highly valued occupations these days, you’d think I’d lost it.
Whenever I speak to my friend, an emergency ward nurse in a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, I always pump her up, reminding her of how important she is in the greater scheme of things, and I mean it sincerely. What if something happens to us? Guess what, something just did, and suddenly nurses figure prominently in many people’s lives.
If I had to do her job at the best of times I wouldn’t last one single shift, never mind in the midst of a global health catastrophe. It takes a special breed - courageous, thick-skinned, and able to perform under great pressure.
She has always scoffed at my comments, saying that in Vietnam a nurse is considered an inferior occupation, not held in high esteem because the work is hard, the hours long, and salary low.
Not any more, suddenly health care workers and supermarket cashiers are global rock stars, and deservedly so. The big CEO’s, football stars, and movie actors have been upstaged by those lower on the social ladder since values dramatically shifted, practically overnight.
The world has changed in ways none of us could have imagined just a couple of months ago, and we’re still only at the outset of this long, weird ride. It’s the first time in over a century that the global community has been forced to change behaviour, reevaluate what we do, how we do things, and question why we’re even doing them at all.
Do we really need to zip off to Bali for a break when breathtaking Phu Quoc Island is so near and puts much-needed cash in the pockets of domestic airlines and local businesses?
Is that daily two-hour commute really necessary given all the conferencing tools available for free? It hurts productivity, burns fuel, beats up cars, buses, and trains, and stresses everyone out. Where is the elusive work-life balance we’ve been talking about for so long?
Do we even need a car at all? Traffic is horrendous, parking even worse in many places, cars pollute, and cost a fortune to maintain. Maybe a combination of walking, carpooling, and taking taxis would be better.
Since traffic and pollution are greatly reduced, residents of megacities around the world are suddenly able to breathe, see the blue sky, and take in mountain views that haven’t been visible in many years.
In northern India, as one example, it’s a whole new world:
“Hey, Sam, what’s that on the horizon?”
“Those are the Himalayas, you clown.”
Technology plays a big role as usual these days, flexing it’s muscles, and that means changes that dictate how we live. The biggest software companies have already teamed up and are working feverishly on contact-tracking apps which will be installed on our smartphones.
I’m not part of the crowd that is hell-bent on guarding privacy, the fact being my life is not that exciting, but that contact-tracking feature is going to turn a few heads: in addition to our movements being recorded, which is by no means new, soon every person we come in contact with will be tracked and reported on.
Check out this scenario: “Honey, I’m going out to fetch a newspaper, back soon.” Later it surfaces that a couple of beers with buddies at the neighbourhood local were part of that outing, and there will be no disputing the facts - all is revealed, indelibly recorded, and distributed to God knows whom.
China has been honing their people-tracking apps for years, and recently rolled out COVID-19-related health apps on smartphones. Want to hop on a subway in Wuhan? You’ll need the health app and a status of “green," indicating you’re virus-free.
One classy hotel in Beijing reports that they now require separate national and local health clearances with that same green status to check in, plus a list of local contacts. How does that work if a visitor arrives at the airport unarmed with the necessary paperwork? As these restrictions become more widespread, will those visitors be forced to seek accommodation in sleazy flea traps where such checks are not enforced?
In some ways, life is going to be much more complex from now on, but there is also a lesson in all this that we need to focus on some of the simple pleasures that we overlook when life was in its usual rhythm. I know, it sounds corny and old-fashioned but there is truth in the saying, “We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone."
The first such little gem that pops into my mind is an egg.
It’s a trivial consequence of the crisis the world finds itself in these days, but, from Montreal to Manila to Montevideo, the complaint I’ve been fielding most often from readers and friends is:
“Can’t find eggs anywhere!”
Who’d have predicted that a few months ago? I, for one, would not have, but now it makes sense that in many places an egg has suddenly become a bigger discovery than a rotary dial telephone.
Consumers around the globe have experienced shortages of bread, milk, pork (due to employees at pork processing facilities falling ill), toilet paper (now there’s a head-scratcher), and those good old eggs.
Runs on supermarkets created shortages resulting in a real kerfuffle in some countries, but we've been fortunate here in Vietnam, where the food supply has been steady, without shortages nor long queues in supermarkets.
Eggs are a highly valued go-to food in a crisis: full of protein, tasty, cheap, comforting, able to be prepared many ways, and they fill us up. I covet their beauty, that elliptic shape is a symbol of symmetry, the ends so strong that they’re nearly impossible to break between thumb and finger.
Some are so desperate to keep the egg supply flowing that they’ve resorted to breeding their own chickens. I saw a report the other day about a woman who was so fed up with scouring supermarkets for eggs that she bought chickens and let’s them run around her back yard, thus washing her hands of the entire problem.
Now she has complete control over that tiny slice of food production and has embraced her new-found freedom. She’s so stoked she even gave her chickens cutesy monikers and went into great detail about their behaviour around her house:
“Every time Jenny clucks twice, Frank starts crowing and preens himself!”
That lady may be on to something: I can see there will be a flurry of activity in the home-farming space and we could all end up being part-time farmers.
Remember those little notes our moms used to leave if they went to work early? “Please pick up some milk, a loaf of bread, and a dozen eggs.”
This one may replace it sooner than we think: “Please milk the cow, pound out a loaf of bread, and check the coop to see if the hens have dropped a few.”
Just be on the lookout for random animals when undertaking outside chores at home because while we’ve been hunkering down, those critters have been busy taking back what’s theirs.
A mate from Australia sent me a photo of a wallaby wandering around on his front lawn, the first such visit in many years. Another friend reported seeing coyotes in his neighbourhood in the center of San Francisco.
I also heard that sightings of dugong in the Con Dao Island area of Vietnam have increased dramatically. I didn’t even know what a dugong is, so I looked it up and learned it’s the regional equivalent of a sea otter or manatee.
Many of us have had so much for so long that we lost touch somewhere along the way. For me, this human tragedy also presents an opportunity to assess, analyze, and reflect on what really matters. Some changes are imposed upon us, but the door is also wide open to look at ways to live more simply, cleverly, and practically.
We’re all so excited to see people get back to work as restrictions are eased here in Vietnam, lots of desperate people who need to put food on the table, but in parallel we can find time to look at improvements in lifestyle.
Chances are we’ll never have a better opportunity to reset the trip odometer, look at life through a different lens, and start thinking about what we want to be when we grow up.
We have a one-time offer to reshape our fate that may never be repeated.
It’s back to square one….