It’s March 10 at the time of writing this, and in my city, we’ve had 260 confirmed cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and 24 deaths. Most of the deaths have happened at Evergreen Hospital Kirkland, a mile from my house in Washington State. We do not have enough coronavirus tests for sick people to get tested. They are literally waiting until after they are dead in some cases. The stores have been out of masks and hand sanitizer for three weeks. Bleach, paper towels, toilet paper, bottled water, cold medicine, canned food, vitamins – all disappeared from shelves at Target, Costco, drug stores and grocery stores.
There was even a run on Spam. Spam!
Since I have multiple sclerosis (MS), a genetic immune deficiency, and asthma, I’ve been watching the news on coronavirus very closely since December. What were the fatality rates? Who was dying? How were they dying? Were there any promising treatments? I watched the first cruise ships see hundred of cases. Then I started watching people dying in my own neighborhood. Many of them were from a long-term care home a few miles away. We’ve heard that every ambulance driver and firefighter who responded to calls there had to be quarantined for 14 days. Those are my people, the ones who would show up at my door if I called 911. The government has promised a response but in fact, has done nothing. At a hospital and at my doctor’s office, doctors complained – weeks after the outbreak started here – that they still don’t have tests, or a treatment protocol, or enough masks or protective equipment. A giant fail, a nurse tells me.
So what do you do when you’re trying to live a normal life during the apocalypse?
The facile answer might be, a little jokingly, that we are now living in a dystopia. People walk down the street but don’t look at or talk to each other. Traffic has cleared up. If you go to Target, Costco or the grocery store, expect to find empty shelves because people have panic-bought things that confuse me. Why bottled water? Why Spam? The coronavirus isn’t cholera; we’ll still have running water we can drink?
I started writing my book “Field Guide to the End of the World” while I lived for two years in California. California is always on the precipice of one disaster or another, and you’re expected to be prepared for it. It’s a different way of living. While I lived there, I began having the neurological and immune symptoms that would get me an MS diagnosis, and a test for a genetic immune deficiency that came out positive. By the time I moved back to Seattle, I was in a wheelchair and I had come to terms with the fact I was immunocompromised.
Getting these diagnoses also prepared me for apocalypse-thinking. If you want to stay healthy, you have to avoid flying, crowds, people who don’t wash their hands, hospitals, clubs…
Many writers have lived through outbreaks: typhoid, tuberculosis, the 1918 flu. They did not stop writing. I think of them as so much braver than we are, with our technology, our antibiotics, our fancy soaps and cleansers. But then here we are, facing a new, unknown virus with an unknown fatality rate but a taste for people who are older or who have underlying conditions. I am a person with underlying conditions, so while other people joke around about coronavirus or brush off these dead as “no big deal” (aka our president), I am paying attention.
My husband, who is healthy, has been running all the errands: picking up prescriptions, going to grocery store, anything where he has to interact with people. He takes phone pictures of empty shelves and talks about overwhelmed, stressed-out pharmacists already worried about shortages in the supply chain of our everyday medicines, most of which are made in China or India. My husband has been disinfecting the house, cooking healthy food, trying to keep me cheerful. We watch comedies only on television, listen to spy thriller audiobooks, try to distract ourselves with organizing or gardening projects. I write, of course, poem after poem about plagues, pandemics and quarantines. My husband and I are almost afraid to kiss and cuddle. Both of us wash our hands every time we go out anywhere. We take off our clothes after we have to go somewhere questionable, like the doctor’s office, the minute we get in the door. We have been married 25 years and have weathered a lot of crises — health, weather, money — but we’ve never seen anything like this: a storm cloud on the horizon that keeps coming closer, with nothing to do but let it roll over our city.
What is coming?
Every day, the news announces more deaths. My doctor friends say the numbers will rise as we get more of those promised, precious test kits. We hope we do not lose too much more of our “normal” life. In the meantime, every time it’s sunny enough, I go outdoors and watch the trees, the birds, how the trees are breaking into bloom. Weather in March in the Pacific Northwest is apocalyptic, too: hail, windstorms, snow and sun all in the same afternoon, sometimes. But the spring is beautiful and as inevitable as the coronavirus as it sweeps over us.
In the meantime, we try “social distancing” and wash our hands like it’s our religion. I think of my father, age 79, and my older family and friends. I hope for myself, if I can’t avoid it, that I can at least avoid catching this until we have hospital beds and ventilators available, or even an established treatment for the disastrous progression of the illness. We need a miracle, and it’s becoming clear the government is not going to provide it. Perhaps the miracle will come from a billionaire — Bill Gates has pledged millions for work on a cure and a home test — or an exceptional researcher at a university. I hope so.
Concerned about coronavirus? Stay safe using the tips from these articles: