Counting Backward: Navigating the New, Terrifying COVID-19 Reality

November 7, 2020 Was A Moment of Exhilarating, Temporary Joy

In March I was counting.

We were all running up that hill, the curve, riding it to the tippy top and then back down again, ever so slowly. Flatten the curve. We’re all in this together. This too shall pass.

We bided our time. It felt universal. And the hill started to come down. It was never safe. The virus peaked and valleyed and we kept a close eye on the numbers, counting, always counting. We masked and we cautiously ventured into new territory. A dip in a community pool. An outdoor playdate – no playground equipment, just tag. Touching our lovers again. Where have you been and who have you been with? Why didn’t you tell me you saw your mom? Were you inside? WAS SOMEONE EATING SNACKS?

Every decision was fraught with wild anxiety. Can you believe she had the audacity to go to Target? And then the next month not so much of an event, that trip to Acme for some ice cream.

We all had our limits. And they changed, each day, depending on the temperature of a nation fraught with a patchwork of arbitrary rules, regulation, and mentality. Devoid of leadership, one person’s tortured decision to mask up and get a mammogram is another’s easy dinner for six, indoors, served by masked waitstaff nodding like tongueless Avoxes from the Hunger Games as the diners summon, “Honey, I’m gonna need a refill over here!”

June through September hit differently. We sat in a futile hold pattern on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance hotline waiting for a check that never came. For some of us, work trickled in. Maybe we masked up our kids, crossed our fingers, and sent them to camp. Maybe we formed a larger pod, a bubble, for sanity, for safety. Once, in mid-September, rather than frantically rushing in and out to grab a prescription while holding my breath, I slowly browsed around a CVS for the first time. It was amazing. I carefully considered a set of plastic plates. I made small talk with fellow shoppers and joyfully chatted with the cashier. It was a special memory. And that’s a fucking shame.

Many of us laser-focused on the presidential election. Counting down the days, counting up the votes. All the while the president held maskless superspreader rallies, hospitals started to fill again, and no one seemed to acknowledge the ticking clock.

And then, an explosion of joy. We banged pots and pans and danced and honked our horns. We reached out with virtual hugs in the streets, across the soccer fields and grocery stores and intersections. Biden won. Or so says math. And the people. But those things had become an antiquated measure of truth. And so the joy was tempered after 24 hours. Litigation, a refusal to concede, a remaining Republican majority at the state and in the Senate.

All the while the COVID rates grew and stretched, exponentially, hitting unprecedented levels. Hospitals in Delaware County, PA, have become so overwhelmed they are turning away ambulances. North Dakota is asking COVID-positive nurses and doctors to come to work. Healthcare workers across the country are pleading with us as the ICUs fill to capacity. Philadelphia School District delayed opening plans for the zillionth time, while the city’s health commissioner advised private and Catholic schools to keep on keepin’ on because money. At the federal, state, and local levels, it was made infinitely clear that 1. nobody cares 2. gyms, casinos, and indoor dining MUST remain open 3. nobody cares.

Posted, without comment, by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health

And, so, here we are. A new kind of counting. Running up a hill, but not searching for a peak, because the peaks have now become…a bragging metric for the media? A test to push the absolute limits of the healthcare system? A barometer of how many people we can actually murder through our own negligence before the Hard Rock Cafe is asked to stop serving burgers to parties of 10?

Thanksgiving and Christmas swiftly approach, and the airlines pack willing travelers in like sardines. A handful of government officials offer a hollow plea for people to “please not gather for the holidays” and America let’s out a laugh and cries “Freedom!” and kills their grandmother. All the while we literally do not have a sitting president. Mind you, even the Democrats in power continue to do the actual least, tweeting things like

JUST IN: The Senate passed two resolutions that @SenKamalaHarris and I introduced congratulating the @Lakers and @Dodgers on bringing championships back to Los Angeles. Under unprecedented circumstances, these teams went all the way. Congratulations!

Let’s all give a slow clap to Senator Dianne Feinstein, joining the ranks of tone deaf Republicans and Democrats across our nation whose priorities are less in order than my seven-year-olds.

Oh, and speaking of seven-year-olds, here’s how it’s going for working parents in this country. If your children attend an underfunded school district, like mine, in-person schooling of any kind has been a pipe dream. Now, perhaps this could have been done if we, like, say France, prioritized families and education over the mall. But we don’t. So what we have is the following situation:

Parents are forced to wait tables indoors and paint toenails because our country thinks a financial safety net is hilarious and everyone just reelected anti-masker QANON ghouls. While parents are doing these tedious jobs to avoid starving, they are forced to send their children to grim “virtual learning centers” or, if they have the money, maskless, lawless versions of the same concept. It’s neat.

We are lucky enough to keep our children home where they stare at screens all day and talk to inanimate objects. We’re all excited to see how this plays out in the following years of therapy for everyone’s PTSD.

More to the point, though, at this time, all of the things that were getting us through the past few months and giving us moments of joy are officially cancelled.

Things like daylight, feeling OK about playgrounds, occasionally sharing virtual learning with friends, having a bubble with another family we love and trust, hope.

My uncle, a nurse on a COVID unit, is secluding himself away from my aunt in his own home, while my partner’s wife, who feeds the underserved community so they don’t starve to death, is forced to wear an N-95 mask in her own home since five people on her staff are currently positive for the virus.

All the while, bowling alleys are open.

And so, we sit, glowing with incandescent rage and doom-scrolling Twitter and searching for respite. We pour over jigsaw puzzles. Maybe I’ll start doing shitty pottery again and break out the crock pot.

Meanwhile, people wrongly assume that 15-minute rapid antigen tests are reliable or accurate (they aren’t), and the nasal swab tests are taking an eternity to get back because SURGE WITHOUT PREPARATION. We are literally back to March when it was like “Oh, you think you might have COVID? Maybe we can fit you in for a test 9 days from now and you’ll get the results in May!”

Light at the end of the tunnel? Well, there are some promising vaccines on the way. Which likely won’t work for me because my immune system is trash. So I’ll need to rely on others to get it. Which they won’t because freedom/medical distrust/kill me. But still, a dim light.

Anyway, we count.

67 days until inauguration.

Two weeks of quarantine after exposure. Rinse. Repeat.

Four + months until spring.

Live through this.

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