On Isolation, Hope, and COVID-19
How being alone has affected me, and many others, during this pandemic
I’ll just get it out of the way: I recovered from COVID-19. With all of the current international and domestic testing shortages, there’s no readily-available way for me confirm that I contracted it, but my symptomology was alarming and undeniable: a steady, week-long fever of 101-plus degrees, night sweats, diarrhea, fatigue, and a splitting headache around my eyes, though, strangely, not much of a cough and no shortness of breath, which for someone with a history of severe asthma was the greatest blessing of all.
My recovery was thankfully unmarred by complications, and my suffering never reached a real apogee despite the discomfort. I was fortunate enough to have an entire basement to myself while I self-quarantined, complete with a television, a comfortable couch, and a refrigerator full of deli meats, soft drinks, and pasta cooked by my parents, who would FaceTime me five times a day and every so often leave extra refreshments and supplies just outside the basement door. I should also acknowledge my incredible privilege of having a father who is a trained medical professional with resources that undoubtedly ensured my safety during such a terrifying time when millions are scrambling to get access to even the most basic healthcare.
But no amount of food, water, or virtual reassurances could provide relief from the spectacular fear and loneliness that have become the primary side-effects of this pandemic. “Social distancing,” a euphemistic term for what is essentially mandated hermitry, has left billions holed up at home with a different yet equally disagreeable fever — the cabin type — which has purportedly only just begun, with some experts estimating that public spaces in the United States and elsewhere will have to remain closed, or at least cautiously open, until a vaccine for the virus is found and distributed, which, in the best-case scenario, could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
I’ve spoken to friends and family about the possibility of being under effective house arrest for longer than just two or three months, and not a single one of them — unabashed introverts included — has been thrilled by the prospect. Most report having trouble adjusting to wearing masks and gloves whenever they leave the house and avoiding physical contact with anybody not in their immediate family, many stress that they will either lose their jobs or never find one in this disastrous economic climate, and the vast majority are terrified that things won’t return to normal once the pandemic is over. People on all corners of the internet (which I compulsively browse each day) have reported eerily similar feelings and experiences, and in times as politically divided as these, it’s almost heartwarming to see such unanimous reactions, though it’s clear this would be far more reassuring if all of the agreement were inspired by anything other than a global crisis.
In other words, COVID-19 has put many things on hold. But it’s also cut most good things short; right now, I’m technically supposed to be teaching English in a quaint French village called Montbrison, the proud home of a creamy, delicious blue cheese called “La Fourme,” but Trump’s near-total travel ban a month ago forced me to return to New York a mere sixteen hours before I would be effectively trapped in a foreign nation.
At that point, I had already been teaching for six months, and was only contracted to work until the beginning of May, but I would have loved to be able to say a proper goodbye to my 150 bright, adorable, and oh-so excitable primary schoolers, who were notified of my departure as a result of “le coronavirus” the day before I left. I would also have liked to bid adieu to François, the local butcher who had one of the strongest and most endearing Loire Valley accents I’ve ever heard, and Julie, the quick-witted baker who could serve two dozen hungry Frenchmen their afternoon pastries in five minutes. One of my closest friends is also supposed to be completing a year-long teaching program in Madrid, but she returned to the United States three weeks ago, and my sister, who had been studying in Paris for the semester, jetted back to America the day before I did.
Mireille Douyssard, my hilarious, foul-mouthed, and nurturing host teacher/mentor throughout my stay in Montbrison, recently texted me over WhatsApp: “Have you seen the panic this little microbe has brought upon the world? . . . Now we’re all stuck in our fucking houses.” And she’s right. A tiny, ugly cell has hijacked the world’s systems of control and in the process made us desperate for interpersonal connection, which need we try to sate by binge-scrolling through Tik Tok, mashing the “Call” button on Houseparty, and watching the entirety of Netflix’s Tiger King in half a day. But the unfortunate reality is that none of these distractions has been able to replicate the warmth of a friend’s hug, to simulate the cool tickle of a spring breeze, or to negate the creeping fear that our relationships, which are now more coveted and significant than ever, will suffer irreparable damage.
For almost two months, I’ve mourned the effective death of my social life. In the absence of other productive things to do (I’ve been on Netflix so much recently that whenever I close my eyes I see that massive red N), I’ve been writing. So far, I’ve finished a short story about a grieving trucker who turns into the police a runaway eight-year-old who reminds him of his younger self; a fiction piece about a murdered drug dealer meeting God and begging to be resuscitated so he can tell the woman he’s loved for years his true feelings; and a disorienting narrative about a maybe-real, maybe-imaginary figure who talks a suicidal schizophrenic man off the edge of a bridge. At first glance, it would seem that I’ve mainly chosen to explore topics that have nothing to do with the pandemic — and this was, in fact, my intention — but a deeper examination yields a striking truth: that every story features a main character who yearns for a deep human connection he’s been denied for reasons largely out of his control. It doesn’t take a literary genius to see the parallels here. Perhaps this is why storytelling has proven, to me, to be one of the most exciting and cathartic things that has come out of this pandemic. After all, it’s no coincidence that art is often spawned in the midst of great strife.
Nobody really knows how this pandemic will progress, but the general consensus is that it’s not going to settle anytime soon. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, even predicts that COVID-19 will see seasonal resurgences for years to come. It’s hard, then, not to see the future as grim.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned amid the chaos — especially as someone who, for years, has had a complicated relationship with his mental health — it’s that brooding has only done my well-being a disservice. At the moment, it might be necessary that our emotional baseline includes an uncomfortable level of wariness — it can mean the difference between life and death — but at least some optimism is in order. Potential vaccines are entering human trials, millions of healthcare workers are often successfully treating the critically ill at the risk of infecting themselves, and billions, despite widespread restrictions, are doing their best to connect, even if the effort is exhausting. If this is not a testament to humanity’s resilience — and to the sheer power of its will — then I’m not sure what is.
We will eventually beat this bug.
 Translated from the French: “Tu as vu ce petit microbe la panique qu’il met dans le monde? . . . On est tous chez nous, putain.”