One joke is doing rounds in social media these days – whoever wished us Happy New Year 2020 on New Year’s Eve must have played a sick trick on us. With more than three quarters of the year over it may look that way. Main street businesses shuttered by the thousands, many industries on the brink of disruption like nobody ever imagined in their lifetime, around two hundred and twenty thousand dead in the US from a pandemic, and, an election that is dividing the country like no other election ever done for generations. It appears as if we lost faith in ourselves to make things right.
In our family of three, Coronavirus came knocking early. Very likely I caught the virus on a business trip in early March, weeks before it was declared a pandemic. My wife caught it from me and we started showing symptoms around March 10 with a one-day lag between us. Our son’s school was let off “for a few weeks” shortly before we got sick, remote learning was still not a thing. We had already started wearing masks and washing hands after every time we went outside but it was not much of a surprise when we got it.
For the next two weeks, it was a weird dance between household chores, professional commitments and parental duties for the two of us. I wake up every day early enough to meet professional commitments on eastern time, a practice I did not change through sickness. By four-thirty in the afternoon, I would be curled into a ball, under multiple blankets trying to survive fevers that routinely went over a hundred and three. My wife’s fevers came later in the day, she would start her curling up around nine-thirty in the evening, by which time I would start to feel slightly better. When I would go to sleep around ten-thirty, she would be pulling herself to fever-induced slumber that lasted into the night. Between the two of us, we tried – successfully – to take care of the needs of our son during the day, who, amazingly enough, never showed any symptoms. A First-Class Boy Scout, he assumed the role of our sole caregiver, taking delivery of food and grocery, warming up food, and recording our symptoms should we need outside help.
We never needed any. A nuclear family, the only people we ever had looking after us are ourselves only. We refused help from a couple who are our great friends, their son is best friends with our son, because we were afraid that we would infect them in the process. We took Tylenol liberally, as that was the only medication known at the time to have any positive effect. We tried to get tested, but a drive to the Urgent Care recoiled us back, we already knew what they’d tell. Till the end of March, that was how we were – slowly recovering strength, keeping up appearances at respective professional settings, and, never, not even once getting out of the house barring that one drive to the Urgent Care.
As April rolled in, we no longer showed symptoms. We kept inside except for a few short-distance pleasure drives with windows rolled up in the car. Starting mid-April, more than a month after symptoms started, we started going out one more time – never without masks, and always with social distancing. We continue the same today. Some of COVID effects still linger, we largely lost our sense of smell, a fact that bothers us immensely as Indians. We lost appetite, and capacity, for running and other activities that may induce exhaustion, seven months later we are only halfway back to normal.
In many other ways, we have done pretty well as a family. Our son decided to apply for the Early Entrance Program at CalState LA. Preparing for the same took much of his pre-Summer hours, reducing boredom while taking care of his parents. The application process included a mandatory Summer Academy keeping him busy and excited. He got in, and his Freshman commitments leave him barely any time to ponder ‘loss of normalcy’. I have a few entrepreneurial projects that I am involved in; my day still starts before dawn and goes on till late into the evening. I did travel very recently to the east coast and I found the flight full on both legs – I took a PCR test just before as required. My wife is managing big-size projects at a large firm that requires her to spend umpteen hours on mega spreadsheets and other tools, not to mention videoconferences with over a hundred participants.
Seven months into the pandemic, we have achieved whatever we could because we took in stride the limitations imposed by COVID-19. Since there was no middle school, our son took on a much bigger challenge, being forced to stay at home during Freshman year eased him into college. Since nobody was traveling on business, it was much easier for me to ask for, and secure, a meeting online – that helped me juggle demands from unrelated projects. My wife finds it comforting and productive to be able to juggle her mega-size demands while still in her PJ’s, she is on Slack every single minute and does not feel like she’s missing out. Six months just flew by in a blink.
We were fortunate. None of our livelihoods stopped dead in the tracks by the pandemic. As importantly, we refused, deliberately, to let the pandemic get the better of us. We lost some sense of smell, big deal. We cannot run as fast, or as long, as we used to – makes not much of a difference really. We cannot go out to eat, but we could always use delivery apps, and order take-outs since mid-April. We cannot go to a ball-game for sure, but we can always go to the municipal park. The only thing we are missing is a visit to the local Y for a swim and impromptu gatherings at our house and at friends’.
We are not superhumans. I had two heart surgeries in 2009, including an open heart surgery; after which we survived without insurance for ten months as my insurance company of the time chose not to renew. A bad case of COVID-19 could easily put me on ventilators, my family has other congenital issues. Even then, we were so successful in keeping up appearances that our colleagues were surprised when we broke the news much later; nobody could tell from videoconferences that we were pumped up with fever reducers just minutes before.
As survivors in more ways than one, we do not see why we should have done anything else. COVID-19 is only as powerful as you let it be. It is a choice to get used to living with Coronavirus around you, and maybe, inside you without letting it get the better of you. So long as you do not infect others, follow some basic rules and hygiene, there is nothing stopping us from living ordinary life as far as we physically could.
We need our leadership to use their bully pulpit and convey the right message. There must not be prevarication about how deadly it can get, especially for those already vulnerable. There must not be any questioning efficacy of masks, social distancing, or avoidance of large gatherings. Put simply, ‘science rules and we cannot have any other way’ should be the only subtext in every single communication that comes from the top. At the same time, we should not trivialize attempts at normalcy so long they are within the limitations clearly conveyed.
I waited for twenty-three long years to earn the right to call myself an American. I do struggle with American Exceptionalism though I have come to accept that triumphalist zeal does have a well-deserved place in it, but not willful disregard of reason. Or lack of confidence that we can handle a little discomfort for something desirable down the line. We are seeing both these days. We are busy putting cart before the horse, so to speak, or tying hind-legs.
That does not get us forward. Caution with confidence does. COVID-19 will be nothing but a nuisance in the face of it.
[Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own].