Like everyone else who’s staring into the unknowable abyss that is the next few months of our lives right now, I’ve had to grapple with whether or not to cancel some upcoming plans. My trip to Florida to visit family at the end of March seemed like a no-brainer: I live in New York, which is expected to be at the heart of a major coronavirus outbreak, and I didn’t want to risk spreading infection to my grandmother or my immunocompromised dad. Plus, I’ve taken seriously the scientific consensus to avoid all nonessential travel right now. Though I would be sad to miss spending time with people I love, I wasn’t going to prioritize my own vacation over the public good.
Because that’s what we’re doing by practicing social distancing and self-isolating, or by self-quarantining if we or other people with whom we’ve come into contact have shown symptoms of this virus: We’re making sure that we don’t needlessly spread disease to vulnerable people, whether or not we know them personally.
I attempted to convey all this to my aunt a couple days ago, when she encouraged me to make the trip anyway. I wouldn’t see my dad or my grandmother, but we could hole up together, just the two of us, in her condo. “It’s not like I’m worried about me,” she said. I gently tried again: “This isn’t about me or you. Our own health is kinda beside the point.” When the CDC is recommending we avoid gathering in groups of 50 or more to slow the spread of this pandemic and flatten the curve (the Trump administration as of yesterday recommends avoiding groups of more than 10), a crowded New York airport is the last place anyone should be. Plus, two of my three roommates have been exhibiting the telltale symptoms of this virus — one has a low-grade fever; both have dry coughs — which means we all need to be self-quarantining in our house for at least two weeks. At this point, I’m conducting myself as if I’ve already been infected. Why would I fly anywhere, let alone spend a week in a small Florida community made up of vulnerable retirees?
My aunt, with whom I’m very close, told me I ultimately had to make whatever decision I was comfortable with, though she didn’t seem to get what I was so worried about. Sure, the situation in Italy sounds bad, but they’ve been on rocky economic grounds for a while now — it’s “basically a Third World country,” she said. Never mind that northern Italy, where the first cluster exploded, is an extraordinarily wealthy area with, according to the World Health Organization, one of the best health care systems on earth — which should only tell us that it could have been so much worse there, and likely will be worse here. (Somebody should also tell that to Joe Biden, who, at the debate Sunday night, used Italy’s crisis to slam single-payer and Bernie Sanders’ plan for Medicare for All.)
My aunt ended up canceling the remainder of her Florida trip, but the conversation unsettled me. I realized that I’m not only concerned about how seriously my loved ones are taking calls to self-isolate for their own health and safety — I’m also concerned about what their willingness (or lack thereof) to prioritize public well-being over personal convenience says about them as moral agents, as human beings.
And I’m not the only one.
Shaheen, a 28-year-old from Atlanta, was horrified to learn that her younger brother and cousins wanted to carry on with their spring break plans in Orlando next week. “None of them cared that they could be vectors,” she said. “I had to call their parents and force them not to let them go.” Without her intervention, her family would have carried on as normal.
““It feels like talking to a Trump supporter. Someone who is unwilling to listen to reason and instead is looking out for their own selfish wants."
A young woman in Canada told me she and her friends were having a hard time convincing another friend of theirs to call off her international vacation, even though the current Canadian travel advisory is to avoid all nonessential travel. “No matter how much info we provide her on flattening the curve, she seems unwilling to listen,” the woman said. “She legit said the words ‘Justin Trudeau himself has to come to the airport to stop me.’” (Monday morning, when Trudeau announced he was closing Canada’s borders, she finally called it quits.)
This conflict echoes what a lot of us have been thinking lately — that in some ways, the coronavirus conversations are just a redux of the rifts caused by the 2016 election. “It feels like talking to a Trump supporter,” the Canadian woman told me. “Someone who is unwilling to listen to reason and instead is looking out for their own selfish wants, as opposed to thinking about the implications their behavior will have on the wider community.”
Lisa, a 28-year-old in Colorado, is frustrated with one of her best friends of seven years who’s supposed to have a bachelorette weekend in the mountains this Friday. “Last week I texted her suggesting a reschedule,” Lisa told me. “Yesterday another bridesmaid asked her to also reconsider. I texted her offline saying I agreed and would help with anything she needed to reschedule. She said ‘thanks for your concern.’” Now that the state is recommending that everyone in ski towns self-isolate amid more explicit shutdowns, meaning the trip’s getting canceled regardless, she said, “I’m worried she thinks I’m gloating or saying ‘I told you so.’”
Ultimately, Lisa noted that this pandemic has been an opportunity to “reflect on how people in my life are responding to this crisis,” and how their ideals and morals might differ. “I deeply value doing things for the greater good, but so many people in my life seem not to. I don’t know how to go forward with these relationships.”
A pandemic makes clear that we aren’t actually a nation composed of individual people and our nuclear families: We do, in fact, live in a society, and we’re all dependent on one another. So, too, does this crisis reveal, as Dan Kois wrote for Slate, “just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest.” In the meantime, we’re figuring out what’s in our immediate control when it comes to helping other people: We can donate our money and time to vulnerable populations; if we aren’t working on the frontlines of the crisis, and if we can afford to, we can stay the fuck home. And we can encourage our loved ones to do the same. But when communications from federal, state, and local governments have been all over the place, disinformation is running rampant, and responses to the severity of the pandemic are falling along partisan lines, it’s extraordinarily difficult to know what, exactly, is the right thing to do in any given situation right now. And that means partners, friends, and family members all around the country are having relationship-straining conversations about the best way to protect themselves from the virus — and much more complicated conversations about what they owe to other people.
Many millennials and Gen X’ers have had a hard time talking to their boomer relatives about the coronavirus, particularly parents and grandparents. Since elderly people are far more likely to become seriously ill or even die from the virus, they should be isolating for their own good, as well as everyone else’s.
But trying to convince young, healthy people to stay inside — especially during the first week of beautiful spring weather — is a different beast. Over the weekend, here in New York and in other projected coronavirus hotspots around the country, bars and restaurants were packed with people who either hadn’t heard, didn’t believe, or didn’t really care about widespread guidance to self-isolate. Gothamist reported that on Saturday night in Brooklyn, clubs were filling up just a few blocks away from the hospital with the first recorded fatality linked to the virus. “I’m not worried because I’m not immunocompromised,” one 26-year-old said.
That’s the mentality a lot of millennials have right now: I’m not at risk, so why should I blow up my life? Wanting to support local businesses and service workers facing an uncertain future is one thing — though I will note that donating to mutual aid funds and buying gift cards to use later is a great way to do so without breaking isolation! — but refusing to cancel fun plans out just because you were looking forward to them is another. If other people have canceled their weddings and are staying home from loved ones’ funerals, the rest of us can afford to sit out brunch.
For people who live in close quarters with others, the question of how to deal with isolation-breaking housemates is more immediately pressing. Sierra, a 29-year-old in Los Angeles, is friendly with her roommate, whose boyfriend recently moved in with them, and has been appalled to see how lackadaisically they’ve been treating guidances to self-isolate. Over the weekend, they told her they were going on a “supplies run” but were gone for five hours. Sierra’s particularly concerned because she’s considered to be at high risk for having a severe reaction to the virus should she get sick, “but they do not seem to care. I have basically taken to sanitizing every single thing I touch beforehand in the common areas because I just don’t trust that they are washing their hands or being conscientious of what they are touching. We sent texts back and forth because I was too upset to speak to them in person … At this point, I just have to do what I have to do.”
“He jokes around about it, then will realize how scary it is, then continue to go out."
Sierra is one of many millennials with limited financial options. She’d love to live alone, but “in Los Angeles, that is just not an option. If it comes to it, I can hole up in my room and just come out for the bathroom with my bleach spray. I don't want it to come to that, I want to still be able to sit and eat in the kitchen or watch TV in the living room. But I don't know if I can trust they are doing what they should. At least today, as of right now. Maybe with all these closures (and I'm expecting more in the coming days), things will change.” (Indeed, the county announced more restrictive measures yesterday afternoon.)
One 24-year-old, also living in Los Angeles, told me she had to drive home to her parents’ place in San Diego because her roommate, who was recently dumped, has been going on a string of dates every night of the week. “He jokes around about it, then will realize how scary it is, then continue to go out,” she said. The two of them are close, and she expects they still will be, but “I definitely don’t respect him as much after this ... I see him in a different light now.”
Perhaps the hardest conversations of all have been the ones between partners, whether past or present. One Canadian man told me that his ex-wife is “not informing or placing reasonable expectations on our kids,” even though he and their mother and grandmother are all in high-risk groups. “It’s incredibly hard to do it on my own,” he said.
A 38-year-old woman in Kentucky is dealing with a similar situation. Her 8-year-old’s dad is “not taking any of this seriously, and last weekend took my son to an indoor play place. I can’t keep my son from him or I’ll get taken to court. Meanwhile I’m hoping my son doesn’t get sick, and that I don’t get it from him,” especially because her parents can’t watch him while she’s working because they’re older and therefore vulnerable. Kentucky has just ordered the temporary closing of all restaurants and bars, besides takeout services, but “I wish the state would recommend kids stay with one parent or the other during this,” she said. Even though most kids have so far seemed to be generally unaffected by the coronavirus, she said, “it gives me anxiety because most isn’t ALL.”
One mother living in the Dallas suburbs, who “has a lot of anxiety with everything going on and also in general,” told me that she’s been experiencing tensions with her husband, who “is all ‘whatever’” about the whole situation. He hasn’t seen any problems with taking the entire family, kids and all, to places like the grocery store. “Finally I blew up on him after the third time he put on the news and said, ‘Look, this stuff stresses me out — can we just distance ourselves from it?’ He even had the audacity to say, ‘It’s not that bad. Are you really that stressed out?’ He’s still alive…for now….”
"I can’t keep my son from him or I’ll get taken to court. Meanwhile I’m hoping my son doesn’t get sick, and that I don’t get it from him."
Partners who’ve been slower to get on the self-isolation train have also had tough conversations. “I was the one who perhaps didn’t take the outbreak as seriously as I should have,” Georgia, a 26-year-old living in London, told me. “My boyfriend is obsessed with history and science so the coronavirus — and the history of pandemics in general — is actually something he’s been reading up on for a while and has been interested in for months,” she said.
“He used to always try and get me to watch videos and listen to podcasts with him which had various experts talking about how catastrophic COVID-19 could be for public health and the implications for things like the economy and our way of life — all things which we now unfortunately know to be true, or at least imminently so. I would always kind of pass it off as conspiracy and thought he was overreacting, because it went against everything the government was telling us during that time, i.e. ‘no need to worry.’” (The United Kingdom has taken a less stringent approach to handling the pandemic than its European neighbors, though over the weekend the government ramped up its efforts.) “As the situation began to get worse, with cases arising in the US and the UK, he repeatedly pleaded with me not to go into work because it would mean me having to use public transportation and interacting with hundreds of people.”
Now, like many others, Georgia is working from home and self-isolating. “I think it’s only now that I’ve realized the massive detriment I could’ve not only had on my own health, but more importantly the health of others who may be more vulnerable than me if I had continued to insist on living my life as normal,” she said. “As you can imagine, this has put a massive strain on the conversations we have, because he strongly believes that I should’ve trusted him sooner, and part of me also feels guilty for not doing so.”
Now, in the calm before the storm, we’re stuck in a horrible sort of limbo — nothing really to do but hunker down, stay home, and hope for the best — and every day, more and more people will be realizing exactly how dramatically this pandemic is going to change our way of life. Some of them will regret the way they spent the days or weeks before hospitals become overwhelmed and the death count rises. Others will continue to avoid any sense of personal responsibility at all. The spectrum of behaviors will be wide, because people are complicated. And the right decisions will never be perfectly clear — this is all frightfully uncharted territory.
Margaret, a 28-year-old in Brooklyn, had a difficult conversation with one of her roommates on Friday night, “when things were still kind of clear.” She drove her car over to a friend’s house to order Chinese food: “Not a group hang at all, and obviously not something I would do now. But she got very angry with me.” Though she thinks her roommate was totally in the right to express her concerns, “the method — and the entitlement — was shitty.” Margaret’s two roommates are married, which means they get to be quarantined together; when she explained how hard and lonely it will be for her to be single through this period of self-isolation, “that created understanding.” Her situation is a perfect example of how tricky it will be for us all to find the right balance between promoting public health on the physical level while also preserving our own mental health.
All of us are bound to make some maybe-selfish choices — we make them every day — but especially so at such a monumentally stressful time; we’re only human. And our behaviors won’t fall into a neat binary. One of the hard questions we all have to be asking ourselves in the coming months is what the line is between behavior that is forgivable and understandable from loved ones trying to cope during a crisis, and what might prove intolerable. Maybe not all of our existing relationships will serve us in this new uncertain future.
It’s a completely understandable impulse to place blame on individuals — whether the ones in our own lives, everyone currently crowding the Florida beaches, or that guy who’s gone viral thanks to a New York Times article about how he’d hoarded hand sanitizer in an attempt to sell it for a profit. But being needlessly smug and self-righteous isn’t necessarily helpful, either; we are all negotiating the fulfillment of our own personal needs with prioritizing overall harm reduction. And it’s also worth thinking about redirecting some of our anger at individual bad actors toward the broader systemic forces profiting from this crisis, like the pharmaceutical companies who blocked attempts to regulate pricing for any coronavirus-related drug treatments or vaccines — and the politicians who failed to stop them from doing it.
But it’s hard to think in the broadest possible terms when all we can really control is what’s right in front of us. The woman from the Dallas suburbs who’s struggled to get her husband on board with self-isolation said that they’re still trying to talk all this out; communication is key. She said she’s trying: “‘Okay, this is going on, so let’s try and do what we can. And I’m going to need your help.'”
“We’re trying to take stuff a week at a time,” she said. “That’s all we can do.” ●