Medical Examiner

What the Virus Did to Me

And what it might now do to you, even if you don’t get sick.

Andrew Cuomo gestures at a screen that says "the virus will SPREAD."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference on Wednesday. Byron Smith/Getty Images

Back in March and April, when family would ask me what being at the epicenter of the pandemic (New York City) was like, I said it was the same as everywhere else, “very boring.” After all, even though I was in lockdown, so was pretty much everyone else. I was thankfully healthy. I didn’t want to admit to anyone or to myself that I couldn’t handle the relatively easy role I had been handed during the pandemic of “woman sitting at computer.”

What I am starting to realize now is that life felt like being stuck in a little box of trauma for those weeks. I would sit in my 10-foot-by-10-foot bedroom, listening to sirens. I wondered when I would break into the stash of cold medicine I’d gone to five pharmacies to find and then paid too much for. I wondered, if someone in our four-roommate apartment had urgent trouble breathing—the point at which we would have a chance of getting in-person medical help—would the rest of us be able to carry them to the hospital? Were we close enough?

At the time, I was really just focused on getting through it, whatever “it” was. I followed the advice to take things one day at a time; I bought a coloring book. I tried to focus on what I could control, which was … not much. Only now I am starting to recognize the effects of living this way. For me, it is that I am still nervous all the time, tired much of the time, and angry whenever I can muster it. Also, I found New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s widely mocked press conference stunt involving a foam mountain (it represented the peak and then drop of cases in the state) viscerally comforting. For me it was a clumsy physical manifestation of the fantasy that we have done the work, that we are safe. I wanted that stupid foam thing to be real.

Reality is, of course, that the national coronavirus crisis is getting worse. Rather than making collective progress on dealing with the virus, the contours of our inability to do so are being laid, somehow, barer. Thirty-nine states are seeing increases in cases, with deaths at an incomprehensible 127,762 people as of this writing. The virus is spreading at private gatherings at homes, college-town bars, graduation festivities, Army survival training class, a backyard soiree. Travel, continued reopenings, and merriment could coalesce to bring yet more cases over the upcoming holiday weekend, experts warn. And we are in an easier season of the pandemic, when we have the option to somewhat safely dine at spaced tables in the open air and sun. There are comparatively fewer major holidays to be compelled to gather for right now, and for the next two months, no schools trying out reopening. We should all brace for a virus that is super-juiced by the conditions of fall and winter.

As cases of the virus spread elsewhere, as new places become epicenters, and as we all watch hospital capacities, I tried to think of what I might tell someone in a state where things are getting bad, but are not yet as bad as they were in New York. Aside from a recommendation of what masks to buy (these), I don’t have anything. For the love of God, don’t go out? Everyone knows that. We’ve all been exhausted by this virus for a long time, no matter our exact proximity to cases. Everyone wants to get off this ride, which is why many of us are loosening up on our social distancing measures and resuming parts of our lives. This is, of course, a big part of why the coronavirus is continuing to spread, and why we will not be able to get out of this anytime soon.

The idea that the continued spread is the result of beleaguered people selfishly going out for a drink is wrong, too. America’s failure is not merely about regular people making poor choices. It is not for lack of actual solutions that we are still here; it is for lack of will and organized governmental effort to actually carry those solutions out. A Nobel Prize–winning economist has suggested that if we scale up testing enough—everybody gets a nasal swab every two weeks, with health care and other front-line workers getting tests more frequently—we could return to almost normal. Instead, we’re in danger of plummeting back into a testing shortage. We could figure out how to extend government relief so that businesses that feel pressure to reopen could instead stay shut, and keep relief aid for the unemployed going, which would essentially provide systematic support for continued social distancing. We could have a president who sets an example by wearing a mask, as basically every other Republican has come around to suggesting.

Instead, we are here. Which, for me, is the same 10-by-10 room, only now I’m watching as other Americans start to understand what it is like to be so horrifically close to a disease that we could control, but are choosing not to control. Maybe we’ll all get angrier soon; maybe then we’ll finally do more about it.

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