Brett Dean: Coronavirus is like living in a Kafka novelmain
The sick composer, diagnosed with Corona virus on March 5 has posted a gloomy reflection from his isolation unit in Adelaide:
Firstly, to my dear friends and colleagues of the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Shao-Chia Lu, friends of the Orchestra and the people of Taiwan, I am devastated to learn that the consequences of my COVID-19 diagnosis on March 5 in Australia has led to the cancellation of concerts in Taipei and the quarantining of so many people. Please know how deeply saddened I am that this has happened. Many of you, plus family, friends and colleagues have sent me messages of support and I‘m sorry I can‘t reply individually to you all but wanted to say I am very grateful for the kindness and generosity of spirit you have shown me.
I’d also like to send a general update on how things are. This message comes to you all from an isolation unit at Royal Adelaide Hospital. I’ve been here for 3 days now and wanted to share some thoughts on the experience and how I ended up here. While the life of a composer often necessitates isolation, there’s a world of difference between something self-imposed and a situation imposed upon you, even if it is for one‘s own wellbeing and that of others.
I’m obviously not in the best of health, but at the same time I’m not in any real discomfort and I’m able to speak with friends and family and move around my room. I know that it could be worse, much worse, and for that I’m truly grateful. Indeed, in many ways I feel fortunate that I was diagnosed early and sent to this isolation unit where I’m receiving the best care imaginable. While here however, it’s impossible not to think of others who are suffering or have suffered from this virus and who haven‘t received this level of attention. One‘s thoughts also turn inevitably to those who have died, and to their loved ones, left behind uncertain about their own prognosis.
It is an understatement to say this is an enormous challenge for me, both physically and mentally. A number of correspondents have asked whether I can use the time to compose, however it hasn’t felt like a time of creativity in any way whatsoever. Like the rest of humanity at the moment, I see this as a period we must all get through, learn from and then put behind us. I have also been made acutely aware of how precious life is and especially time with loved ones.
By sharing my experiences, I hope it can show people that despite the best precautions and intentions, this is a virus that can affect us all. As a musician who is constantly travelling, I’ve long been conscious of the risks to my health, especially from frequent flying. When the coronavirus first emerged I was mindful of the need to be vigilant at all times and to self-monitor my general well-being. Like countless others, I too have had an intermittent cough throughout the winter months. No more than an occasional irritation, I was able to self medicate and carry on as normal.
As my flight approached Taipei Airport however, in the interests of full disclosure and personal honesty, I dutifully ticked the box on their health questionnaire to say that I had had a cough. On disembarking I was therefore taken to a screened-off area where my temperature was taken as part of an official vetting process. All was fine and I made my way to my hotel where, like every other guest, I again had my temperature checked before I could enter the building. This was repeated several times a day, every time I returned to the hotel or even entered the breakfast room. Each time my temperature was fine, no warning signs were apparent and I believed I was symptom free.
This daily reassurance helped me to focus on my rehearsals and, though I had to stifle the occasional cough, I was otherwise feeling fine and excited to be working with the marvellous National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan. When it was suggested to me after two days of rehearsals that I should see a doctor because of the coughing, I readily agreed and was taken to see one that day by the kind artist liaison officer from the orchestra. The doctor examined me and acknowledged that I had a mild bronchial infection and prescribed some medication to help combat that. He reassured me that I didn’t need to be tested for the coronavirus. Therefore I was not referred any further within the Taiwanese health system. Being acutely aware of how prevalent and unpredictable this virus is, I wore a face mask when in confined spaces like taxis and in the public spaces of the hotel.
When I flew on to Adelaide via Brisbane for a project with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, I felt that my health was deteriorating. Though I still had no fever, I decided to seek further medical advice upon arrival in Adelaide. I was seen by a number of health care professionals and had various tests done. My condition was deemed to be “low risk“, however I asked to have a virus swab test done for reassurance. Some 24 hours later, I got the call that everyone dreads. The test for COVID-19 was positive. I immediately informed the Communicable Diseases Unit of South Australia Health about all contacts that I had had within the previous 14 days and remained in my hotel room until an ambulance came and took me to where I currently reside.
It’s a strange sensation to have professionals in hazmat-suits enter my room and escort me out of the building and into complete isolation. It was like being in a Kafka novel. I’m a musician and we live to communicate and this lack of human contact or day to day interaction is the thing I’m finding hardest to deal with. But, as I’ve said, I feel fortunate and I’m conscious that many, many others haven’t been so fortunate. Whilst the only contact I have is with hospital staff, they bring with them wonderful warmth and good humour and are providing excellent care, for which I am extremely grateful. I also wish to thank all the kind and generous colleagues who assisted me at the NSO Taiwan, the Adelaide Festival and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. It is my greatest wish that you all remain healthy, and I hope too to regain my complete health soon.
Dean has been designated Composer in Residence next season with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
See also: 103 quarantined in Taiwan