A return to normal

Published August 9, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Dr. Edsel Salvana

A trip to put Covid-19 in perspective


I am writing this column on a train just like the one last week, but this time toward the end of our journey on the way from Seward to Anchorage, Alaska. It is 10 p.m. at night, and daylight is still strong. In this part of the world, the sun doesn’t set until near midnight during the summer months. This seems to make up for very short daylight hours in winter. This is the last leg of a 10-day Alaskan adventure with my family. This is the first time we have traveled together in two years since the pandemic shut everything down. We specifically chose Alaska because even its tourist season is not so crowded and most activities are outdoors. We are still quite wary of Covid-19 even if we are all fully vaccinated. We are all boosted, except for my 10-year-old daughter who does not qualify for a booster yet.

We wore masks on the plane and in crowded indoor areas. We also wore them on public transportation. These, however, were not required outdoors in the US. Given the current low levels of community transmission in Alaska, we opted to take off our masks when we were out in the open. After two years of keeping masks on whenever we went out, this was a novel experience for the entire family.

My kids were quite hesitant since this was the first time they were venturing outdoors without their masks. I had already experienced it during my trip to Canada in April (https://mb.com.ph/2022/04/19/traveling-post-pandemic/) and it was a liberating experience for everyone. On a scientific level, we require masks in the Philippines due to the close quarters that people live in, the limited outdoor spaces, and our low healthcare capacity which can be easily overwhelmed. We are lucky that most Filipinos don’t have strong objections to wearing masks and it is seen as an expression of care for the most vulnerable in our society.

Having spent several years training in the US for my medical education, I know that the American people are fiercely independent and very proud of their freedoms. Even if it meant having one million deaths from Covid-19, they accepted this as the price of their personal choices. I still have mixed feelings about this because we had much fewer fatalities at around 60,000 deaths despite having fewer resources and expertise, precisely because there was not much resistance against vaccines and wearing masks. 

There are still many Americans who wear masks in public transport just like us, but most people do not. While there were prior instances of people who were verbally and physically attacked because they chose to continue wearing masks even after the mandates were lifted, there is now widespread acceptance that people can do what they want and that includes respecting those who choose to wear masks in public. Continuing to mask takes into consideration those who cannot be vaccinated (allergy to the vaccine among other reasons) and those who remain at substantial risk even if fully vaccinated and boosted (elderly, immunocompromised, with comorbid conditions etc.). Masking has gone full circle from enforcing a mask mandate to a sometimes-violent reaction against those who insist on wearing masks despite the end of the mandate to respect for whatever choice each person has with regards to wearing a mask. This is a very American compromise. It has shifted more of the burden of protecting oneself and others from Covid-19 from the government to the individual. The entire trip was filled with these kinds of metaphors and served as food for thought for me as I tried to undo the emotional trauma and exhaustion of the last two years.

Our travels brought us to Denali National Park in the interior of Alaska. Denali, which means “the Great One” in Native American language, is the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet. It is the third tallest mountain in the world. I grew up knowing this mountain as “Mount McKinley,” named after the former US President William McKinley. The native Koyukon Athabaskans had referred to it as Denali for centuries, and the fact that many outside the US still know it as Mount McKinley, despite an official designation as Denali in 1975, shows how politics can mess up the most basic of things.

Denali is an elusive mountain, so tall it generates its own weather. It was pretty much covered in clouds during our entire stay at Denali National Park. Still, the national park itself is quite beautiful, with stunning vistas and mountain ranges. Moose, bears, caribou, bald eagles, and many other animals roam freely. Amid this splendor is an open strip coal mine just outside the park. One of the tour operators mentioned that they recently removed the iconic out-of-the-wild school bus where a 24-year-old man named Christopher McCandless had lived and tragically died after turning his back on civilization and going back to basics. Many people died trying to make the pilgrimage to the bus in homage of McCandless’ choice to leave the hustle and bustle of everyday life and it had become a hazard. 

Alaska itself is a refuge from the world. It is a harsh and merciless land, which can kill you very quickly with subzero temperatures. It is also a wild and free place where you can make your own decisions without anyone judging you. The land is unforgiving, but it is beautiful and liberating. From Denali National Park, we took the train down to Talkeetna where we rode a small airplane to look at the glaciers from the air. Once again, Denali was covered in clouds even up close. We saw, however, spectacular glaciers and mountain lakes. Seen from above, it becomes clear how glaciers form. Snow that accumulates in the bowls of the mountains becomes compacted over hundreds of years into glacial ice. Glacial ice, much denser than normal ice, has a bluish hue. The glacier then descends by gravity and significantly alters the landscape as it scrapes the bare rock and deposits the sediments into the valley below. After the flight, we checked in to our hotel in Talkeetna. It was my birthday and, at 10:15 p.m., we finally saw Mount Denali as the clouds parted. It towered above the other mountains with its majestic peak. 

The next day, we walked to town to meet the mayor. The unusual thing about Talkeetna is that its mayor is a cat, also named Denali. Denali is the successor to Stubbs, the first cat mayor of this town who was in “office” for 20 years until he passed away. Denali allowed us to pat him and pose for pictures, an excellent example of promoting tourism and wellbeing, which would put any politician to shame. Perhaps they are on to something in this town.

Our next stop was Seward, where we took a boat into the bay and saw a pod of humpback whales. Another success story after being hunted nearly to extinction, the whales are thriving in Alaska. They were also affected by one of the largest manmade disasters in history, the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Many animals are still recovering from the downstream impact of that environmental disaster. One whale jumped completely out of the water in a spectacular display, as if to say, “Here I am!” Yet another metaphor of the contradictions in this wild and beautiful state.

The next day, we took a walk to Exit glacier. As we drove to the glacier, we saw different year markers on the road where the edge of the glacier had been. In the 1800s, the edge of the glacier had been a few miles from its current location. It has been getting smaller and smaller. Anyone who still doubts the science of global warming should visit Alaska and its disappearing glaciers. This is an impending disaster for our planet if we continue to exploit our natural world without regard for the consequences.

Our trip to Alaska has renewed my soul and healed my mind. Touching base with nature helped me accept that terrible things like the pandemic happen that are beyond our control. There is still a lot of good we can do to make things better, even if we keep screwing up again and again. There is a spirit that literally moves mountains, bigger than all of us. It endures and affirms that this world, despite its imperfections, is still a wonderful place to live in.