It was February 11, 2020. I was going to be late to swim practice, but it didn’t matter; I’d found a great flight for our trip in May, and we needed to book it. It was a little pricey, sure, but we would be able to fly out of Phoenix and into the city where our trip began, then out of another city 500 miles away two weeks later. My Chase Sapphire bore the full brunt of the purchase for our two tickets, and we reveled in the fact that we were actually going.
We were thrilled. The news had stories about this virus that was popping up around the world, but so far things seemed doable. We talked excitedly about exploring, stuffing our faces with delicious food, and enjoying beautiful scenery.
Of course, our trip was going to be affected from the get go. We would be flying into Rome, which was seeing less tourism, but it wasn’t nearly as affected as the northern part of Italy. Our trip would take us through Florence and Tuscany and Bologna and Venice, but we’d be careful. So far, everything seemed fine.
I assured those who were worried about our trip that we were paying attention. At the time, Italy was screening arrivals for the virus, and it only seemed to be affecting elderly people in the Lombardy region.
But I watched the news. Of the dozen people who were going on this trip, two were already in Italy, and one shared a picture of a vacant Rome. The news wasn’t getting less intense; on the contrary, Italy looked like it was hurtling toward a scary outcome.
The month progressed. I saw Instagram stories and Facebook posts about Australians stockpiling toilet paper. I rolled my eyes. Surely we wouldn’t get to that point.
(Spoiler alert for my international friends: We absolutely got to that point, in a spectacular fashion.)
It was around March 5 that my anxiety about the pandemic spiked. I’d watched the news about Italy in order to figure out if we’d need to adjust our travel plans, and the more I saw, the more I realized that things were going to get bad here in the States, too. Not only were people getting really sick and dying, but society was panicking. I was getting more worried about how people were reacting than actually getting sick.
I worried about my family taking it seriously. And, yes, I did worry about any of us catching the virus.
A few days later, I learned that members of my extended family had gotten Covid-19. One was in the ICU and wasn’t expected to last the week. She died the day after I found out.
The virus went from some far-away potential danger to something that had infiltrated my family tree. Our federal government, of which the president is the figurehead, reacted slowly. State governments, led by governors, took charge and started issuing stay-at-home orders. Not all states, though. There were fights between mayors (heads of cities) and governors about the legality of SAH orders. The United States was suddenly more like a haphazard collection of states, although it could be argued the pandemic just brought this into the spotlight instead of causing it.
There was a joke on Facebook that some states issuing SAH orders and closing borders, while others stayed open, was like having a peeing section in a swimming pool. That’s true to a degree, except it forgets that those who are touched by the pee start to pee themselves, too. And, oh yes. People were dying in droves.
New York has been affected in a way no other state has. As of right now — Wednesday, May 6, at 8:20pm Mountain Time — 19,415 people in New York have died from Covid-19. That number is meaningless to a lot of people. “It’s a small percentage!”
My hope is that someday, when I die, I won’t be thought of as just a percentage. As just a number. As insignificant or meaningless. Is a person’s death ever meaningless?
Seattle and Los Angeles, too, on the opposite coast, have been impacted by the virus, but not quite as severely as New York. And because empathy isn’t an intrinsic quality, some people don’t understand why they should care. “It’s not happening to me, so it’s not a big deal.” I think this is especially true in states where the virus hasn’t taken a massive toll. In places like Florida, where we expected it to be really bad because of all the beachgoers, elderly (a lot of people retire there), and people who flouted recommendations to practice social distancing and wear masks.
Frustratingly, we don’t understand how the virus picks and chooses. We don’t know why some people are asymptomatic while others die. We won’t know for a while, regardless of what that one guy on Facebook said.
Rumors about the virus have flown since the beginning. It’s a conspiracy. It’s biological warfare from China and Russia. We have lots of tests. We have no tests. The tests don’t work. People suddenly became experts when it came to personal hygiene, virology, epidemiology, running the government, and bending statistics to match their opinions. The armchair expertise is deafening and, to be honest, it makes me shut down. It’s one thing to be frustrated with people because they just lack the education to understand reality. It’s another to deal with people who believe themselves experts because they read that one thing one time.
Or are those two groups actually not a Venn diagram, but a flat circle?
While it’s easy to focus on the Covid-19 Spectrum of Frustration, from those who don’t care to the people who bought all the toilet paper, the vast majority of people are kind and good spirited, I think. There are moments of goodwill everywhere. This pandemic has been a lovely reminder that there are a lot of good humans out there. Strangers helping each other. People wearing masks to protect others around them. Notes left on mailboxes offering help to immunocompromised and elderly neighbors. A lot of people reducing their activities and doing their best to keep the spread of the virus down. The news is full of the protests and people spitting fire at each other, but I think the majority of us just want to help each other survive. We just don’t make the news as often.
It’s a scary time because here, just like in China, Italy, Spain, and other countries, our economy has been butchered. In February 2020, our unemployment rate was 3.5%. Today, it may sit at 16% or higher. Friends have been furloughed or laid off or had their salaries slashed. A lot of people are really worried about their finances.
It’s a confusing time, too, because we can still go to the grocery store or Target or Walmart or a home improvement store or the drive thru at a fast food place just like we used to. We can order food to go from coffeeshops and restaurants and bars. We’re supposed to practice social distancing, but that doesn’t seem to be a priority for about a third of the people I encounter in the store. And it’s weird how normal Target feels when it should actually feel like a mission against time.
A lot of Americans very quickly expressed their dismay at wearing face masks, and I’d guess that half wear them while the other half go without. After living in Taiwan for two years, my experience with masks is that they’re a sign of respect. You wear them to help protect others from what you have or may have. It’s not something to be feared, but something to show you care.
But some people don’t like to be forced into anything, regardless of the context. And some people act like they’ve been disrespected when they’re asked to help take care of others.
“Survival of the fittest — don’t take away my freedom!”
“The only people dying are old — they already lived a full life.”
“I’m healthy. I don’t have the virus. I don’t need to do anything different.”
And, because it’s America, gun sales spiked.
A number of churches and religious groups have fought to continue services in person. To be clear, it seems like a lot of American Christians are taking this seriously, and while we’re a motley bunch, most Christians I know are very good people. But while even the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built over the site where Jesus supposedly died and was entombed, closed, here in the US, some churches in California sued the governor over the SAH order. A pastor in Virginia who defied social distancing guidelines said, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus,” before he and his family caught it. He died. “I’m covered by the blood of Jesus,” claimed a churchgoer in Ohio.
I, too, believe God is larger than a virus. I also believe I’m covered by the blood of Jesus. I do not believe either of those give me permission to act irresponsibly. I also believe God is larger than gravity, but I’m not going to jump off the Eiffel Tower to arbitrarily prove it. That’s not how faith — my faith, at least — works.
When I was in Jerusalem, I met a man who claimed to be a prophet. Others at the church seemed to believe it, too. But I haven’t told that story here because I kept putting it off, and then the pandemic hit, and then how do you journal about a trip that was six months ago while in the midst of a life-changing time? My aunt’s mother died, but let me talk about the hummus I had for lunch one day six months ago.
I still have a lot to sort through from my trip. I have notes and Google Docs and journal entries, but I’ve shared only some on this blog. Now, though, the timing seems impolite.
I will share that my faith is at war, to a degree, with religion. Many Christians gush about their trips to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The majority of non-Christians I know came away from the Holy Land heartbroken. There’s some kind of disconnect in Jerusalem, just as there seems to be a disconnect here with the pandemic, both among the religious and the not.
I think part of it comes from misplaced fear. From a lack of true understanding. From an unwillingness to venture into the difficult questions. That could be said both of the situation in Jerusalem and of the reaction to the coronavirus.
I have to take breaks from people sometimes because I so desperately want to believe in the power of society to do good. Taking that point of view into “conversations” online or offline is the equivalent of taking priceless crystal and dashing it against the Cliffs of Insanity with the expectation that it’ll be fine.
My hope is fragile. It took a heavy beating in Jerusalem. It’s taking a beating now, too, though I’m more in control of it. My anxiety has abated, however, even as I wait for the current unknowns to resolve.
There are a lot of unknowns, still.
Thankfully, our flights to Italy were automatically turned into vouchers that can be used through 2022. So that expensive, selfish unknown is resolved. I don’t know when we’ll be able to use them, because who knows how much longer this part of the pandemic will last. Or what the second wave will look like. Or if there will be a second wave. Or if there will be a dozen waves. Or if there’s another virus on the heels of coronavirus.
There are three things I can currently say for certain. One, I will travel again. I will only travel again when it’s safe, but I will continue to explore. Because, two, people are more important than anything else.
And three: I refuse to let go of hope, even if it’s naive.