Rope bridge over the Rio de la Plata, engraved by Paul Legrand. Picture Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Pandemic panic on the River Plate

Going mano e mano with the malady of Montevideo

Once bitten, twice shy. Not so any more. Recovering now from a second tussle with Covid, I’m fascinated to find myself saying: no way we can be shy about confronting this virus. Quite the contrary. As I emerge from isolation, and start going out again, albeit heavily masked and contacts limited, the conclusion seems obvious. 

I have to learn to live with Covid, not shut myself off, “shelter” (such a euphemism) away from it. And what a relief to hear many parts of our world, witness the Biden administration in the United States and the UK government two years into this nightmare, leading us to the same place : co-existence with Covid. 

The experience was not just harrowing, but downright depressing

Too early maybe to declare it’s over, but time to acknowledge we’ve come a long way in terms of emulating what our forebears did with tuberculosis, and polio, and the Spanish flu a century ago. Namely, get on with our lives despite the plague.

First, a little history. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, in 2020, I was a headline of sorts in a small country on the other side of the world. Visiting Uruguay from our home in Argentina, ironically to work on a story about that country’s early success combating the pandemic, and the country’s hope to attract new immigrants as a result, I was infected, most likely on a crowded boat crossing the River Plate from Buenos Aires to Montevideo.

The day of my positive test, the Uruguayan government’s nightly bulletin on Covid cases reported just a handful, with the headline reflecting how few back then had the virus. “Uno en Montevideo,” said the slugline, broadcast on the nightly news and captured in morning headlines. Oh boy, that “uno” was me. And yes, the headline appealed mucho to my vanity, but not to my sanity.

What followed was a physical and mental battle. The cough, the fever, the headache, the loss of taste and smell was matched by the reality of having to wait 15 days, in complete isolation, food and drink left outside room in hazmat packaging, internet and tv your best friends, the oximeter and the thermometer your go-to accessories. The experience was not just harrowing, but downright depressing, and frightening, not least because the medical community had no clear handle on what was best practice.

“If your oxygen level falls to 94 on the oximeter, get yourself into our emergency unit,” said the head of the excellent British hospital in Montevideo. “We’ll get you on a ventilator.”

Yet reading, as you would, almost everything on Covid back then in the early days, you learned that the clear majority of folks who went on ventilators in Milan, and Madrid, and New York, then epicentres of the virus, never made it out alive.

“If I come into your hospital, I want it clearly understood : no ventilator for me,” I told the kind fellow at the British Hospital. When I heard him prevaricate, I added : “I’m putting it in writing, so there can be no doubt.” I did so the minute the phone conversation ended. Thank goodness, I never had to take him up on his offer of emergency care.

For once, I’m quietly optimistic

Some 20 months later, I caught Covid again, and once more in Uruguay. Celebrating this past Christmas and New Year, with twenty-something children visiting from the United States, we were down by the beach when Omicron caught us, our youngest son going down first, then his Mum and Dad, others in the family miraculously escaping it.

What a contrast two years into this pandemic. And how perhaps we should be recognising, I hesitate yet to use the word celebrate, how far we have come in terms of dealing with this deadly, rotten virus. Because second time around, I sensed, and saw, and experienced our world ready for Covid. And not just because Omicron was different.

This time we knew what to expect. This time we could hear the hacking cough, feel the strong headache, measure the rising temperature, then call in a lateral flow test, see the machine turn colour for positive, and isolate immediately, following up with a PCR swab to make sure. We could read how effective our multiple vaccines might be. We could count the days, five for the United States, seven for Uruguay, till we could return to a slice of living if the symptoms eased, then disappeared as they did. This time the advice from the hospital was so reassuring. “It will run its course, the vaccines you have will help, don’t worry. But keep checking the oximeter.”

In the midst of this, an old friend from the UK called, a dear confrere from war journalism days in the Middle East, hence a man accustomed to danger. “Oh my God, this is your second time with Covid,” he remarked, hinting it was time to lock myself away, his preferred route over the past couple of years. “Please take care of yourself, matey.”

Not for the first time in recent days, I heard an inner voice wanting to shout something from the rooftops. Having had Covid twice, in a part of the world that has suffered brutally from its many consequences, the take-away rests in that department of the bleedin’ obvious, pardon my French. 

We have to learn to live with this virus, not run away from it. And we have to accept risk as part of life, certainly if living is to be worthy of the word. Whatever their failings elsewhere, from my distance it seems the governments of Britain and the United States are showing the way forward on this front.

For once, I’m quietly optimistic, even as I see dire warnings of half of Europeans being infected, or Argentina and Uruguay racking up record numbers, or a beloved daughter returning to a New York city plagued by the virus. We are starting to co-exist with Covid, as we surely must.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover