What COVID-19 Took From Us

I remember driving into work 3 years ago. I didn’t get the message sooner; I had refused to download Slack onto my phone, determined to maintain my strict line between work and home. I had brought candy into the office to help celebrate the upcoming Easter holiday. When I got into work, the office was empty. My Slack was full of messages about working from home and a virus. I packed up my laptop, charger and client notes that day; I never walked back into that office again. 

This week marks 3 years since the first lockdown for COVID-19. I’m writing from my dining room table, my now makeshift desk that was set up to accommodate working from home. I still remember watching the story unfold. First it was a virus that was spreading across China. Then as soon as it arrived stateside, the world slowed to a crawl. Suddenly I was using scrap fabric to make masks, working in my dining room, recording podcasts in my living room and spending all of my time at home. The first lockdown, in hindsight, was such a naive gesture. We joked about how this would just be a two week long ordeal and we’d all be back to normal soon. I’d argue that 3 years on, we’re still not fully back to normal. 

The misinformation started both quicker and slower than I expected. There of course was the racist information that spread and still spreads like wildfire due to the then racist demagogue in office. Discussions of who was essential and who wasn’t essential. The immediate rush to figure out how to make nearly any job one that could be done from a remote setting. The surge in delivery services, home cooking projects, crafts that will never be picked up again and strategic trips out to briefly glimpse an outside world that was still, quiet but somehow still functioning. 

I made visits to my friends working at the local card shop, shocked that they were considered to be essential by their capitalist boss. It was that outrage that started me bringing in baked goods and sweets for them. I felt it was the least I could do: if they were having to risk their lives for the sake of corporate greed, the least I could do was give them a tray of cookies or cake to help ease the sting of the situation. 

Insolation, the worst in people bubbled to the surface. Latent racist, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia all rose to the top as people flooded online spaces to discuss their views with others who thought like them. Civil debate died before COVID, arguably with the aforementioned racist demagogue, but people became so much more set into their ways alone in echo chambers. 

Masks were debated endlessly, comfort was placed over saving lives. Arguments, deaths, violence all over a covering of the mouth to not only protect others but to protect yourself. 

When the vaccine became available, that was also called into intense scrutiny because apparently the reality I live in has reverted back to a shadow world where fascists walk freely in the streets and science is denied over solutions such as Ivermectin, colloidal silver and hydroxychloroquine. A non-insignificant part of the population didn’t even think the pandemic that was killing millions was real, blaming the deaths on other conditions or even assuming those lost were merely crisis actors. 

Nurses and doctors were faced with a solution that seemingly had no winner. Either people died because they had been exposed or people died because they did nothing to stop the spread of COVID-19. Either way, people died. 

In 3 years, over one million people died. There are still deaths to this day, we just stopped counting. Living in Texas, our governor decided he was tired of acknowledging the existence of the pandemic years ago and in the process put thousands of Texans at risk. The people that died were mothers, brothers, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, fathers. They were Americans. They were neighbors. But I’d be lying if I said that I wore a mask and got vaccinated for them. I have asthma and other underlying health conditions: I was the poster child for someone who would die if they got COVID. I managed to contract non-COVID pneumonia during the same time and I struggled so much during that time that it took me months to fully recover. I got vaccinated and wore a mask to protect myself. 

Did I stop wearing a mask too soon? Probably. There are people that I know that are still masking and I fully support them. I stopped around the time I got my first vaccine booster, at that point I was already starting to feel the societal pressure to stop wearing them because things had gone back to “normal” with the promise of a vaccine. But I’d argue that nothing about what has come after that first lockdown has been normal. People are still dying. 

Nothing about who I am is the same that I was 3 years ago. Before I loved going out, at times for hours, shopping and walking around the mall and spending time at restaurants either alone or with friends. Now, the thought of going to a mall for fun makes me anxious. Most of the food that I consume outside of what I make is left on my doorstep via delivery app. I don’t shop in-store anymore, opting for home delivery or if I’m feeling daring, a quick pick up of an order only to promptly return home to sanitize my purchases. 

I’ve always had some social anxiety but during the lockdown, it became absolutely unbearable. I couldn’t go to grocery stores and honestly, I still struggle to do so. Places with too many people makes my chest feel tight. I hate crowds or people standing too close to me. Going to anime conventions with Carlos were once a major part of my life and now the thought of going to a convention with so many people just makes me sick to my stomach. In addition to the social anxiety, my generalized anxiety and depression also worsened. I’d sit at home for hours refreshing my city’s local COVID dashboard, seeing every updated case, every new zip code added, every new death. My then therapist encouraged me to stop doing so, citing that it was akin to digital self-harm. I had to stop reading the news and feverishly checking social media. In isolation, my depression that had just very recently as of the start of the pandemic was becoming more manageable once more became the monster I had always known it to be. I felt that the world was falling apart around me, I was worried about my family 300 miles away, I was scared about getting sick. I was afraid of facing violence because of my choice to wear a mask in public. The pandemic was the worst case scenario for those that have mental illness: the last thing any of us needed was a mandate to stay inside, avoid crowded spaces, constantly hyperfixate on bad news and more importantly: confirm the sick suspicion that we all had, something truly horrible could happen and there before our eyes, it was. 

COVID took nearly everything from me. I’m still struggling to find a routine that makes sense in this world that is in transition. Clearly, the pandemic is not over but there is no hard and fast date that things just end. That doesn’t mean I think the U.S. has handled this all perfectly. The CDC has handled this less than gracefully. I feel it most when I’m also doing things I’d normally do. On a day I’m feeling brave and I go into more than one shop, there’s this tug of dissonance that tries to tether me to the current reality of what’s going on. This shit isn’t over. This disease isn’t just like the flu. We shouldn’t accept that thousands are still dying every week. We shouldn’t accept that those suffering with long COVID are disabled and have had their lives turned entirely upside down by one illness that spiraled into an unlivable nightmare. 

None of this is okay.

But we have to keep going, we don’t have a choice. Capitalism never lets you slow down. And while I feel some solace knowing that I am protected by science and social awareness, I struggle to think I’ll ever get back the security I had in myself, my nation and the world I had before the first lockdown.