Do you have a coronavirus story you want to tell? Fill out this form or reach out on Signal at (310) 614-3752 and VICE will be in touch.
If you look outside your window it may be sunny, the air might even be cleaner than normal, but every aspect of daily life has been warped by the pandemic. I avoid strangers when I walk my dog now, mentally calculating the six-foot gap between us. I wear gloves and a mask at the grocery store, where shoppers move around in a state of careful dread and an employee stands by the door making sure no more than a couple dozen of us are inside at one time. Every journey outside the house seems fraught. Every scroll through social media is full of new horrors, or some new thing to argue about as the corpses literally pile up. Everyone is under a strain as invisible as the virus, a strain that reveals itself when you ask someone—on the now-ubiquitous Zoom checkin—how they're doing and they pause to tell you they're alright… they think.
All over the world people have had to make awful choices. A woman I'll call Sara, who was not authorized by her employer to speak to the media, works as a psychotherapist in assisted-living facilities in Florida. Some of her patients are anxious from watching TV all day, and others who suffer from dementia aren't sure what's going on. She loves her patients, and knows they need her help now more than ever, but she also knows that even if she doesn't have symptoms, she can spread them to people likely to die from complications of coronavirus. Some facilities have barred her and her colleagues from entering, but others have asked them to continue coming in, even though she wants them to stop."It really is a very difficult internal struggle. The first thing you learn is 'do no harm,'" she said. "At this point in time, I think that the biggest risk to any of my patients is me, potentially bringing the virus into the facility."
"I think that the biggest risk to any of my patients is me, potentially bringing the virus into the facility."
Luke O'Neil gets a lot of emails too. The writer of "Welcome to Hell World," a popular newsletter basically about how bad America is and how hard life can be, often interviews people who have difficult jobs or gone through personal crises; last year he wrote about how Fox News addiction has destroyed people. His recent, coronavirus-flavored stories have been about how addicts are grappling with isolation and stress, the perils of being a mail carrier and how he is going through his own kind of unraveling. A lot of what's happening now—the sudden seeming collapse of so many systems at once—confirms for him what he's been saying about how fragile our society is, and how damaged."There's this real weird back and forth going on in my mind right now like, this is what I've been trying to say all along, people! This is how broken our country is!" he told me. "To be proven right in such a huge and instant swoop about how cruel our system is, there's no solace in that."
"To be proven right in such a huge and instant swoop about how cruel our system is, there's no solace in that."
For Alex Brook Lynn, this was all very familiar. The journalist and New Yorker has vivid memories of 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, city-shaking catastrophes that required everyone to come together and do what they can no matter how they're feeling. "I think 9/11 and Sandy prepared a lot of us for that kind of problem solving, the kind where you detach from anxiety," she said. "There is a crisis mode, a detachment I feel for this that allows me to find ways to help or support the city. "
Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT, wants to work out how the world might transform after all this. He thinks partly what is so devastating about the coronavirus is that it's disrupted the high standard of living so many of us have grown accustomed to, that the sudden shift has made these hardships seem especially daunting. "What I think people need to grapple with," he said, "is a way to achieve realistic expectations that doesn't feel hopeless."But he doesn't have time to muse about the big picture. His job requires him to look out for his students, and they need looking out for right now. Some of the kids he's in touch with are very far away from home and have no way to return. Others are atheists or agnostics whose families do not accept them and therefore can't go back. A few were in such a bind that Epstein was wondering whether he needed to open his home to them as a last resort, but as of last week he thinks everyone at least has a place in which to shelter. (Some students are still living in the dorms and eating food prepared by the dining halls, according to a Harvard spokesperson.)
"I wish that we called ‘social distancing’ something else because right now we all really, really need each other."