What Happens in a Pandemic: Coronavirus Chronicles

#1 – March 15: social distance

I’m beginning to lose track of the order of events, both nationally and personally, because the situation has been so “fluid” as they say, the information flowing fast from multiple sources and changing sometimes by the hour over the past month. But this was the week that my immediate world went into emergency mode.

At my university, even as late as Tuesday, March 10, we were simply advised to limit gatherings and cut down on domestic travel, though international travel had been prohibited. But by Wednesday we got official word that spring break would be extended by a week and we’d be going to remote learning when spring quarter started on April 4. In those 24 hours, my department was cancelling in-person events or moving them to virtual platforms. Thursday was spent working out details for implementation and drafting communication plans to all our graduate faculty. Email sent by Friday morning. Then notification of suspension of all in-person final exams, which would have taken place next week. I had to look through my emails just to piece together this timeline.

Meanwhile, pressure was mounting in our community for public schools to close. We first got word on Thursday morning that all extra-curricular and PTA-sponsored activities were cancelled but by Thursday night, another email announced all public schools in our district closed for a month, starting Monday, March 16. All the other suburban schools had already announced closures, so we knew it was coming. Then on Friday, the governor ordered all public and private schools in the state closed.

That night, out at a local pizzeria for dinner, exhausted from the past few days, we got another university email notifying us of the first confirmed case of covid-19 on campus. Although my husband and I are physically and organizationally removed from that part of the university, we knew it would be the last meal we’d be eating out for a while. We had been slowly practicing social distancing and taking the recommended precautions, diligently washing our hands, reminding the kids to do the same, avoiding crowded public spaces. Starting this week, once we were all home for the night, I wiped down the door knobs, faucets, light switches, keys, phones with a disinfecting wipe. But the kids were still in school and we still had to go to work, to prepare for not going to work and not going to school.

Even just a few weeks ago, I thought I might still take my kids to Berkeley for their spring break and hang out with my college friends. But as the news cycles turned, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. My husband thought he was still going to give an invited talk in upstate New York, but feeling increasingly uneasy, he cancelled. Had he gone, he would have flown back yesterday afternoon through three airports, which by now has become a horrifying thought.

Instead, yesterday was our first full day of social distancing. Their piano lesson cancelled, the kids played in their pajamas all morning, while I had a long conference call with a volunteer parent organization. The four of us took a leisurely afternoon walk around the neighborhood as snow flurries and gray skies added to a sense of both quiet and disquiet. In this interregnum between life before social distance and the remote work/school routine that begins tomorrow, on what seems on the surface like any other unscheduled Sunday, I’m starting these chronicles as a mental health exercise, a way to stay connected and hang on to a sense of time, so that when (if?) we get past this period, I have a personal document.

I want to remember the details. It seemed too perfect that the first confirmed case at our work place was at a building called the Global Hub, a large, expensive mirrored glass edifice meant to celebrate interconnectedness and the global commerce of goods and ideas, yet not accessible to just anyone, even with a university ID. What do viruses care for such exclusivity and gatekeeping? This one has breached all the ways we wall ourselves off from others. A cosmic joke on us all.

Before news of the virus hit, I had been reading and taking great solace in Rebecca Solnit’s book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, published in the wake of George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 and reissued with new foreword and afterword in 2016. The book is a thesis against despair, against pessimism, fatalism, cynicism, and all the other paralyzing forces that keep people from recognizing their own agency and power. She unearths stories from the past that can light possible paths forward in these frightening times. She writes: “Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters.”

What will emerge from this pandemic? That is partly up to all of us. “We don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and that very uncertainty is the space of hope.”

3 thoughts on “What Happens in a Pandemic: Coronavirus Chronicles

    1. Thanks for reading, Karen. When I got the email, I thought, of course it’s the Global Hub! You can’t make this stuff up, because it would be too cliched if you did.


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