Being aware of the COVID-19 crisis in China and Italy, I found myself researching it and getting involved in conversations about it here in the US. Even before MIT sent out its first official announcement to shut down the campus, I was already working from home. A few days later, the official announcement followed and everyone else was asked to do the same. This was a relief to me since it was very obvious that some people around me hadn’t realized the seriousness of the situation yet.
My first and foremost concern was my family and friends. I contacted my friends to check-in and make sure they were taking precautions. I was born and brought up in India, and then immigrated to Canada, so I have a big and wonderful family spread across both those countries. These countries had a lower number of COVID-19 cases at the time, but I could see what would be coming their way. I was anxious, very anxious. In India, my dad being an anesthetist could be exposed while working in the hospital. In Canada, my uncle who is a physician could be exposed, while living in the same house as my grandparents who are even more vulnerable due to their age. I knew I had to do something.
Since the steps taken by MIT and Harvard established the seriousness of the situation, I decided to use that to my advantage and held several video calls with my family members in Canada as well as in India. I conveyed to them the scientific reasons why social distancing was important for them and what could be the consequences if we didn’t act immediately. Some of these calls led to very interesting scientific discussions. For instance, the doctors in the family explained the risks to healthy population vs to chronic patients and the spectrum on which the COVID-19 disease can happen i.e., mild infection, pneumonia, multisystem failure and superadded bacterial infection. Together, we looked at the statistics in the data from China and Italy, and learnt that we needed to flatten the curve due to the lack of medical resources required to meet the need of the hour. We could foresee that more infections would lead to more patients, thus raising the demand for medical resources beyond the amount we had available.
We started having regular family video calls. My mom offered to lead online yoga sessions every evening from 6-7pm during which we would all get some yoga and meditation done. This turned out to be fantastic since 1) it helped us get some physical and mental exercise, 2) it served as a checkpoint for all of use to know whether others in the family were doing well - this kept our stress levels in check, and 3) it added a relaxing break to my regular work day. Usually after the yoga sessions we would spend some time socializing and discussing how we could contribute to make things better during this pandemic. These discussions ensured that we didn’t feel lonely and gave us a sense of purpose.
My mom (top figure: wearing her favourite blue color) leading online yoga sessions through Zoom.
The rest of the family members (including me: in pink shirt) who joined from various locations across Canada and the US.
Medicos fighting back
We had several discussions around developing products for helping medical professionals and the general public during this pandemic. Some of us made masks for use at home as well as in the hospitals in case there was a shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) supply in the hospitals. We discussed using steamers for reducing the viral load on gowns when in short supply and the use of iron for sterilizing masks if needed. My uncle, the physician, told us about his first hand experiences treating COVID-19 patients at his hospital. He showed us how staff were using plastic bags to protect themselves to complement the PPE in their hospital. He was also the first one to start using home-made masks in the hospital, and others followed his lead. Soon the hospital staff was bringing their own masks for their use to complement the hospital supplies. My dad learnt from my uncle’s experiences, and prepared the medical staff in his hospital through the example leadership set by my uncle. He showed them pictures and video demonstrations of my uncle putting on plastic bags to protect himself including the safe removal and disposal techniques of the used bags. We learnt that since no government has enough resources to cope with pandemics, we have to be innovative in trying to make the best use of the limited resources available to us.
Top left: my aunt (an optometrist herself) making masks at home. Bottom left: homemade masks being used in the hospital my uncle works at. Right: my uncle illustrates how the staff uses plastic bags to complement the use of personal protective equipment at their hospital, so that this could be used as an example in India by my dad.
Life in MIT graduate housing
To be completely honest, I had times when I broke down due to everything that was going on in the world around me. It’s not easy to see people dying, and losing jobs. My way of staying strong was to make sure that I was doing my best to contribute. Being a part of the student government at the graduate residence I live in, I created online communities through slack channels where residents could voice their concerns, ask for help, share pictures of their home offices, and the food they were cooking while we were all social distancing in the same building. When the head of house announced the availability of masks to all the residents, I tried to encourage residents to use masks through posts on slack and leading by example.
Pictures of cooked food shared by Tang Hall (an MIT graduate dorm) residents as they cooked in their own apartments while social distancing.
Me posing for a picture with a mask on, to encourage graduate housing residents to wear masks.
I have set-up a beautiful home office for myself and I am focusing on my PhD research, being grateful that I can still continue to do it from home. I have also re-started the joint MIT-Harvard Computational Neuroscience Journal Club meetings online, so that members can get access to this wonderful community once again! It was amazing to see from our poll that 92% of the members of the club wanted the meetings to be re-started online.
My home office. The setup was actually better than what I had in the lab, since I could connect my monitor at home to the iMac that I brought home from the lab, giving me two screens. This enabled me to work much more efficiently.
These times are unprecedented for my generation, my mom’s generation and even for my grandmother’s generation. I have never seen the world come together in a way I have seen during this pandemic. The kind of response we have seen from our societies and governments across the globe shows that we can make intelligent decisions for the collective good of humanity. For once, we’re all on the same side!