A year has gone by under the dark clouds of the pandemic. Covid-19 situation in UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany and USA turned worrisome again recently, mainly because of the cold winter, and perhaps due to the new strains circulating of this ever-mutating Coronavirus. Do plenty of sun, warmth, high humidity help against it? Can’t say, because even under those conditions, a surge in infection was observed in certain parts of the world. Crowded environments and poor sanitation in factories and dormitories have led to the formation of clusters of infection, overwhelming public hospitals, ICUs, ventilators, and medical front-liners across the world. Going by the fresh waves, Covid-19 may continue to impact the world in 2021, too. Things may improve as the vaccination progresses but not before mid-summer. The time required to vaccinate the whole humanity is going to be too long, even if we ignore anti-vaxxers. No wonder, some experts suspect that it will be a couple of years before some semblance of normalcy returns.
I am a scientist, now 75 and retired. Having spent a full year under the shadow of the pandemic, four nagging questions come to the minds of old people of my age and above. I deemed it appropriate to pose these questions to the best scientific minds, themselves 75 or above, and what I present below is based on their responses.
When will SARS-CoV-2 virus go away? Agreeing that the past year was indeed very disruptive for everybody, the 1987 Chemistry Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn (81) thinks it could have been worse and the virus is not done yet, though administering the vaccines may bring us to the light at the end of the tunnel. We humans are very resilient, he said, “but we need patience for Science to solve the pending issues”. Echoing similar sentiments, the 2016 Chemistry Nobel laureate, Jean-Pierre Sauvage (76) hopes that the nasty virus will disappear someday, stating however that “I am afraid it could take time”.
Dr. B.A. Dasannacharya (83), a Mumbai-based accomplished physicist, emphasizes that there has been no other global event akin to the spread of Covid-19 in the recent history of mankind. He said, “S & T will eventually solve the problem but we will live in a new world. Mankind will never return to the old normal. As individuals, we will take time to come to terms with it”.
How to stay fit? What exercise regimen should we follow? Movement is important, especially for those in higher age groups, and more so when they have a heart problem or diabetes, etc. Some people, above 75, who had a habit of going for long walks have restricted themselves recently to walking indoors, to avoid the virus infection outside. During the harsh cold weather, with snowfall this winter in Strasbourg, where Prof. Jean-Pierre Sauvage lives, he could walk in-house only. To cover up, he walked up and down the staircase, frequently. Since mid-February, the weather has improved and he has resumed his walking outside, in the open.
Those living in well-populated areas tend to limit their walking close to their residence. It is fortunate to have access to walking in open countryside. Prof. René-Louis Flukiger (81), retired from University of Geneva, lives outside the city and so can walk every day several km through the fields and the woods without a mask! Joel S. Miller (76), Distinguished Professor, University of Utah, lives in a large house on the western mountain-slope of the Rockies, wherein walking around allows him to accumulate over 10,000 steps a day. Taking advantage of COVID restrictions, he even increased his exercise regimen and was able to shed 5 kg. During cold weather, he uses his exercise bike 35 min/day at 15 mile/h, and a treadmill, too.
Israel has vaccinated nearly all its aged people. Taking advantage of this Prof. Reshef Tenne (77) from Weizmann Institute walks 2 km daily with slow jogging of another 2 km. He also exercises with weights at Gym. Prof. Ishi Talmon (75), from Technion, uses a treadmill at home, and trains regularly with weights, too. He also rides his mountain bike at Carmel hills overlooking his residence in Haifa. Prof. Israel Felner (79), from Hebrew University walks 3-4 km daily on the street, post-vaccination, and goes to the gym.
D.O. Shah (82), Distinguished Professor at University of Florida lives in an ashram in Florida, that houses about 100 elders, all above 75. He walks about 3 kms daily, but within the ashram, wearing a mask.
How should the aged beat isolation? Over 2.5 million deaths have occurred from Covid-19 worldwide, out of which half a million in USA alone. A senior doctor, in-charge of a large hospital, said that ‘being alive is an achievement in itself! Pandemic has been tough for the whole world, with loss of tens of millions of jobs, deprivation, hunger, and bone-crushing isolation from relatives/friends during the lockdowns, even when they lived just 15-20 km away.
Most elderly scientists have been holed up at their residences with just the family members around. They see their children and grandchildren only through the internet by Skype or Zoom. Those who had a good-sized compound took to gardening, growing vegetables and flowers, using fertiliser made from mulch/compost of the garden/kitchen refuse. Others built fish ponds, or just walked their dogs when the lockdown was lifted. Luckily, they all have habits like reading, writing, exchanging emails/phone-calls, which kept them engaged. Of late, many have been giving webinars.
Until normal life returns, people need to keep social distancing. Social media has stepped into the void left by the near disappearance of in-person socialization. If the same pandemic had arrived 25 years ago, the consequences would have been disastrous. Fortunately, modern technologies allow instant communication with friends/relatives, or to watching of online news, at almost no cost. Availability of Zoom, etc. for online lectures has transformed the teaching and learning, at least to a hybrid mode, forever.
A halt on traveling for conferences, even if temporary, did save time which busy scientists used for the much-needed planning of their work. However, Nobel laureates being very busy people, have no time to feel any sense of isolation, even during the pandemic. Apart from guiding research, both Prof. Jean-Marie Lehn and Prof. Jean-Pierre Sauvage routinely got numerous invitations to deliver webinars, address conferences, participate in project reviews or in other events/interviews, all online. ‘I do deliver lectures via Zoom’, says Prof. Jean-Pierre Sauvage ‘but it is not as pleasant as talking to a real audience, being able to see them and talk to them’.
Looking at nature helps to stay refreshed. Living 300 m above the Salt Lake valley, Prof. J.S. Miller and his wife enjoy a good view, and watch wonderful sunsets.
Prof. Reshef Tenne went to the mountains before the last lockdown. He goes to his Weizmann labs daily and conducts meetings on zoom. Except during the lockdowns, Prof. Ishi Talmon, too, has been going to his labs at Technion twice a week to interact with his PhD students, apart from using Zoom for daily contact with them. He also taught a course recently in electron microscopy via Zoom.
Prof. D.O. Shah keeps busy all day with his computer over his poetry, music and science. To stay positive, he sometimes looks at old photo albums to recall good times in the past. Remaining inquisitive helps. He is curious every morning to check his emails if anything new and inspiring awaits him.
Do we need any additional safety precautions to stay healthy? Prof. René-Louis Flukiger believes that one can never take enough care. His daughter became Covid-positive despite all precautions. She has now recovered. Most of the senior scientists, that I communicated with, never go anywhere without masks, and always wear them in a grocery store (the only place they venture out, generally), and during their walks they absolutely avoid crowded places. Some of them did feel some trepidation while moving out of their houses, even with all precautions observed, since one unlucky encounter could undo everything.
Prof. Reshef Tenne observes social distancing and uses a mask in daytime when in public contact, but he walks/jogs early morning without a mask, when roads/sidewalks are empty.
Prof. Joel Miller goes to his lab just once or twice a month. He and his wife live in a sparsely populated region with mountain-slopes; hence they meet hardly any people. They shop by keeping a trunk at their doorstep, in which the delivery man leaves the items bought. Prof. D.O. Shah does not meet anyone in person at his ashram. His social contact is by phone or email only.
Jean-Marie Lehn, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Jules A. Hoffmann, the three Nobel laureates from Strasbourg University received their vaccinations in January. This was also to convince the French people that getting a jab is not dangerous, because there are quite a few anti-vaxxers in France, the land of Louis Pasteur!
Finally, the case of Prof. Fernando Palacio (76) from the CSIC, Spain and University of Zaragoza is unique. Observing all precautions, he has not only stayed safe but also conducted several participatory professional activities, even though his wife works at a medical center in Zaragoza (Spain) which handles Corona-infected patients. He thinks one has to leant to adapt to the new situations, with a win some and lose some attitude. Palacio and his wife live in a large house in a rural setting, with low population density, hence low risk of infection. He hardly meets anyone on the way while walking his two dogs, daily. On Sundays he works in his large 1300 sqm garden.
Palacio could conduct meetings of the Spanish-French cultural society, which he chairs, jointly with French partners using the internet. The local Spanish attendees could attend physically wearing masks and keeping safe distance. He could hold weekly meetings of his local book club, too, observing all safety measures.
Palacio could also conduct once-a-month popular science conferences, during October to June, as per tradition, in Spanish language, for benefiting non-experts and students, because as organizer, he shifted them to the video-conference mode during the pandemic. That provided extra convenience to the invited experts, too, since they could deliver talks without traveling to Zaragoza. Outstation attendees could also participate sitting at their homes, which swelled their number.
An active tennis player, Palacio used to play 10 hours per week. But during strict lockdown in Spain (March-June) going to play at his tennis country club was impossible. The pandemic made him lose his International 132 seeding, for 76-80 age segment, since he couldn’t move out of Zaragoza to play in the international tennis tournaments for seniors organized by the ITF.
Palacio thinks he could do several things stated above because his local conditions helped him to adapt to the pandemic restrictions by incorporating small changes in his lifestyle.