The Pandemic Chronicles from Santiago de Chile, or My Dentist, There and Back Again


My dentist will be the first person from the outside to whom I will approach in 65 days. I was lucky to pass the last checkup of my braces a few days before isolating myself, but even so for such a delicate matter as moving my teeth millimeter by millimeter, a ten-week break is too much.

I walk to the elevator across the cold empty lobby of the commercial building, located in a prestigious Santiago commune widely known as Sanhattan. A lone guard talks on the phone with his mask on. He doesn’t even turn in my direction. I press the button and then the 9 with my elbow, amazing myself with how easy it has been to me already to adapt to this new reality. The buttons are big, the mask doesn’t bother me, the breath inside warms me up and I don’t feel like taking it off. Just hoping not to bump into anyone when I go out.

It doesn’t happen. In a small hallway between three elevators and two glass doors at both ends, there is only a small table with two types of sanitizer, a tall roller banner with security requirements, a small mat, and a container with a microfiber cloth inside. Trying to determine the sequence of my actions, I take a couple of photos and disinfect my hands with sanitizer. What’s next?

Balancing between stupor and curiosity, I didn’t notice how a man in white had appeared behind the glass. Boris opens the door, but I recognize him only by voice. He laughs and says that this cocoon of his is not everything yet.

A dentist in his personal protective equipment greets at the entrance to a clinic during the quarantine

Following his instructions, I step on the mat, then on the microfiber in the container. Putting on shoe covers one by one still standing there, I notice the fruits of the quarantine yoga marathon, such as strengthened ankles and improved balance, that allows me to do it with a formerly unattainable elegance. Already with my mask on, I tuck my hair under a handed medical cap, then I put on the transparent cycling lenses that I brought with me, and with this look, I enter the clinic.

The lobby always somewhat packed now is predictably deserted. There is no one behind the front desk either. I only see some new notices — ‘keep your social distance,’ ‘don’t take off your mask,’ ‘please don’t sit here.’ Boris walks down the hall and comes back with a paper cup with a strong greenish liquid, which I must use, for the first time ever, to rinse my mouth before starting.

When I enter the office, it is already impossible for me to recognize my orthodontist up close — he is wearing a disposable overall, gloves, a face protector, glasses, and a mask well taped to the nose. Boris takes out and opens a bulky package of sterilized instruments, driving my attention to the strong commitment to doctor and patient safety. Then he asks me to sit on the couch and put my hands ‘like Dracula,’ to avoid touching anything around. This explanation sounds funny to me, and he laughs saying that it is the best one that has occurred to him. Unfortunately, we are having a good time just the two of us, because Javiera, Boris’ permanent assistant, is no longer working in the clinic.

A dentist in full personal protective equipment puts on a pair of gloves before examine a patient during the quarantine

The treatment lasts only half an hour and passes almost routinely. Boris is happy that the movement of my teeth has not been going out of control, and also because my upper and lower jaws collide less and less. I am fascinated by his fast, skillful, and delicate work, even with the smallest tools despite working alone with his constantly fogging safety glasses. You have to have angelic patience to be able to tie a wire thick as a hair between the braces and then braid it in waves, pushing several teeth together.

Boris says the first days it was hard for him to work like this, but he got used to it. The most challenging part now has to do with his hands’ skin, because endless soap, sanitizer, and gloves cause him a strong irritation that he tries to ignore. Looking for words of support, I reply that now all the doctors became ‘the first line’ instead of those who threw stones at the police in the fervor of the social outbreak just half a year ago. My neighbors think the same, or they would not have renamed their wifi to ‘Doctors are heroes.’ We smile at each other in an invisible but perceptible way.

An energetic melody in the hallway struggles against the resonant silence like the light fights against the shadow. I ask if we are alone in the clinic, but no, in the most distant office, another doctor assists another patient. Nobody else. Four people on the half of a floor.

— Which elastics?

— Black ones, as always.

— Sorry, I forgot.

It’s okay, Boris, we didn’t see each other for a long time indeed. Precisely for two months that turned almost everything in this world upside down.

Four photos from a clinic during the quarantine: a puff with a sign no sitting, dental tools, shoe cleaning, a dentist walks away through a hall

There are changes in everything. The next appointment will not be in two weeks as before, but in a month, because Boris ends the week and self-quarantines for 14 days. Everyone in the clinic works in shifts, half a month in, half a month out. They schedule not two but one patient per hour. Even payments are made not at the reception desk, but from home by bank transfer. No cash, nor plastic cards, nor ‘perro muerto’ (a dead dog), as for some reason, in Chile they call the act of leaving without paying. The new reality teaches us all to trust more.

At the exit, Boris opens the door for me again and we say goodbye ‘elbow to elbow.’ I’ve been in Chile long enough to almost physically not be able to leave without a hug or a cheek kiss. At least like this, with our elbows. We ask each other to take care of ourselves and he quickly walks away through the hall. He still has to disinfect the entire office for the next patient who will also pretend to be Dracula.

I call the elevator once again using the elbow method, travel to the first floor, walk through the same void echoing lobby. The announcements of the pharmacy on the corner reflect the world agenda like never before — ‘KN95 masks arrived,’ ‘sanitizer arrived,’ ‘entrance only three (3) people maximum.’ On the other side of the entrance and as if it were from another reality, a poster advertises other masks, ones that ‘regenerate, hydrate, illuminate’ with ‘flash effect.’ The two pharmacists inside the store are notoriously bored.

Rare cars pass by the avenue, usually one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan in the Chilean capital. Mauricio awaits me in his deep blue Mazda, yet quite dusty from the quarantine. Further on I see a contingent novelty: a sanitary tunnel. According to the idea, anyone could go through them to disinfect themselves in the jets of the chemical spray, and although the project was considered as failed, the tunnels have not yet been dismantled.

Along the way, we talked about how an ordinary trip as this now feels like a special operation. After a long flirting with the ‘dynamic’ quarantine, Santiago almost entirely went into lockdown. This means that to leave my flat, I had to ask for a safe passage on the police website, but previously obtain an appointment from the clinic, but previously fill out a questionnaire about my physical condition, latest contacts, and understanding of the risks in the situation of the epidemic. It helps that the permission for the medical appointment is valid for 12 hours and allows you to bring a companion. Otherwise, I would have to pedal through the city, just to avoid taking the subway.

In the northern hemisphere, May is the time of spring, instead, we travel through Santiago in the freshness of late autumn, with the gouache-like warm-colored leaves, in an enveloping mist. It has faded a bit in the morning, but it still puts a perfect filter of pandemic melancholy to this Brave New World.

An empty avenue in the business district of Santiago during the quarantine

The rhythm of the city feels accordingly. It does not seem like a Tuesday afternoon, but a Sunday morning. Anyway, if it were just a typical Sunday, why is everyone wearing masks? Disposable or made of fabric, white or colored. The trends of the season are still undefined. Although people probably won’t care — in a very unusual manner for Chileans, many intentionally avoid any eye contact, as if they were ashamed of participating in this masquerade or had fear of getting infected through someone’s gaze.

Our city became the dog lovers’ domain. If someone had organized a street census now, I bet that five out of ten people would walk with their dogs, two would travel by car, one by bike, one would walk busy, one would hang around. Some of them would smoke with their masks rolled down. A few rebels would ignore the posters about its mandatory use. They would be opposed by those who walk down the street in both face mask and face shield. There would be no children.

Photographers would also have work to do. They would capture a stylish young woman dressed entirely in white (including her enormous cashmere coat) with an expensive professional mask (also bright white, of course) who, with the pace of the heroine of ‘Sex and the City,’ walks her Golden Retriever wearing four little red boots. Or a plumpy elderly man who sells newspapers, covering himself with a simple gauze on the middle lane of an almost deserted avenue. Or a man in his 40s, with a backpack and a cloth mask that crosses himself three times while walking in a hurry. Some Catholics do it when they see a church, but the man’s eyes are empty, his body is tense and there are no churches around.

The street lives in three dimensions at the same time. From the past, there are posters of the films that were released but never achieved box office success. From the future, the real estate projects under construction that grew several floors despite the quarantine. From the present, the empty buses that communicate ‘#alwaysusemask’ and ‘#socialdistancingforeveryone’ on their electronic signs, instead of a route number and a wish for a good trip.

An empty sidewalk in the business district of Santiago during the quarantine

We take the opportunity to pass by the house of Mauricio’s parents. The four of us stand at a distance, we next to the car, and they near the fence. They bring us some boxes of the carefully packed family ‘humanitarian aid.’ We talk just a little bit because this address is not in our safe passage paper, and the fish is thawing. How your hair grew. We are fine, painting the dining room. Almost all leaves have already fallen. They say it will rain tomorrow. Hurry up, we’ll see each other in a month, after the next appointment at the clinic.

I take the last look from afar at the tallest skyscraper in Latin America. At home a building in front of us blocks its view, so seeing it again after two months feels like meeting an old acquaintance by chance. Although considering the dense winter fog in our valley, we probably wouldn’t see it very often, even if we had a direct view.

Very near the house, we pass next to a queue to a bank, too tight and numerous. Mauricio complains that many watch the news, but do not realize that the scenario of Italy or Spain may end up being ours. They don’t take care of themselves, so they don’t take care of anyone. While the second wave, as with the Spanish flu, can turn much more serious.

We go up to the apartment. We close the door and shut ourselves up well. We hang the clothes in the lodge for a couple of days, we sort the goods, take off our masks, and wash our hands. The pedometer at my phone screen, for the first time in 65 days, shows 1006 steps. What an adventure! Let’s repeat it in a month. The countdown has just begun.

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