Contrary to what every news outlet and politician says, I don’t think these are necessarily “unprecedented times.”
The moment I received the email declaring that students would be sent home, I was sitting in the lecture hall taking my midterm exam in Epidemiology 101. I had the strange coincidence of choosing this course for my final semester to fulfill a graduation requirement.
As soon as I finished calculating my last odds ratio, without even bothering to scrupulously look over my answers as I’m prone to do, I shut the test booklet and dropped it off in front of the room. I left the building to see other students milling about, all on their phones with their parents.
It felt a bit like the Wednesday after the election in 2016. A gray day on campus. Eerily quiet. One of my close friends, also a senior, came stumbling out of the building after me, tears streaming down her cheeks. We embraced. It felt like the end. This was the first moment I felt a sense of déjà vu.
When I went home, equipped with enthusiasm for scientific journals thanks to Epidemiology 101, I induced my own anxieties for the past 6 months. This is also a pattern I was familiar with – excessively reading things on the internet that would plague me in my sleep. And now, I’d spend hours everyday flipping through The Lancet, Nature, and dozens of scientific preprint servers. I’d be glued to my computer screen, reading accounts of suffering in The New York Times, on Reddit, on random local news outlets. I’d read about it all. The nurses in the ICU. Patients choking down oxygen from a plastic tube snaking through their throats.
The story that shook me the most, however, was the death of an alumna from my school. A 32 year-old black woman, a beloved school teacher in the Bronx. Initially refused treatment – even a test – from the hospital despite that she was wheezing for breath. And only admitted when it was far, far too late. She was on a ventilator for nearly a month. Thanks to the power of social media and the extensive alumna network at my school, her case was brought to the attention of a politician, who asked that she be transferred to a better-equipped hospital. She was, and there was a spark of hope that she would live. But when she left that hospital, she died shortly after.
But this, too, was even something I felt I had already seen. In 2015, when BLM first started, I remember reading about men and women on the streets, holding signs in protest of the hatred. In protest of the under- and un-employment that disproportionately affected them, the rejection of their dignity as human beings when being refused the same standard of care as other races, the callousness.
And finally, this summer, one of my favorite internet personalities posted an artsy montage of her pandemic experience, which incited scathing comments from les internautes. They accused her of romanticizing her experience, of being out of touch with reality. In a sense, I do agree – she made flippant remarks about social distancing and featured maskless gatherings with her friends. Her privilege, as they say, is apparent. But in another sense, I disagree. She just wanted to cope. Many people of all social classes and races are just fundamentally feeling lonely. Yet it isn’t even an unprecedented loneliness. Who hasn’t felt isolated as a 20 something year-old in the digital age?
Being “all in this together” and hoping that “you are safe and well” is not unprecedented. The loneliness epidemic and isolation is not unprecedented. Virulent racism is not unprecedented, and toxic media bombardment is not unprecedented. The pandemic itself isn’t even that unprecedented – we knew from Nipah, Ebola, SARS, West Nile, Zika, EEE, and more that something was coming. Perhaps we have all been “caught off guard” by the “uncertainty” because we never want to face the fact that we have always lived “in troubling times.” Is there a vaccine for turning a blind eye to things?