When Everything is Crumbling

At the end of the day, I hope that this situation makes us all more empathetic and more understanding. I hope it shows us how things that we take for granted can change in what feels like an instant. I hope that it pushes us to take care of ourselves and our health.


It feels like the world is crumbling.


In the last seven days, the novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) has forced wide-scale social change around the globe. Thousands of people are sick. Others are dying. Hospitals are operating at super capacity. Schools are closing. Businesses are switching to remote work models. Flights are empty. Churches have stopped their services. Sports competitions have been canceled or postponed. The stock market has been in a nosedive. Every day, a new piece is added to the puzzle. If global coverage of COVID-19 started as a leaking faucet, now it feels like a waterfall, crashing down on me with the full weight of its global impact.


Two weeks ago, I left the U.S. to spend spring break in Australia. For most people, the Land Down Under would be a bit far to travel for a typical spring break vacation, but, back in November 2019, I snagged one of the Qantas birthday fares that would allow me to travel to Australia (and back!) for less than $200. And, just like that, Australia became a spring break destination. At the time, I hadn’t heard anything about the new coronavirus. Instead, I knew that Australia was battling one of the worst bush fires on record, and I was more concerned with how I could volunteer for some humanitarian effort during my stay.


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My tweet celebrating the amazing fare!


In the last month or so, I started hearing more about the coronavirus, about cases in Iran and Italy, South Korea, and, eventually, the United States. It never occurred to me that the coronavirus outbreak would (or should) interfere with my travel plans. So I purchased the generic Target brand of Airborne, packed some hand sanitizer, and prepared to frequently wash my hands and to avoid touching my face.


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Generic Target brand of Airborne


On the flight from San Francisco to Brisbane, there were many open seats. In fact, I was the only person sitting in my row, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune! It didn’t occur to me then that some of my fellow passengers might have altered their travel plans due to coronavirus concerns.


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Tweet about my empty flight row


Brisbane was fantastic! I held a koala (and a black headed python!). I successfully vanquished a giant Aussie spider. I ate great food. I met great people. I generously sanitized my hands, and I learned to tell people that we weren’t “supposed” to shake hands because of the coronavirus.


After a week in Australia, I headed into the second leg of my trip—a week in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu.


When our flight arrived at the airport in Port Vila, all the passengers had to pass through a screening tent where airport officials were taking each passenger’s temperature and asking a series of screening questions. All the airport employees wore masks and gloves, and it was the first time that I had experienced heightened screening because of the epidemic. It seemed like the officials were screening all passengers, mostly Aussies, from the flight. I felt my forehead, nervous about whether the oppressive island heat would lead to a false-positive on the temperature reading. When my time came, though, the officials didn’t take my temperature. Instead, they asked me when I had departed from the U.S. and asked to see a copy of my Australian visa.


That was Monday. On Tuesday morning, I received an email from the organizers of an academic conference that I attend in Lisbon every April. The university sponsoring the conference had announced that all conferences would have to be suspended until May or June. They were still planning to hold the conference in a virtual format, and more details on the new format would come later. I sat with that information for a while. I had built a whole itinerary around that conference. I had purchased my ticket to Portugal back in November, and I had already added side trips to Spain, Croatia, and Amsterdam. I wondered what would happen to those tickets if I didn’t go. I wondered if I should go anyway and just deliver my “virtual” presentation while actually in Portugal. I told myself that I would worry about the logistics when I got home, when I could sit down with the project manager for my fellowship and figure out what could be refunded and what could be rescheduled. The thought remained in my head, but I pushed it backwards as I resigned myself to enjoying my island paradise.


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Walking in Paradise


On Thursday, while I was on an island tour, a friend sent me a news article with the question, “Is this going to affect you?” Before I even opened the article, I saw the headline, “Trump cancels all US travel to and from Europe in response to coronavirus…” I responded that it shouldn’t affect my current trip since I was flying back to the States from Australia but that it would probably affect my April trip. Not probably, definitely. It was a possibility that I had never even considered until that moment. I would not be frolicking through Europe (or, ahem … presenting at my conference) during the month of April. Instead, everything was now up in the air, and the moment was supremely disorienting.


When I got back to my Airbnb, I did some additional research on the situation. It turned out that the travel ban that Trump had announced applied to foreign nationals traveling to the U.S., but not to U.S. citizens traveling to or from the U.S. The thought crossed my mind that I might still be able to make the trip, that nothing had to change. That I could just pack extra hand sanitizer and maybe buy one of those masks that I had initially scoffed at my fellow passengers for wearing.


This morning, I received word that a second academic conference that I was planning to attend (also in April) had been postponed indefinitely. And I sat with that. I sat with the fact that April was not going to look the way that I had been planning for the past six months. I sat with the fact that I had no contingency plan for a domestic April. For example, I hadn’t planned to pay rent for the month of April (I have a mortgage at my permanent residence and also rent a room near the university where I am currently doing a research fellowship). Where was the rent money going to come from? What was going to become of the conference presentations that I had already listed on my CV? Was my risk increased by living in a house with 2-3 other people? Would I need to stop going to the gym (aka my sanctuary)? What was my plan if I contracted the virus? There were so many questions, and no answers.


I’ve never lived through a global pandemic that directly affected and interrupted my life before. I was aware of SARS and Ebola and the Swine Flu, but those crises never affected me personally. The coronavirus is disorienting, and I’m trying to find the right personal balance. I’m trying to be a good human. A human that is responsible and hygienic. A human that recognizes that more than 100,000 people around the world have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and that more than 5,000 deaths have been confirmed. I see news stories about millions of people who are quarantined or on government-imposed lockdown. I see stories about the precarious economic position of workers in different sectors of the economy. I see a nation that is moving much more slowly than necessary to respond to the global crisis. I see all these things, and I’m trying to be a good human. But, at the end of the day, I’m still just a human, and I find my thoughts turning to how the situation affects me personally. Still, I want to be a responsible global citizen, even when that conflicts with my own selfish interests.


At the end of the day, I hope that this situation makes us all more empathetic and more understanding. I hope it shows us how things that we take for granted can change in what feels like an instant. I hope that it pushes us to take care of ourselves and our health.


In the meantime, my thoughts and prayers are with those who are even more directly affected by the virus. With the people who have contracted it, with the medical professionals who are working to fight it. With the people who are shouldering overwhelming economic burdens because of it, and with everyone who feels like their world is crumbling.


Take care of yourselves—physically and mentally. Practice good hygiene. Accept social distancing.


We will get through this, eventually, but we all need each other.


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