28 Days Later

It has been 28 days since I last stepped foot outside my apartment building.
The above fact seems both bewildering and (now) unremarkable at the same time, somehow.

I’ll admit that I was later than I should have been in taking the coronavirus threat seriously. I had just come back from a bachelorette party on a cruise ship (!!) and a day trip to Universal Studios in Orlando (!!!) and went to the office on Monday, March 9 with every intention of finishing the week in the office.

My husband, on the other hand, took the virus more seriously than I did. I think perhaps I took it less seriously because of how concerned his parents were about it back over the Lunar New Year. At that time, I was primarily worried about my family in China, which was experiencing their peak of the outbreak and during which time was suffering through the biggest holiday of the year. My mother called me one day from the airport, which was unsettlingly quiet. Everyone was scared to speak to one another, wearing masks, avoiding other people.
But in the United States, at the end of January, we had 4 confirmed cases with zero on the entire East Coast of North America. So, when my in-laws suggested that we not even visit them for the new year and offered to mail us surgical masks instead, I was really dismissive.

Fast forward to Sunday, March 8. I am buying groceries because I’ve decided I am going to start a Whole30 post-traveling. (HAHA) My husband urges me to abandon the low-carb diet and stock up on staples we’ll need for quarantine. I compromise and bring back a lot of produce and freezer items.  By Monday, husband has convinced me that we should pack up our things and prepare to work from home indefinitely. I tell him I’ll probably try to pop back into the office once a week or so, and tell my co-workers that I’m likely to go back to work that Friday for our department briefing. We have already received the go-ahead for everyone in the department to work from home if they are uncomfortable coming into the office. Some of my teammates gladly take up this offer because they have long commutes.

The mood shifts in the afternoon for me. The week prior, after I returned from my trip, we had been hearing rumors about someone getting tested for coronavirus in an office building that was operated by the same property management company that ran our own. By the afternoon of March 9, there seemed to be a confirmed case in every office building near us, and the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Rick Cotton, was also confirmed positive. That was the news tidbit that pushed me to start packing my desk. After all, this was the man who had been visiting major transit facilities to oversee their coronavirus procedures: all of the airports, major train and bus hubs, etc.

We leave the office early that day to avoid the crowds on the subway during peak commuting hours. The train is emptier at 4pm, but it’s tense. A handful of people are wearing masks. I feel acutely aware of people staring at us, two Asian people, while a homeless man lying across a seat at the end of the car coughs in his sleep. As soon as we get home, we wash our hands for longer than the prescribed 20 seconds. My husband tells me we should immediately throw our clothes in the wash and put our coats away, that he is going to shower and I should probably do the same. I prepare my Whole30-compliant dinner and read about how the coronavirus is, actually, much worse than the flu. My husband and I have a conversation about how flippant I’ve been about the virus, and I admit that perhaps as a reaction to how his parents overreacted 2 months prior, I had been underreacting to what was a really scary situation.

My office announces a mandatory work-from-home policy for all employees on Wednesday, shortly before the World Health Organization declares the novel coronavirus to be a pandemic. Later that evening, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announce that they have tested positive for coronavirus, the NBA suspended the season, and all of Broadway closed. I begin to realize that I was really foolish for thinking I would be coming back to the office on Friday. I ask our Chief Product Officer when he anticipates the office will re-open and he tells me that we have no idea. I guess that we would be back in a month.

As you may know, New York City, out of sheer population density and mismanagement of a public health crisis at several political levels, has become the hardest-hit city for COVID-19. I have gotten a few offers from my parents and my in-laws to be picked up and evacuated from the city, which is an unfathomable course of action since we don’t want to potentially expose our parents to the coronavirus.

I used to check the case counts on nyc.gov every single day, but the case total doubled every day and then leapt forward into the thousands over the weekend as hundreds more people went to get tested.

Some people have wondered why we were under self-quarantine so early on when neither of us were sick, rather than simply stick to the minimal social distancing requirements. The reasons are two-fold.

It is easier. After vigorously washing my hands for several days and disinfecting everything I had brought inside our home, it just seemed easier not to do all of that. We live in a part of the city with really heavy foot traffic; I feel like someone bumps into and/or coughs on me every day going to and from work. Maintaining a 6-foot radius around myself is difficult in this neighborhood, and we have no real need to do so. We were even prepared to order groceries and restaurant food to be delivered, despite working so hard since we moved here to never succumb to the convenience of delivery. We were no longer doing so out of laziness or convenience; it felt necessary. Social distancing reduces our risk of transmitting the virus to other people. Self-quarantining reduces our risk to zero, and that was the only amount of risk we could accept.

It is safer. By now, you likely have seen the countless news stories about racist assaults on Asians and Asian-Americans that have been rampant during this crisis. My first day in self-quarantine, that first Tuesday, I read a story about an Asian woman being punched in the face for not wearing a face mask. This happened in the morning, in broad daylight, in one of the most tourist- and pedestrian-heavy parts of the city. Before, I didn’t want to wear a mask because I felt like being Asian with a mask made me a target. Now, I feared being Asian without a mask would also make me a target. I’ve been scared to go outside and risk dealing with racism because I truly don’t know how I’d respond to it.

Things have only gotten worse as the case count continues to climb. In the news today just out of New York City, there are reports that people are being turned away at funeral homes and cemeteries who don’t have the capacity for COVID-19 deaths. 3 medical residents have passed away. There are terrible rumors that temporary graves will be dug in city parks, because there aren’t enough refrigerated trucks. When I look outside my window, for the first time, I see zero people on the sidewalk.

Empty NYC Coronavirus
Photo byMike Segar (Reuters)

Like all things, this, too, shall pass. But we don’t know when, and we don’t know what the cost will be at the end. How will things be different when we emerge from this? We can only hope they’ll have changed for the better.

I’m not highly motivated in quarantine. I was struggling already with motivation before the world was thrown into crisis, so adding this ever-present anxiety has not really convinced me that I should be working out or learning about sourdough starters. I’m happy for the folks who have been able to find silver linings and make lemonade from these lemons we have been handed.

As an extrovert, who recharges via in-person social interactions, I know I am exhausting myself just trying to get through the days. Introverts joke on the Internet about how they have been preparing for social distancing their entire lives, and that extroverts are just clawing at their doors calling everybody. That’s not really how things look for me. Since I’m not recharging, I am just running on fumes every day. I barely have any energy to get through my basic tasks. I deplete the little energy I have ruminating over the crisis, obsessively checking case counts and reading the news, interspersed with articles about how to be productive in quarantine and how to stay calm, too. For the first time since I moved to New York, I can truly feel anxiety and depression unraveling me at my edges.

I wasn’t making lemonade from the figurative lemons that were handed to me, but I wasn’t drowning yet. I could keep my head above water and just take it day by day. I didn’t need to be fully recharged to do my work and keep my family fed, and I could limit how much news and social media I consumed.

But then my husband came down with a fever.

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