Friday, January 20, 2023

Three years gone

 I read something today saying this was the third anniversary of the first COVID case in the US.

So some memories of this....time.

Skip if you want to. I know a lot of people are sick of it. But I feel like I've been forever changed (for the worse) by the experience.

I guess I didn't really pay a LOT of attention early on. I seem to remember in early January or maybe even December 2019 hearing some news reporting (maybe it was even BBC news? Did I have the app already then?) about a new "SARS like" disease in China.

Now, I remembered OG SARS. I remember hearing about them stopping people at the airports and checking them for symptoms, I remember the nurse's office on campus having a sign up that if you had flu-like symptoms, you had to wait in a different waiting room from everyone else. (I was getting allergy shots from her in those days, so I was in every week)

And then it just....went away. So that's what I thought would happen with this: they'd do some stricter surveillance at airports, there'd be a few weeks of uncertainty, and then everything would be fine.

That was the first of several ways I was wrong.

Go forward a few weeks. February 29. That's the last more or less normal day I remember. I had gone out shopping for my birthday celebration; I remember standing in the Target and thinking about how someone I read on tumblr who was in Australia was talking about toilet paper shortages due to COVID (as it turns out: much of their paper was imported from China, and with so many people out sick from the manufacturing plants...) But anyway. I thought "It's close to the time for me to buy my annual mega-pack" (which I do so I don't have to think about it), "maybe I do it a little early." And I also got a few extra cans of black beans; they were on sale. 

A few days after that, the virus had become widespread enough (or so it seemed) in the US at large that my mom and I talked and we decided it was probably wisest for me not to come see her on Amtrak for Spring Break. (In retrospect: it probably would have been OK, but would have been the last OK time for a while). But I got my ticket exchanged for a voucher.

And then. March 13. Which I remember because not only was that the day that would have been my dad's 85th birthday (remember, he had died in July 2019 and in retrospect I was probably still in deep grief as the pandemic started) but it was also the day I would have, in a happier timeline, gotten on a train to go visit my mom for a week. 

I taught Ecology, which, as I remember, was my only class of the day. I subbed in a brief lecture - prepared with the help of someone on ITFF - about disease transmission and epidemiology. Midway through class a couple students' smartphone notifications went off and one of them checked (I can't fault them; we were all on edge, expecting news). 

That was when they "called" it. Gave the students 2 weeks spring break, told us to use the two weeks to prepare to teach remotely. Told the students to take home everything they'd need for "a few weeks" at home. (As it turns out: it was at least June before people were allowed back). I offered what hopefully calming words I could, but I was pretty freaked out.

At that time, the plan was to let faculty remain on campus, to teach from there. In the end, that didn't happen: midway through "spring break" we were told that no, we would have to stay home, for our safety. (Again, in retrospect: that probably was not necessary; they could have had a staggered schedule of when people could be in, and open windows, and ask people to mask). As it was my newest colleague had had to get housing outside of town and he did not have reliable internet, so he recorded his lectures at home and sneaked in after hours to upload them from the camps internet.

Teaching online was.....I don't even know. I can't separate the awfulness of having to do a difficult thing and a very different way of teaching than how I normally would from the sheer horror of trying to pretend on some level that things were normal-ish. (Remember that this was when the "This is Fine" dog became a meme. That was how we all felt). I made it through, more or less. A few of my students disappeared. One sent me a very snippy letter saying he'd gotten a job that paid better than he'd be able to get with a biology degree and so he was not finishing his degree. I realize now that we were all emotionally messed up in some way, but really, the letter was, I think, unnecessarily rude and unpleasant, and yes, it was one of the many things I cried over in that time.

The semester ended with a whimper: no graduation, there was some virtual "salute to graduates" or something that I didn't watch online. 

I spent the summer alone. I didn't go anywhere, I didn't do anything. During that spring and summer I rarely left my property. I did go grocery shopping a few times in March but I remember one day I had gone into Pruett's (without a mask; that was back when they were telling us not to mask because we'd do it wrong and be over-confident; one of the many falsehoods or bad information we were told) and a man in the same aisle as me hacked and coughed and I thought for several days that that was probably it, I probably would get COVID, and maybe die. (I didn't; it was probably allergies he had). You heard rumors of stores or restaurants closing for a few days for deep cleaning after an employee got COVID.

(There was a VERY brief "closure of non essential businesses" but that ended fast, and what was regarded as "essential" was broad, and there were also a LOT of violations of it even though it was my understanding there was money made available to help small businesses through the closure). 

Spring and summer 2020 were the hardest time of my life, ever. There was no church (well, there were recorded things online). There were no meetings, no school, they even asked us to stay off campus. I sat at home and read and tried to figure out how to teach ecology labs in the fall with "distancing" and with the risk of us having to go all online under short notice. I replaced about 2/3 of the labs and rewrote the remaining third. 

It was very lonesome and very sad and most weeks the only person I exchanged more than a few words with was my mother, over the phone. 

One thing I have noticed now, that began during that time: I am far more sensitive to what I perceive as rejection of me or rudeness towards me. I am quite sure it's related to that I had so few interactions that one that was even vaguely unpleasant loomed large. And I think on some level, I felt like "maybe each interaction you have will be your last, if you catch covid" and so, for example, when the guy at Lowe's - who again, was probably overworked and freaked out himself - snapped at me for going in the "wrong" door (which was not labeled as "do not enter here") it affected me very strongly - I did go home and cry after it, and felt bad for a couple days. 

Somehow I made it until fall 2020. I do remember with my summer checkup with my doctor, asking for and being given the paperwork for a DNR order: I felt at that time if I got COVID, and it was bad enough I'd need to be intubated, that just.....let me go. Remember at that time that hospitals were absolutely overloaded and I felt like, if it came down to me and, say, the mom of a couple small children, save the mom, I don't matter, I have no one depending on me. (And I admit there were times during summer 2020 I was really close to the edge when I was at home. I remember a very unpleasant online interaction where someone in a space I hung out who was known for being somewhat difficult and even rude was rude to me without fully comprehending the situation I was describing - and that was it. I basically quietly said "y'all have nice lives but I'm not going to be in this space any more" and I admit that evening, sitting at home, the thought crossed my mind of: do I want to be in ANY space any more? It didn't get more formed than that but I did feel very meaningless and like it wouldn't really matter if I weren't here any more. (Obviously, I made it through). 

At these times, starting in March at least, I listened to BBC a lot on my cell phone. Somehow that seemed easier than *watching* news even if the death counts were equally horrific and there were other terrible news stories (I remember one about a family being told to say their goodbyes to their father - who ultimately did survive - but what do you say to someone in that case? I mean, yeah, I guess I had experienced that that previous July, but somehow this seemed more horrible). I watched more news than was good for me but I felt desperate for information, for some spark of hope, for some understanding of "is it safe to go out or do I once again get up at 4:30 am to try to grab a pick-up spot for Walmart's groceries?" (there were few spots - probably not enough workers, probably they didn't pay enough - and they were hard to come by. And no, groceries are not delivered here). 

Fall semester came. I taught in a mask, full time. It was not pleasant on hot days. The students were masked. I had to police masking; I had one student I constantly had to remind to keep his mask on, it was exhausting and I was scared: what if he had it off one day, and he was infected, and he made someone else sick, would I be liable? We also kept seating charts and every time someone came down with COVID we had to e-mail campus health services the name of the people all around them, and those people had to quarantine. I broadcast all my classes, even the ones I was trying to teach in person, for the people quarantining. It was frankly pretty awful.

I made it through. I taught one class fully online. Everything felt very disconnected and unreal. We went (intentionally; pre-planned) fully remote after Thanksgiving; I think there was concern that people would travel and bring COVID back to campus. I passed Thanksgiving here, alone, eating some not-very-good lobster macaroni and cheese that I ordered with two-day delivery from a gourmet foods place.

I spent Christmas 2020 here, alone. It wasn't AS horrible as I had feared. But it wasn't as good as it might have been if I had been able to be with people.

Around this time, too, we were getting word that yes, in fact, there was a vaccine. And yes, in fact, it was safe - only people with one, very specific, allergy would not be able to take it. And then, yes, it seemed to be effective.

I remember putting on several of my favorite upbeat songs and dancing around my living room the day I got that news.

Again, here was where I was wrong: I thought "maybe by summer 2021, the vaccine will be widely available, and everyone will take it, and this will go away, and we'll be back to like it was before. I think that was because my prior experience with hearing about "new" vaccines was my mom talking about the wonder when the polio vaccine came out and how pretty much everyone her family knew was eager and excited: now our children will be safe! And how happy she was that my brother and I could be vaccinated against measles; she had had a bad case herself as a child, before the vaccine was available. I didn't realize how strong the antivaccination propaganda was, and how easily doubt was sown. I wound up talking to a few people I knew about the vaccine because they came and asked me: "are you going to get it, do you think it's safe?" and my response was that they wouldn't release an unsafe vaccine, and that getting covid was unsafe.

I also didn't count on the mutant forms, and the fact that many many non human mammals (white-tailed deer!) can carry it, so it's NEVER going away at this point, short of them finding a "sterilizing immunity" vaccine, which is basically like winning the Powerball.

At this point I had lost an older cousin to COVID. And shortly thereafter, lose an old family friend. 

February 2021: I was able to get the first dose of the vaccine. I remember for my birthday, I went (masked) to JoAnn fabrics, the first time in months upon months. (I got sonic drive-in to eat that day; because I could eat in my car). 

March 2021: I got the second dose. At that point I thought I was safe, and (WRONG AGAIN) made plans for in the fall to teach unmasked.

Most people in town were taking the masks off at this point; some of the political leadership here was anti-mask and there were a few who leaned anti-vaccination. 

In May, I did finally get to cash in my Amtrak voucher and go see my mom. I had to wear a mask on the train and eat in my compartment, but it was OK.

I was looking forward to a slightly more normal fall.

Then Delta hit. So I groaned, masked back up for the fall, kept doing the seating charts. (We had dropped the requirement that we scrub down the desks after every class with disinfectant like we had in 2020; that had been disproven as a common means of transmission. But I DO remember getting a nasty gram in 2020 that "one of the rooms in which you teach, the disinfectant isn't being used up fast enough. I admit: I had dropped the requirement to scrub the desks earlier, after reading several good studies saying that fomite transmission of the thing was highly unlikely, and I told the students that washing their hands after class was probably far more effective at preventing disease transmission)

I got the first booster over Thanksgiving 2021. A tiny bit of friction with my brother; he was less convinced of the necessity of the vaccines than I was. I did have a mild reaction to the booster, a short lived fever and aches.

Spend Christmas 2021 with my mom. I don't remember it well; in retrospect I think in late 2021 I was still dealing with the trauma of having gone through the early days of the pandemic (and perhaps my brother was, too: at Thanksgiving he and I argued more than we had in years) And at Christmas, that was when I was having mouse problems and damage to the plumbing in the house and I was worried the whole time I was at my mom's that my house would be all but destroyed when I got back.

I still masked in spring 2022. Omicron was starting up, I couldn't quite bring myself to de-mask yet. Yes, I was "fully" vaccinated but I had behaved as a prey animal for so long it was hard for me to drop that. (I still mask in crowded stores, if not on campus). 

Summer 2022 proceeded pretty normally. I barely masked at all: up on campus I was about the only one up there most days. And a lot of the time I was at home, getting the renovations done, including the fix in the kitchen that (knock wood) has blocked out mice (At any rate, there has been zero evidence of them). Fall 2022, I taught unmasked. Some days I was nervous but it was a relief to be able to speak more freely in class (and yes, the mask did have a psychological effect on me).  

And then Christmas, which was better than the previous two had been. And now here we are. 

I will say, the pandemic has left me changed. I am much less trusting of people, much more guarded. I don't expect people will view me in a friendly way; in some ways I have regressed to how I was at 13, when I was basically misanthropic as a defense against the poor treatment from my peers. I also find joy harder to find, and spontaneity. I also felt like....well, I really thought the vaccine was going to turn out as a "happily ever after" when instead it wound up as a "slightly less crappily ever after" - yes, I am now very unlikely to die directly of COVID if I catch it, but I don't have a good handle on whether vaccinated people are equally susceptible to "long covid," which is very bad in its own way (especially for someone as alone as me; it would be very hard to manage if I couldn't do all the things I do now). And also - I really had the scales fall from my eyes about many of my fellow humans. So it wasn't sunshine and flowers after the vaccine. Rather, it was more like "it's not hailing and lightning any more, but it's cold and raining hard" 

I don't know. I know I'm worse now than I was before. I don't know if I will get better or if this has changed my personality forever. I guess time will tell. I also feel the smallness of my town very hard now after having spent the better part of a year and a half barely leaving town for anything. (I think of how I used to drive to Sherman, sometimes every weekend, in the before times; now it feels like a major journey and I groan at the idea of "a whole hour's round trip") 

And at the same time, I feel like some parts of the pandemic are being memory-holed: yes, it really WAS that bad. There were days when thousands of people died. World wide, almost 7 million people have died. (And someone snarked on MetaFilter, basically saying "well that's a drop in the bucket given the Too Many 8 Billion People that exist" but you know? Every single one of those people had someone who loved them and was devastated when they died. Yes, it's one thing to say "we are consuming more of Earth's resources than is ideal" but it's not the right time to say it when people are mourning the gigantic losses of a pandemic. It also makes me wonder if there are folks out there who'd look at my small life and go "eh, if it were up to me, she'd be among the chaff that gets tossed into the fire; she's not helping the earth by existing). I think the pandemic has made us meaner, and less tolerant, and made some of us more fearful. (And this is why I side-eye some of the "religious" explanations about "this was to teach us an important lesson" because whew lad, we DID NOT LEARN IT, at least not from where I sit, and I feel like if a benevolent deity were sending us a lesson, that deity would be very sure we'd take a good lesson from it and not, as I said, become meaner and more selfish and more excluding. 

So I don't know. I sure didn't learn much of value. I learned I don't like my own company much for extended periods, and I learned my patience has hard limits, and I learned we really DON'T get happily ever afters in this life. I don't, at least at this point in time, see any silver linings for me.


1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

This is good stuff. I'll have to write my own, probably in March, because March 14 was the beginning of the end of a lot of stuff.