by Sara Whitestone
“Well, Mom, it’s been 14 days, and Zhi and I have no symptoms,” my daughter tells me over the phone. This is the first I hear of the coronavirus. Rachel met Zhi while he was finishing his masters degree in Chicago, but Zhi grew up in Yichang China. As they were visiting his family in China this past December, Rachel and Zhi actually vacationed near Wuhan, where the virus originated, just before its outbreak. I am relieved they are symptom-free, but I don’t yet have any understanding of how this virus will affect us all.
China has locked down Wuhan and 2 other cities and has also banned travel for the Lunar New Year, which is the most celebrated holiday. Washington State now has confirmed the first case of the coronavirus on U.S. soil.
Coronavirus Disease 2019 is named by the World Health Organization and shortened to Covid-19. There now are almost 50,000 cases worldwide and several in the U.S.
I’ve been practicing my guitar a lot lately, and the song I return to again and again is Stevie Nick’s “Landslide”. And I ask the same questions as the songwriter:
Can we sail through these changing ocean tides? Can we handle the seasons of our lives? Or, will a landslide bring us down?
China, along with the World Health Organization, reports over 77,000 Covid-19 cases, resulting in 2600 deaths so far.
China also signals that their epidemic has peaked. This is due to the lockdown of over 60 million people in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital. But now, Italy is becoming the new viral hotspot. As a result of all this uncertainty, the stock market is volatile, losing 1000 points in one day of trading.
My son Nicolas and his wife Sarah share birthdays, so I drive from where I live in the mountains of Virginia to celebrate with them in Washington, DC. As we dine on Japanese sushi and sip saki, we talk of the virus, as if it were a bad cold or the flu. We agree that China and South Korea have both done a good job at containment, so it shouldn’t be too hard for us to do the same here in the U.S.
New York State has now proclaimed a stay-at-home order.
I’m on sabbatical this year, working on a novel. Normally I would be teaching writing for City University of New York. Still, I keep up with emails from my school, and I’m watching as all my colleagues have to move their classes from face-to-face to distance-learning formats. Even though I often teach online, I can’t imagine how hard this disruption must be for my colleagues. And for the students.
125,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported worldwide in 118 countries and territories.
I live alone in a condo close to a small ski resort and get out on the slopes almost every day. But today will be my last on the snow. Even my town—out here in the middle of the Virginia countryside—is shutting down because of concerns about the virus. Normally I’m not out of breath as I ski, but today I can’t seem to get enough air to fill my lungs.
Louisiana has postponed its presidential primary so that its residents can stay at home.
Years ago I attended Tulane University in New Orleans for grad school. A friend from back then has been a pastor in Louisiana for years. The pastor writes on Facebook that it seems the world has gone crazy. He likens the fear of the virus to the Y2K scare of 1999, which was mostly hype. Then he tells his church they will be worshipping together in person on Sunday.
Spain has locked down all of its 46 million residents.
My friend Rick, who is a Vietnam war vet, meets me at one of the few coffee shops that remain open. We talk of the virus and what it means to him and his wife. Now that all the Virginia schools are closed, he will be babysitting his grandchildren even more. I give him a hug as we leave, wondering when we’ll be able to go out for coffee again.
The Center for Disease Control warns against large gatherings of over 50.
I wake up with a sore throat and a cough. I try to breathe deeply, but can’t. But really, it is nothing. I hardly feel sick. Yet I worry. Have I contracted the coronavirus? Or maybe it’s just allergies. Or just a cold. I don’t know. And there is no way to get tested. My doctor’s office has sent an email saying they can’t test anyone and that they will not be able to see patients with any kind of respiratory symptoms in person. I decide I need to do my part by being cautious, so I lock myself down in full isolation.
The stock market drops 16%.
There is no change to my sore throat or cough. But now I have a little bit of a runny nose. Nothing more. Still, I’m worried. What if I do have the virus, and with that hug I gave to Rick, I passed it on to him? I call Rick and tell him I’m suspicious of my symptoms. He emails his doctor at Veterans Affairs, but the doctor emails back to say there’s nothing to do except wait and see if Rick gets severe symptoms. Rick is over 70 and has all the pre-existing conditions that could make coronavirus deadly to him. But even he can’t get a test unless he spikes a high fever.
My symptoms of whatever-it-was are almost gone. As I take a solo hike in the mountains, I try not to feel guilty that I’m not out there on the frontlines—like doctors and nurses, or like my colleagues who are trying to teach college from their homes. At a trail overlook, I breathe in deep, smell the fresh pine, and then cough. The only certainty for me is that I am determined to embrace the quietness of this isolation. And I recognize how lucky I am that I can walk out into this lonesome beauty.
In New York, Governor Cuomo is ramping up for the spike of new cases by preparing 140,000 hospital beds. He has requested 30,000 respirators, but right now, he has received less than half of what the state needs.
Zhi’s home city Yichang is in the province of Hubei, whose capital city is Wuhan. His parents have been sheltering at home for over 10 weeks now. 10 weeks! But they hope to be able to move more freely soon. Yes, I’m on sabbatical now, but what will life look like in the fall when I’m supposed to return to New York City to teach? How can we plan for the future when we can’t even predict what will happen—or how many will die—tomorrow?
There are more than 200,000 cases of the virus and 8000 deaths worldwide. Italy, with over 3400 deaths, has overtaken China.
I keep working at my novel. After all, what better time could there be to drift into another world—into another time and place? And so I use my novel to leave the here and now. But then, when I return, the real world has spiraled down into even more anxiousness while I was away. Everything I do right now is solitary and self-motivated. I work out to the 7-minute exercise app on my phone, I practice the “Landslide” chords on my guitar, I take hikes, and I write for hours—even when I don’t feel like it—because at least I still have control over my routines. This is a kind of continuity for me when all else is unknown.
Chicago has now issued a stay-at-home order.
Zhi has a masters degree in design and has just graduated with another masters in business. He’s looking for work but hasn’t landed an interview in several days. Those companies that gave Zhi hope for offers only 2 weeks ago now explain that they’re not hiring. The rhetoric of calling Covid-19 the “Chinese Virus” has permitted racism to boil up in ugly ways. Zhi’s Chinese name often keeps him from gaining interviews, and he’s debating whether or not to change his first name to one that sounds more English. Through FaceTime, I help Zhi work on his cover letter and resume so that he can stand out from among the thousands of others who are applying for the very few digital marketing and design jobs available. Even the parks in Chicago are closed. Sometimes, as Zhi takes a walk outside his apartment building, people scowl at him and keep their distance—not for health reasons but because they think he, and others who look like him, are to blame for this virus.
My friend Alex spent the last several years writing a book on the four-day work week. It was slated to be a hot seller. Now he tells me that the book’s launch is completely disrupted. But even in the best of times, how a book may or may not be received is uncertain. “Disappointment is relative,” Alex says, “and you can’t rest your happiness on a book doing well.” Alex and I remind each other how blessed we are that our health is still good. And we spend our hours of isolation—he on the west coast, and I on the east coast—doing what we have always done. We write.
New York has almost 17,000 Covid-19 cases, which is 5% of all those reported worldwide. Governor Cuomo says that the stay-at-home order will now be enforced with fines.
Normally my weekly routine would include visiting family and friends. And I always give out hugs—both at hello and at goodbye. But because of my self-isolation, I haven’t seen (or touched) anyone in person now for 11 days. My sister from New York texts me just to find out how I’m doing. She tells me that she prefers to call these stay-at-home orders physical distancing, because we still can—and should—hold each other socially and emotionally close. Her partner, Yannik, is sick with what is probably Covid-19, with its fever and body aches, but still, he can’t get tested to know for sure. At one point Yannik feels better, but then he relapses. And then this cycle happens again. We worry his illness might turn into pneumonia.
Louisiana is a new hotspot, with over 150 deaths from Covid-19.
The church in Louisiana where I have friends is now live-streaming their services and mobilizing volunteers to bring meals to kids who are out of school and to seniors who are shut in. New Orleans, where I once lived for 4 years, is being hit especially hard.
Kious Kelly is the first nurse in New York City to die from Covid-19. He had an underlying condition of severe asthma. Many other nurses in New York have quit their jobs because of the shortage of personal protective equipment.
I open an email to find an update from a former student. She is now a scrub nurse for a cardiac surgery team. She writes:
This morning the scheduling manager assigned me to attend a Covid patient. Me, out of all the nurses in the operating room. I believe it’s because I am the newest here. I was upset because this clearly shows that the managers don’t care about us nurses at all. I have an immunodeficiency disorder, and they don’t even bother to ask us about our health before putting us into those rooms. Then my cardiac team boss told the manager to change her plan—because she should know we need to preserve the cardiac team. Yet, I’m embarrassed now to run into the nurse who has had to take my place with that Covid patient. I signed up to be in healthcare, but now I don’t like it that my health is at stake? What would people think of me if they knew how I felt? We healthcare workers are in a dilemma. We need to do our job to protect patients, but who is protecting us?
City University of New York is made up of 25 schools and enrolls 275,000 students each semester.
My friend Michael is an administrator at the college in that system where I also teach. Many of our students don’t have the laptops or the internet access to be successful in their distance learning courses. Michael tells me that while he only takes a Xanax once in a while, he breathes the serenity prayer often. And then, while working from home, he gets back to solving what problems he can.
Now topping 100,000, the U.S. has logged the most cases in the world. 2000 have died, and 3.3 million people who have lost their jobs have applied for unemployment.
Zhi says that China expects another low wave of infections as the government incrementally allows people to emerge from their homes. But the hope is to control the spread to a steady burn, until the virus dies out. Now, everyone I talk to describes this novel coronavirus crisis as something new—a pandemic on a level that none have experienced before. And I ask myself how? How do we live in this uncertainty, when we can’t even make predictions based on past experiences which could then guide us in this present pandemic?
I check in with my friend who is in charge of a firehouse in the Bronx. Captain Mike was at Ground Zero during and after the 9/11 attacks. When I ask him how this Covid crises compares, he says:
This pandemic, in some respects, is worse. In the days following 9/11 we were not concerned with the situation getting worse or with the possibility of more attacks and losing more members. This pandemic is very dynamic, constantly changing, with evolving data and differing points of view—from the local to state to federal government, and from the media, social media, and the medical community. The wholesale life-adjustment to social distancing/quarantine and constant barrage of Coronavirus news is unnerving. I wish I could better articulate this because I never want to marginalize or minimize the events of 9/11. But this pandemic is uniquely different.
The world shifts and crumbles under the weight of all this uncertainty.
The U.S. has 142,000 Covid-19 cases, and now the official projection is that between 100,000 and 200,000 will die—in the U.S. alone—before this is over.
From New York City, Captain Mike also shares this:
The social distancing order is somewhat being followed, but people still come out. There is some needless violence directed at Asians from a few malcontents. We responded to an Asian woman beaten on a city bus by a group of young girls. They hurled Coronavirus/Chinese insults at her and hit her with an umbrella.
I love Zhi as if he were my own son, and now I’m worried about his safety—and my daughter along with him. What drives some people to blame others for what we are—as a whole world—suffering through together?
The governor of Virginia has issued a stay-at-home order until June 10. India has tried to lockdown 1.3 billion people, but millions have been walking over-crowded streets out of the cities to reach their home villages.
Many residents in Virginia didn’t take the physical distancing guidelines seriously and were out in large groups this past weekend. My son and his wife can’t come visit me from Washington, DC as we had planned, but at least I can still see them through Facetime, still go out on my solitary walks, still buy groceries, and maybe even get some paint to freshen up the walls of my house. But how can you even begin to practice physical distancing when you live in India?
There are 900,000 Covid-19 cases worldwide.
Years ago, my grandmother gave me an old bench from her church, and it’s been sitting on my covered deck ever since. But today, for some reason, I decide it’s time to buff it with a finishing wax. The physical movement of my arms pushing the wax through a soft cloth and into the wood—that back-and-forth and give and take—is a mantra. It’s always my impulse to find meaning, or at least to look toward understanding, but this virus has defied that. And as I press the cloth even harder into the wood, I catch myself softly singing, “and will a landslide bring us down . . .?”
Sara Whitestone is a novelist-in-progress, an essayist-in-practice, and an un-tortured-poet-in-process. In exchange for writing instruction, her students at City University of New York introduce her to the mysteries of the world. Whitestone has presented at New World Stages, Chautauqua, Johns Hopkins Conference on Craft, West Conn’s MFA residency, and other venues where external beauty and internal words merge. Her works have appeared in The Portland Review, Word Riot, Literary Traveler, SLAB, and elsewhere. Whitestone’s current longform project is a duet of novels titled Wanting and Wandering. To learn more about her inner and outer adventures, visit sarawhitestone.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @sarawhitestone.
Fangzhi (Zhi) Zhao is Sara Whitestone’s son-in-law. After he read a draft of her essay, he was inspired to create this painting, titled “Debris.” Zhi writes:
The main scene is a landslide with debris flying in the air and dropping down towards the outside of the painting. These are rocks, but they are also damaged and infected cells, which is why the colors are shades of earth and flesh. The background is pitch black which represents the stifling lock-downs which are happening around the world.