Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 4

When I was about 13 years old, I had an odd and scary dream.

I was walking through the halls of my junior high school sometime during the late winter months. The sun was shining outside, but it was still cold, with snow on the ground that had begun to melt, making the ground muddy, but still hard from being frozen. In my mind, I had the sense that the world outside the schoolhouse was radioactive; one could go out there for a few moments, but after that the radioactivity would being to corrode the body and kill a person within minutes. Still, I decided to take a shortcut from one hallway to another by going outside. I walked out one of the doors, crossed the muddy, sludgy ground, found the next door and... discovered that it was locked. Then, reality set in and I realized that I didn’t have time to get back to the other door. I awoke from my dream knowing that I was going to die from the radiation.

This was a vivid dream that always stuck with me, presumably only because the dream itself was so vivid. I remembered this dream yesterday when I went to Costco yesterday to do some grocery shopping.

They had us all lined up outside, and were only letting us in the store a few at a time. I did my best to keep six feet of distance between myself and the person in line in front of me, but the person behind me kept scooting up closer and closer to me — even despite my dirty looks and obvious discomfort. Waiting in lines like those is essentially a ticking time bomb. As in my dream, too much time spent in that kind of crowd may eventually kill me. It’s an awful feeling.

My trip to Costco only got more surreal when I made it inside. I had shown up early to try to “beat the crowds,” but unbeknownst to me, Costco had decided to open early. The only people who walked out of the store with toilet paper were those who had shown up in time for the early opening. Still, I was able to get most of the things I wanted. The clerks in the store ushered us toward a specific path; we all had to shop in the same direction. That, too, felt odd and restrictive.

Seeing all my fellow shoppers inside, it started to become obvious to me which people were going to definitely get this disease, and which perhaps had a shot at avoiding it. I’d say about half of us did a good job of keeping our distance from each other, politely letting people go ahead, and giving folks a wide berth as they shopped. Others had brought the whole family to the store — both parents and multiple children, with everyone crowding around the shopping cart. They’d talk loudly, spend a lot of time standing in one place, sort of “occupying” a location of the store, discussing and debating items on the shopping list. They looked exactly as they might have looked on a “normal” day. The cashiers were all wearing protective gloves, but I noticed that one of them was scratching her nose with her gloved hand.

I’m not faulting or criticizing these people. I’m not suggesting that they’re not taking the situation seriously. Rather, it seems that some people’s habits are too hard to break, even in light of the severity of the circumstances. And these habits may well prove deadly for them.

It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions these past few days. At times, I feel crushing fear for a pandemic that seems utterly inevitable. I expect it to kill some of my dear loved ones. I am terrified that it could kill me, and then what would my poor daughter do without me? I am committed to remaining disease-free for the sake of my family; and yet, at the same time, I am rational and I know what the evidence says. The evidence says that the majority of us will get COVID-19. The evidence says that people with pre-existing conditions like diabetes have a much higher death rate; and that even those who don’t die must often spend weeks in the hospital with tubes stuck down their throats and breathing with the aid of a respirator. Images of the polio patients in iron lungs haunt me before I go to sleep.

But, at other times, I’m impressed by the beauty of Spring. The leaves are coming out on the trees, and Texas is becoming warm and green again. There are birds everywhere. People, ostensibly practicing “social distancing,” have decided to spend more time outside with their families, in local parks, being active. The pace of life is quite a bit slower, which is nice. I am treasuring my time with my daughter. We have been bonding a lot lately. She spends her evenings cuddled up close to me, I with my arm around her, holding her tightly. Then there is the medical news — stories of potential antiviral treatments, and vaccine tests, and technological solutions to various medical shortages. These give me hope.

Of course, all hope borrows against time. It all ultimately comes down to whether the vaccines and treatments will be ready and available if and when this virus strikes me. Can I hold out that long? Can I continue to live like this? Will I lose my job? In the worst-case scenario, what must I tell my family before I succumb?

The emotional toll of life in a pandemic is much higher than I realized. The fear is real. You can see it on people. I hope most of us can pull through this.

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