On Living in an Age of Corona

On Living in an Age of Corona
By Ruthie Zolla

For my grandma, who told me to write this.

Image courtesy of Reddit

  Yesterday I woke up tired, even though I had gotten 9 hours of sleep. But tiredness was in my bones, in the fragile promise of normalcy for our country. For many, that future has already been transformed in irreparable ways. And when I woke up, I looked at the trees and thought, “Time is empty right now”. I felt funny. It was sunny, yet there was disease everywhere. I listened to the words of The Daily’s “A Bit of Relief” episode. Three people read excerpts from their comfort literature, like “In Pursuit of Flavor”, a cookbook by Edna Lewis, detailing how to contain and seal food for optimum freshness and longevity. Fitting right now, for the families who cannot leave home for 14 days. I am so privileged to be safe, to have an endless supply of books to read, calls to make. That is not the reality for everyone, for the woman I met at the bookstore who needs those shifts at Mcdonalds so she and her boyfriend can eat, for the refugee family up the road who have suffered pandemics before, made harder because these pandemics, unlike the Coronavirus which has touched Westerners, went ignored countless times. 
   This is what coronavirus has made so clear: the disparity of lives. Tonight mom, dad, and I watched 60 Minutes, still on air for now. They interviewed a team of nurses in Westchester County going into people’s homes to test, donning hazmat suits and risking their whole existence for wealthy strangers. When asked why, their answer was simple: “This is what public health is.” We forget the countless forces working behind this emergency, using their bodies and brains to help us collectively flee disease. They are showing up, doing the hard work of testing DNA, but endangering themselves in the process. It is more than admirable, it is awe-inspiring. 
   But I can’t help but wonder what it would’ve been like if another sort of corona-ridden community was profiled, one like the neighborhood my best friend Kimmy lives in, Kenwood, on Chicago’s South Side, made up predominantly by low-income POC. Thankfully, Kenwood does not have a mass outbreak the way Westchester County does, but what if it had been the first US community? Would there be such attention and precaution? I can only hope morality would prevail, but even then I am not so sure. Because even before Westchester was stricken, there were measures put in place to effectively deal with a community crisis. And that is not necessarily how it is in the more marginalized spaces within our country. There are no emergency budgets, food deliveries, paid time off.
    For my city, Manchester, the public school system has a large population of low-income students who qualify for free or reduced lunches. Manchester is a federally mandated refugee resettlement city, meaning almost 2,000 refugees live in my community, within a population of only 111,000 people. That is almost 2% of the whole city. Just a few days ago, our mayor was faced with the hard decision of deciding to shut down schools. Weighing disease and hunger with a balanced hand is one of the hardest things a civil servant can do. I have worked with some of these students, both in ESL and after-school care. These are bright, funny kids who have faced and seen more than any of us could even begin to imagine. This is another obstacle for them and their families to face. They are working jobs that don’t guarantee paid sick leave. They are supporting relatives far away and very close by. They are trying to keep their kids safe just like everyone else. However, they are hardly afforded panic or hysteria because they are too busy simply trying to survive. 
   I cannot begin to imagine the level of isolation and hardship these people are feeling. For many, social distancing doesn’t just mean a break from your social life, it means danger, resource insecurity, violence, near death. Behind every front door there is a whole history that can make things unbearable for some. Across the country there are college students who don’t want to go home because their families do not accept their identities. There are women and men who know that they are risking the safety of their bodies and the bodies of their children by inhabiting a space with someone who is abusive. There are grandparents like those of my Kindergarten teacher, Ms. Growe, who are alone in their nursing homes, alone in a dark empty room, unable to go outside to feel the sun on their faces or chat in the hall with a friend, touch their great grandbabies’ faces or recite the Jewish prayer for Shabat Shalom. It is that aloneness which brings them back to the solitude and terror of the Holocaust, a prison they thought they had escaped for good. We could use shalom right now. Peace. Because there are hungry babies. There are mothers dying alone in the ICU, forced to share ventilators with someone else whose life is coming to a close. There are many horrible things transpiring at once. These are hard and surreal times. I am so privileged, and yet the universality of this pandemic is the way in which everything is hard right now, fragile like glass or the human heart. We feel on the verge of breaking, and that is perhaps the sad thing that bonds every different kind of story. The inevitability of loneliness. For an extrovert who thrives off human energy, being alone is hard even when there is not a global virus spreading rapidly.  No matter income or neighborhood, it is one of the rawest pains we can experience, but for some, it is more complicated than just the pain of being alone.
     Once again, I am drawn back to The Daily, the last excerpt, one by C.S. Lewis, from his essay, “On Living in an Atomic Age”. In the essay, Lewis writes of the uncertainty and fear of living in the atomic age, but urges readers not to succumb to it. People have suffered in immense, terrible ways, and will continue to do so well into our future, so long as the planet spins and the sun shines. So all we can do is live like people. We can serve others in more need than us, others whose lives were predetermined far before this pandemic began, far before they were even born. There are organizations working tirelessly to help people find safe places to go and food to eat, ones like Feeding America, working to keep food banks across our country afloat, and Oxfam America, that is helping immigrants and refugees stay safe and find shelter. We can support these organizations and do our research. We can read, write, do yoga, call a friend, call our grandparents. We can be ourselves, or at least modified versions. That’s all.
    Yesterday I called my grandma, and gently urged her not to go to any more dinner parties, to stock up on food, and to stay healthy. “Don’t you worry about me”, she said, chipper as usual, “I don’t even feel OLD.” And I laughed as she struggled to figure out facetime. I will remain isolated for her, for the independent, sassy grandmas of our country who don’t deserve to go this way after a lifetime of living. I emailed the local food pantry, offering my body for anything they might need. They responded warmly and with appreciation. I reached out to my boss, the owner of a Japanese restaurant, herself an Asian immigrant, stubborn yet deeply scared of shutting down the project she put her life savings into. I emailed my creative writing teacher, who asked me what books I’ll read. So many, Ms. Burdette. Because there is still work to be done, even in bed or at the breakfast nook by a sunny window. As C.S. said, “ They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”  It is the silent thing I whisper to myself every day because freedom is everything now. And that, amongst the many small and large heartbreaks of this new normal, is a tiny blessing.