COVID-19: Illness and Freedom During This Uncharted ‘Normal’
I would like to take a moment to share my concerns about the next steps we make as a country and as a global community regarding reopening businesses and public spaces. Though some states are well into the process of reopening at various capacities, I make my argument as someone who first began showing symptoms of COVID-19 in mid-March and who, by early May, is just beginning to regain my energy and feel like my enthusiastic, motivated self. I am one of the fortunate ones and I feel obligated to appeal to state governors and politicians to heavily consider the weight of their decisions during this crucial moment in time.
Like I said, I was lucky. Overall, I was able to overcome this virus, day by day, with relative ease. My symptoms, though they came in waves, ebbed before any life-threatening impact. I was not intubated nor was I hospitalized, though, for three days, in early April, I had some heart-to-heart conversations with my doctor about whether or not I needed to admit myself to the hospital to receive medical care. Fortunately, my symptoms, though extremely uncomfortable, were manageable. Not only was I able to get through the physical hurdles this virus presented, I was able to do so while earning a wage, relying on health insurance, and staying at home to work. There has been much to be grateful for.
My great concern about this virus is that, though there has been much debate and controversy over actual infection and death rates from different political groups or leaders, the manner in which this virus tears at and constricts the lungs is like nothing I have ever experienced. And, believe me, I have had several bouts with illness. Like everyone, I have had colds, flus, and allergies that have knocked me out for days. I have had bronchitis, strep throat, and the flu as well as chicken pox, nephritis, and breast cancer. On paper, you may think that I have been genetically predisposed to being sick. However, overall, during the course of my life, I have been energetic and healthy. I have weathered a lot and it’s precisely because I have experienced the patterns and turns of illness that I must report that this particular virus felt different.
During the 44 days — from start to end — of experiencing symptoms, there was no predictable pattern to my recovery. There were many false ‘stops’, meaning that just when I believed my condition was improving, I’d be hit with a “wave.” These waves came in the form of fevers, aches, fatigue, coughing, headaches and difficulty breathing. For example, after about 30 days of having symptoms, I woke up one Monday morning with energy. I coughed less and felt little discomfort in my chest. I even attended a Zoom meeting for work and walked around the block. It was glorious. It appeared that I had finally reached the light at the end of, what seemed, a long tunnel. That night, I went to bed and seated myself upright, the position in which I had to arrange myself every night during this illness to facilitate less labored breathing. At some point, I fell asleep and awoke to an uncomfortable pain on the left side of my chest and back. I took a deep breath. My lungs, feeling like a crinkled balloon whose sides were stuck together, slowly and painfully began to unstick. I immediately began to cough. Never before had I felt this sharp unsticking sensation in my lungs nor the headache that seemed to coincide with it. I also awoke feverish, the third recurrent fever I’d had in three weeks.
My experience, with what I am certain was COVID-19 (I will be tested for antibodies once testing is more readily available), has shaken me. As far as illnesses go, this one, specifically with its impact on one of our primary autonomic nervous system functions — BREATHING — elicited, within me, a primordial panic. For those three days, I went deep into physical and spiritual practices that involved breathing techniques and other healing modalities to help me regain a sense of control and predictability. Repeatedly stated, I was fortunate. These practices alleviated my symptoms and got me through the most difficult phase of the illness.
That said, it is unfathomable to me that many people appear to be willfully unaware of this virus’ potentially insidious and destructive nature. From having experienced this virus firsthand, I believe, more than ever, it is imperative to think beyond ourselves. I acknowledge my current employment status privileges me to make this statement. I recognize that I have no answers to reconcile the way our systems force us, as a society, to choose between our health or economic stability. It is an impossible inhumane choice, one that Ibram X. Kendi conceptualizes in this way:
“There is a war between those fighting to open America back up for the sake of individual freedom, and those fighting to keep America closed for the sake of community freedom. A civil war over the very meaning…of freedom.”
He is right. The differences between the “freedom to live” and the “freedom to live without restrictions” are now central tensions in how we understand and perceive the world around us. During COVID-19, these interpretations of freedom strike at the heart of our American psyche. For many, individualism is threatened. There is a palpable sense that freedoms are being stripped for the sake of dismantling individual sovereignty and economic livelihood. As evidenced by the media, protests to “reopen” the country are equated with anti-government sentiment rooted in fear and loathing for imposed regulations that, instead of providing protections, are aimed to destroy personal freedoms.
Juxtaposed to this interpretation of reality is the one to which I am most aligned — an individual’s freedom to live, even if it means that certain freedoms are temporarily restricted to protect the health of others. To borrow Kendi’s term, I choose “community freedom” during these times and think about the ways my actions and those of my nuclear family will help to protect rather than place in danger more human lives. I see the virus and its effects as the immediate danger we, as a society, need to confront. I implore our state governments and leadership to consider what it means to make decisions for the good of the whole. And, though I would hope they would side on what is best for communities they serve, I also realize that, “what is best” is being weighed out, scrutinized, and (re)considered. Again, it seems we are stuck in a chasm of having to choose between our health and our financial livelihood. It appears that our systems are not set up for us, as a collective, to have the right to both.
On an individual level, I feel empathy for those who are ill, scared, and fearful. I am concerned for the many children who do not have access to resources they and their families depend on for their health and overall well-being. I feel frustration, anger, sadness, and confusion over the ways our systems are failing people who work hard and contribute to our society. I am outraged at how some of the most vulnerable individuals, including our elderly population, are being disproportionately impacted by not only the virus but also by healthcare inequities driven by politics, greed, and dehumanizing practices. In essence, all the emotions I have felt throughout my life about the treatment of people (as well as nature, animals, and the environment) are intensified and magnified.
Though I cannot reconcile all the challenges and inequities glaring at me from my newsfeed as our local, state, and federal governments wrestle with conflicting interests stemming from multiple, simultaneous crises, I can consider what matters the most to me: Humanity and our treatment, compassion, and care for one another. I recently confided to one of my colleagues that there is one question I ask myself when I close my eyes before going to sleep: How did I treat others today and did I live out my choices with integrity? This question, now more than ever, is critical as I weigh out short- and long-term realities that threaten to impede or restrict my family’s financial stability, my children’s educational choices, and the overall safety of my household, neighborhood and community. How I treat others during this crisis is intertwined with my conviction that we, as human beings, should look out and care for all members of our population.
Thus, I ask all of us: Are the choices we are about to make ones we can live with? Where do we stand in how we view and treat one another during these times of uncertainty and chaos? Are we willing to make decisions for the good of the whole? And, what does this mean in relation to opening businesses and public spaces before we know, for certain, how these decisions may impact not only our loved ones, but our collective society and Earth?
These are questions to take into serious consideration as we enter into a different, uncharted ‘normal.’