Life in the Time of Pandemic

By Emily Gedney, Janet Gerry, Lee-Ann Liles, Niki Patino, Jasmin Rivas,
Erin Sadler, and Astrid Villagran Alvarez

This mosaic essay was collaboratively written by students in the Bay Path University MFA class Creative Nonfiction Writing II: The Art of the Essay with writer and faculty member Sophfronia Scott in March 2020. It was edited by Sandra Chmiel and Leanna James Blackwell, director of the MFA program.

A video from 2002 is uploaded to a social media site. In it, men and women in Beijing pepper the sidewalks. Striding about, popping in and out of shop fronts. Just going about their business, accomplishing daily tasks, checking items off lists. All is normal and well apart from the white masks obscuring the bottom halves of their faces.

A white van pulls up in a rush. Out jump four men covered in head to toe white hazmat suits. They grab a family, lift them bodily off the ground, carry them back to the van. They are deposited inside despite frantic struggles and attempts at freedom. The door closes, and the van drives off.

No information is given, just the fear laden images suggesting this is what we have ahead of us in 2020 as COVID-19 dominates the news. Viewers are left to assume the worst. The video goes viral with the click of a button.

In 2002, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus was also big news. A mysterious, foreign disease that eventually infected over 8,000 people across 26 countries, killing 770 some odd souls. These numbers did not occupy much of my racing teenage brain’s time or energy. Not any of it. There remains only a vague recollection of adults whispering and parents’ anxiety heightening. Wondering where it would strike next, if one of us would be infected, if it was someone we knew, someone we loved. The evening news narrated our dinners, infecting us with updates.

Now, two decades later, new faces relay the same news as the coronavirus takes off as a viable threat to humanity. It was first described as more infectious, less severe than SARS. We yearn for commonality between the two, to help us guess how it will end. Questions and numbers increase by the day while answers still lag behind.

It arrives here, in America.

“Wash your hands, wash your hands, and do not touch your face.”  The advice of Dr. Jeff Duccin, Health Officer of Public Health in King County, Seattle, Washington, who speaks at one of the first American press conferences about the patient who died at Evergreen Hospital from the coronavirus. He advises the public to stay away from people who are sick and not go to work or school if you’re ill.

We look to the past for resolutions.

This is not the SARS version of a viral outbreak in 2002, nor is it the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome version from 2012. This is coronavirus, COVID-19, in the same viral family but entirely new.

On February 28, 2020, the World Health Organization raises the threat assessment of the coronavirus to its highest level. COVID-19 explodes into the United States with 63 confirmed cases.

With all versions of a virus, the numbers start out small and get bigger.

Wash and wash and wash your hands, avoid hospitals and sick folks. Thank your germaphobia, for it now serves instead of restricts

The stores are out of hand sanitizer.

Maybe alcohol-based germ killers would have smudged out the face of the plague in the 1300s. Spread along trade routes, the Black Death struck a very different human culture than the one we have now. The news did not travel so quickly on the backs of mules. Neither did people, for the trip along the Silk Road was a yearlong adventure. Still, the plague hitchhiked on the fleas of rats trekking through mountains and gravel roads. Slowly, it sidled into Europe, bringing with it an Armageddon and fear of contagion as contagious as the germ itself.

To see the Earth then, you would find us crouched over sewers, inhaling the fumes, hoping to inoculate ourselves from the disease. When this attempt at vaccination failed, we rubbed chopped up snakes and pigeons all over our infected bodies. Streets stacked with corpses. Roads connecting towns packed with refugees as we contemplated the end of existence and attempted to flee, yet we carried the germ and the fear, nonetheless.

Panic and disease gnarl and resurface in new and different forms. Influenza. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). SARS. Malaria. Avian flu. H1N1 (Influenza A virus, the type associated with the 2009 and 1918 flu pandemics). Ebola. That they’ll slowly but surely overtake us is easier to believe in than the power of hand washing or flu shots to heal us.  

We’re conditioned to fear after centuries of infectious disease shaping the human psyche. Outbreak. Epidemic. Pandemic. The words reemerge after dormant decades of complacent comfort in modern medicine. Meanwhile, bacteria evolve resistance to our efforts and outsmart our weapons against them.

Now 2020 has become the year of the fear that we’re pressing some fundamental limit of Earth’s resources. Science and understanding can only expand so far into shrinking lands and ecosystems. Global gridlines are set. We’ve run out of places to run to.

The world’s fears are our own. One person, in habitual despair, thinks that much or most of what happens globally is utterly beyond one’s controlOne alone cannot change. One alone cannot ameliorate the economy, the stock market, global warming, income inequality, or systemic racism. The coronavirus confronts us in just the same way, except in one crucial respect it’s far worse. One cannot only do little to slow it, but one must depend on world leaders who also cannot. 

We look to them for guidance while they pooh-pooh and blame the usual scapegoats Magical thinking is helpless in the face of inexorable movement onward. This virus is no respecter of persons. It is not cowed by angry tweets or threats of being primaried. It is unmotivated to desist by tax cuts and lowered interest rates.

The only way to deal with this threat is to rely on experts with a deep knowledge and understanding of the science and epidemiology of this virus. They are desperately needed to plan how to reduce risks, how and when to quarantine, and how to efficiently direct resources to where they’re needed most.

We read Peggy Noonan’s words in the Wall Street Journal that “in crisis. . .you see the difference between showmanship and leadership.” Indeed, we believe, yet dream our own visions of the virus just fading away. As quick as it came, it exits the scene, and life resumes harmlessly. The fear mongering figureheads are purged and punished by the laws laid forth in their lands.

And then we wake up, sit down to dinner with the family and lament. We want to remember what it was like to eat without the news making us forget to chew our food.

Lester Holt’s nightly broadcast is interrupted by the president’s press briefing on the preparedness of the U.S. to contain the coronavirus. President Trump talks about it as being under control and puts Vice President Mike Pence in charge of managing the hysteria, which does very little to comfort people.

Residents of Indiana, where Mike Pence is the former governor, slam their forks down in disgust.

This must be a joke.

As governor, he refused to begin a needle exchange program in a rural countyAs a result, the state saw the largest outbreak of HIV in decades. A Yale epidemiologist, Gregg Gonsalves, noted Pence’s lack of action to be “a total collapse of public health leadership and a dereliction of duty in Indiana.” Now, he is lauded as an expert, the best person to manage the spread of another deadly virus.

Silverware clanking, angry chewing, intermittent yells of disbelief.

Reporters begin their barrage of questions and ask about the budget for the confinement and treatment of the disease. President Trump slips into business mode. He heralds the surplus amount of money available and jokingly compares the price of containment with the cost of removing the Great Wall.

Bites are too big. Barely chewing, swallowing whole pieces of BBQ chicken. In the beginning of March, Trump references the 15 known cases in the U.S., does some magic math, and assures us that that number will be close to zero in a few days. What a great job we’ve done. Not an hour later, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announces that the 15th case of coronavirus in America is potentially the first to spread by community contact. Not a month later, the U.S. reports over 32,000 cases. Indigestion and the fear of the future give way to insomnia and the need to assert some control.

We look backwards to see what it resembles and how it might endCOVID-19 reminds us of SARS. Both potentially linked to bats, an animal absent from the Chinese zodiac.  Unfortunately, perhaps, there aren’t enough moons in the year for this thirteenth animal’s reputed attributes to enter the cycle of guidance.

The SARS outbreak came on the cusp of a changeover from 2002, the year of the Water Horse, to 2003, the year of the Water Sheep/Goat.

Water Horses run away from difficulty. They never listen to the advice of others because they rely on their own instincts. They’re obsessed with freedom and require much space. Since they’re always on the go, they usually disregard small health concerns that then become more serious. They have almost 360-degree vision but have blind spots directly in front and in back of them.

Water Sheep/Goats look gentle but are tough inside and persevere through difficulty. They often self-medicate, eating specific plants that will cure them.

COVID-19 also emerges right before the Chinese New Year, hinging between the 2019 Earth Pig and 2020 Metal Rat. Pigs carefully regard excess risks, have reasonable attitudes, and strive to be more attentive to others on a collective level instead of seeing life through rose-colored lenses.

Metal Rats predict renewal and a chance to turn unfortunate events into fortunate ones. These types are determined, forceful, and steely with unwavering strength. Rats are extremely social. They’re known for their cunning, strategizing, and desire for success. They signify radical change and upheaval.

Extreme shifts and mayhem. We’ve seen it before. We’ve seen it forever.

Once, in American history, a real man named Hendrick van Dyck Ensigh arrived in the U.S. from Europe and made friends with a bunch of the locals in Massachusetts. He was an indoors-type of guy in many ways and had never really been fishing or hunting or farming or hiking. His new friends taught him everything they knew. He learned and grew to understand much about himself and the people he had encountered.

His positive experience in America was so captivating that he let his friend, John Underhill, know all about it. John lived in the old country, and after hearing about it, he wanted to experience it for himself. He and a group of his friends traveled to the U.S. and made friends with the locals. Then, one night, while everyone was sleeping, John and his friends locked all their new friends in their homes and burned them alive. History calls this the Pound Ridge Massacre of 1644.

Their crime was never reported, and frankly, nobody really cared. Not even Hendrick. John had not only brought so much suffering to the people of Massachusetts, but he had also made everyone sick with the diseases that he brought from Europe that the Massachusetts natives had never been exposed to. Viruses so contagious that the many people who encountered him got sick and died.

Millions of people died due to their exposure to the likes of Hendrick and John and his friends. No wonder then that in the face of a pandemic governments decide to close borders and limit travel. We’ve historically issued warnings and pointed fingers at the countries and people who seemed to have let things get so out of hand that the viruses could not be contained.

The Massachusetts locals, the ones who remained, were afraid. They called the virus colonization, but it goes by many names. It shape-shifts, synergizes, and knows no temporal or spatial boundary.

COVID-19 sails into the island colony of Bermuda aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas. Woes spread on social media about the impact of the virus on the island’s prominent tourism industry. Other destinations turned away the ship. Not Bermuda.

The minister of Tourism and Transport, Zane DeSilva, addresses the speculation and misinformation of the ship’s arrival in Bermuda. He asserts that any lingering doubt or uncertainty around the ship’s safety can be put to rest. He offers to board and journey with the crew and passengers to prove it.

The locals, famously given to passive-aggressive angst, respond with humorous defenses.

Perhaps he’d be quarantined for 24 days afterwards? That ought to improve things, they jest.

Such actions would do little to quell the people’s fears. Instead they incite unkindness. There are 70,000 people at risk, just a spit in the bucket compared to the rest of the world. Tens of thousands of souls living in close-knit communities. Somerset, one of the densest land masses, would see the virus move swiftly through the population. The hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with a quickly spreading pandemic, and no measures have been taken to require that testing kits be available, as they are in venues elsewhere, even at KFCs (Kentucky Fried Chicken) restaurants in South Korea for workers and customers alike.

Once the coronavirus reaches the island, there is little relief to find. An entire population could be imminently infected. The country’s leaders make light of it to keep it light, but it’s dark and heavy. To say so would incite more angst and unkindness, but at least it acknowledges the fear instead of insulting it and pretending it shouldn’t exist.

Even a well-equipped hospital 2,200 miles further north and inland cannot quite incite feelings of safety. Walk into the UMass hospital lobby (UMass Memorial Medical Center), pass the information desk, and see the door to the radiology wing Notice the sign. A picture of an anonymous face in a hospital mask, the bottom half of their face obscured, with some information on it. Don’t make yourself more nervous by reading it. Go up to the desk and check in. Grab a seat and wait. Sit as far away from the other people in the waiting area as possible. Pull out your phone and check the news.

You’re not infected, you just need an ultrasound. It won’t take long. The tech is friendly enough, but you can’t focus on what she’s saying, your bladder is too full. Deep breathing doesn’t comfort you despite years of yogic practice.

Find relief when she finally lets you go to the bathroom. The bathroom looks clean but the germaphobe in you with heightened awareness will want to touch nothing at all. It will stir some anxiety. Remind yourself to relax, you can’t get coronavirus from a toilet. Wash your hands vigorously and head back to the tech.

The breathing is easier now. The cold ultrasound gel doesn’t even bother you. The tech takes a few more pictures and lets you go.

It’s nice to leave. To get out of that place. To not be in a hospital full of sick people. Hopefully you don’t go back for any further testing. You will go back though, a day later perhaps, right back to the lobby. Someone will text you from the emergency room with results of a CT scan. Someone will have appendicitis. Someone will need surgery. You won’t want to be there, but you’ll have to go back. Be sure to lather up the soap on your hands, and do not touch your face. In times like these we avoid the places and helping hands that would otherwise promise to do no harm. Trust, too, has changed as fear evolved. The face of medicine has new features now. Pharmaceuticals. Insurance. Trust was easier before, or so it’s nice to think. In a world less complicated, the one we see in rearview.

A hundred years ago, 1920, the influenza pandemic that started in 1918 was finally beginning to wind down, after two years of widespread, deadly rampage. The origin of the virus is still debated. Some researchers theorize that it started in China, while others suggest the battlefields and camps of World War I, and still others claim Kansas or Boston. China experienced relatively fewer deaths than elsewhere on the theory that the Chinese had already built up immunity.

In any case, we don’t know. An unusual aspect of the outbreak is that rather than being deadliest to the very young and very old, it took its heaviest toll among young adults from 20 to 40 years old. With the war still running its course in 1918, the flu was particularly deadly in the armed forces. These factors were amplified by soldiers living in close quarters, large movements of troops and food supplies, and existing stresses brought on by the war itself. Malnutrition, poor hygiene, and the results of chemical attacks.

To prevent problems of morale in the armed forces, the governments of Germany, England, France, and America initially played down the severity of the flu, while Spain, uninvolved in the war, reported cases more freely. The inaccurate belief that Spain was harder hit by the flu led to calling it the Spanish Flu. Spain was also the only country talking about and reporting on the illness accurately.

A hundred years ago there was neither vaccine nor medicine to protect against acquiring the virus. Attempts to reduce its effects with quarantine, isolation, crowd control, personal hygiene, and disinfectants were haphazard and largely ineffective. We died or developed immunity. We did not expect to be saved. 

A quarter of the world’s population was impacted by two years of pandemic chaos. Five hundred million cases. Between 40 and 100 million deaths.

Two hundred years before that, Marseille faced a great plague that would kill 1,000 people every day. A hundred years later, for almost a decade, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines were witness to a cholera pandemic that took the lives of 100,000 people. Centuries later, repeat. A century later, repeat.

COVID-19 is the 2020’s version. According to the CDC, it has been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization.

It claims the elderly and unwell, seems unconcerned with youth.

Anxiety levels of alarmists and mothers alike skyrocket. Small trips to the store are achievements of herculean proportions. Coronavirus creeps into the U.S., slowly spreading onto our front yards like the rocks from the neighbor’s driveway, plowed up from last winter. The panic provokes us to anger.

We don’t know how to cope. We don’t know how to feel. We don’t want to leave the house. We don’t want to brush up against anyone, everyone is a suspect. We don’t want to know how many degrees we are from the closest person who has traveled to an affected area. We already know too much.

A hundred years ago. Two hundred years ago. So little information, no access to medication, vaccination. How different was the reaction of alarmists and mothers alike, with so few resources to inform or constrain their panic. There’s not enough time or experience to calm a mom who fears her child could die without warning. There’s not enough time or experience yet to inform the alarmist as to how this virus will classify and what numbers it will finally collect.

Time will tell. Some of us wait in millennial confidence that nothing bad will happen to the healthy and mindful. Others empty shelves of local stores in mass hysteric panic. Still others color that same space in denial.

To the relatively healthy American adult who was not a sickly child, giving into the fear and anxiety surrounding the now pandemic coronavirus is difficult.

The tone and delivery of the news is what to pay attention to more so than the topic itself. The COVID-19 cycle started slow, snippets here and there. Quiet and calm journalists compare it to standard influenza in a somewhat favorable way. Less deadly than the standard flu, they say. No reason to be afraid unless you’re very young or very old.

Then some time passes. More countries, new cases, infection rates on the rise, and the tone shifts to a steady, shrill alarm. Days pass, Japan closes down its school system. It still seems so far away. Weeks later, the U.S. follows suit, preemptively striking with large scale social closures.

My father stops me in the hallway, rolls his eyes about my mother. He needs help easing her obvious, yet unspoken worry about mass panic and food shortages with a plan and some non-perishables from Amazon. In stutters comes my reply and confession that I know not where to start.

In that moment, the echo of a familiar ripple comes on like a tidal wave. It’s not just theirs anymore.

My country, my town, my home. No longer an abstract thought belonging to people nations away. Here, the icy blast of a stark cold jolt awakens me from a dream I hadn’t realized I’d been having.

And then it’s so clear.

Why the avoidance of the news, of any news at all. Why the personal cleanse and Lenten abstinence from Trump or CNN, the David Pakman Show, The Young Turks, and Ring of Fire. Why the unsubscribe from all my favorite YouTube channels. Why the desire to let it stay unknown—just another flu coming down the pipeline.

A security guard at my workplace frantically relays gossip about 25 people being screened for the virus in my hometown. Don’t give it a second thought. Just fill my mug with English Breakfast tea at the college bookstore and carry on. The girl at the register tells him not to bring all that hearsay up in here. She reminds him that if she’s going to die, she’s going to die, and no one knows their time. You just go when you go

We nod in agreement. Some things are unavoidable. Never had a flu shot before, not going to start now. Nothing personal or anti-vaccine about it, but some things make you more sick than well.

The story changes if a doctor says that flu shots cure the virus. The story is different than when it began. It will change again by tonight. What seems to never transmute is the fear and the panic that will find ways to plague and torment us for ages to come.

Life goes on.

Families from all over the globe still go to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at the Magic Kingdom to transform their daughters into princesses. A little girl comes who wants to be Elsa for the day. She is assigned a Fairy Godmother in Training who exchanges nervous glances with the other fairies, wondering why she was chosen  to work with this little girl, not wanting to contract the virus that the suspicious looking princess may have innocently vectored.

Travel to and from China is banned. Maybe the little girl is from somewhere else?

The boutique is out of the dresses the girl wants and has neither shoes nor boots in her size. How embarrassing for Disney, but China makes everything they sell.

The girl’s mother is visibly angry. This transcends language barriers. She pays $75 for her daughter to wear her own grasshopper t-shirt and be escorted to Cinderella’s castle in flip flops. 

The princess speaks no English, save for a few phrases. Her Fairy Godmother points to her shirt with a questioning look on her face.

“Grasshopper,” the Fairy Godmother says.

The princess smiles and nods. “Huang chong,” she replies.

Her Fairy Godmother taps the picture of Disney princesses on the mat beneath her pixie-polished fingernails. “Princess,” she says.

 “Gongzhu,” the princess replies.

They have no more to talk about, so her Fairy Godmother sings “Into the Unknown” while she puts the finishing touches on the girl’s makeover and then sprinkles the princess with pixie dust and speaks the magic words for all of the girl’s wishes and dreams to forever and always come true.

The little girl’s mother, the Queen, cries at the happiness created. The memory solidifies in hugs goodbye at the castle doors that will close the next day for the rest of the month, perhaps the rest of the year, while the world tries to slow the viral spread.

The Fairy Godmother goes home, puts her own kids to bed, and teaches a few online English classes to kids in China. Her second job. There’s a surplus of classes to accommodate the home learning spike.

Stay positive, the company guides its growing number of teachers. Encourage optimism.

Parents are at home in the background screen, some in masks with the bottom half of their face obscured, as the teacher clicks through the lesson like normal. The kids on the screen laugh at her terrible accent when she practices her newly learned Chinese words.

Copyright ©2020. All rights reserved. No part of this essay may be copied, distributed, or otherwise used without written permission.