My grandfather almost made it to 2022. His final years were largely spent in isolation with his wife as the pandemic dragged on. Grandpa had stopped taking his daily walks after hearing reports of violent attacks against Asian American people, who were being blamed for the health crisis. Better to be safe, we all thought. But month by month, this forced sedentary lifestyle took its toll on his older body. He didn’t have COVID, but he grew weak. His ability to walk diminished through the pandemic.
It had rained in the morning before my grandfather left us. It was Christmas Day, which on the lunar calendar was also his birthday. By traditional Chinese convention, Grandpa saw the dawn of his 96th year. When he could no longer breathe on his own, the relatives who were able to rush to the hospital in Queens were allowed to visit his bedside one at a time, per the hospital’s pandemic rules, to whisper our goodbyes to him through our masks. How do you say farewell when you know it is forever? I told Grandpa I saw his resemblance in my baby son, whom he had only met once because COVID never went away. “Goodbye, gong gong,” I said. “Thank you.” My grandfather was buried beside my grandmother’s grave in a Brooklyn cemetery on a foggy day, surrounded by his family — just not me.
For two years I had managed to dodge COVID, but it had finally caught up with me on this of all days.
It happened at 6 a.m. the day of my grandfather’s funeral, and I suddenly had a fever. Just a day earlier, I got a negative PCR result, clearing myself to attend the service, so I stared in disbelief as two pink lines materialized on the rapid test I was taking at my bathroom sink before the sun had even risen: positive.
As I breathed through alternating waves of grief and numbness over the last two years, I’ve regularly told myself, Just keep doing your part to end the pandemic. But with thousands of Americans dying from COVID every day as we look ahead to year three, I now feel there is little more I have left to offer this cause.
This changing virus is hard to predict, but I can’t shake the sense that we blew our shot to make things better. It was only a month ago that the White House brushed off the idea of shipping a test to every American, sending local officials around the country scrambling to open more testing sites as Omicron began its unhindered spread through schools, nursing homes, gatherings, and households. About 23 million cases, roughly a third of all confirmed cases in the US since the start of the pandemic in 2020, have been counted since Dec. 1, according to data compiled by the New York Times. The White House finally announced in mid-January that it would buy a billion at-home rapid COVID tests, so that each “residential address” is entitled to one set of four tests, to be sent out at the end of the month. People can order them online (the site is available in English, Spanish, and Chinese) and a phone line will be open for those who don’t have internet access. It’s strange how such a massive undertaking can still feel like too little, too late.
Vaccines have changed the game, protecting people from the worst outcomes, but the emotional toll of the pandemic is wearing. Omicron’s pervasive spread the last few weeks means new variants are almost certainly evolving, with no guarantee that they will be milder or less contagious, or that our vaccines will remain effective.
Once again, there are no good options. I, like so many, have lost the will to go back into the bunker because two years in, I now know that the people who have never cared about the pandemic and who refuse to take precautions will continue to spread the virus. And I now know our government will protect these freedoms over everyone’s safety (the Supreme Court recently blocked a Biden administration rule requiring large companies to mandate that their staff be vaccinated). These distinctions mean less to me each day, though. Even vaccinated people can spread the coronavirus now. The silver lining I once thought was near has faded.
“It's just been two long years of uncertainty, and unpredictability, and having to constantly course-correct based on new information that is often incomplete, that doesn't have a clear black-and-white answer to it,” said psychologist Vaile Wright, the American Psychological Association’s senior director of healthcare innovation. “We've just reached the point where it's starting to feel pretty hopeless, even though I don't think it is.”
What more can I do? I’ve played all my cards. I’ve stayed home for most of the last 22 months. I have abstained from simple things that once gave me so much pleasure: cozy Manhattan restaurants, outsize gatherings of friends and family, movie theaters throbbing with energy on opening weekends. I’ve dutifully worn my mask as required. I’ve navigated changing rules at daycares and schools, and the disruptions of keeping my children home when they have any signs of illness or a case is reported in the classroom. I got vaccinated as soon as I could. I’ve been trying to protect not only myself but also my kids, who are still too young to protect themselves. None of this is unique; millions of Americans share this reality. But the incredible scale of this wave made me lose any sense of control.
Stuck at home the day of my grandfather’s funeral, I threw my rapid test in the trash and went back to bed sick. All of our discipline, and our caution, and our sacrifices through the pandemic now seemed futile; the inevitability of having to breathe the same air as the people around us meant we couldn’t prevent the virus’s spread. I knew I was still luckier than many people who had the virus, or who had lost loved ones to it, but these cold assurances brought me little comfort that day. I replayed the last few days in my mind, ruminating on how I could have done things differently, how I could have been even more diligent so I could have stayed well and been at the funeral with them. But I was defeated. The pandemic had taken so much from us.
COVID hospitalizations and deaths have continued to rise since my grandfather died, but I have nothing left to give to help end this pandemic. Perhaps we just move forward with the uncomfortable reality that “just about everybody” will catch the virus, according to the White House’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci. And that some of them, the unvaccinated in particular, will not survive.
The truth is, “a lot of things are out of our control,” Wright said. At this point, people could benefit from a shift in mindset that includes a level of acceptance — not necessarily approval — that this is just how life is going to be. There is no right way to deal with the pandemic now, she said.
Like most other vaccinated people who tested positive, I found my symptoms were mild. The at-home kit, which I bought at a local pharmacy, came with no instructions about what to do if you test positive, or who to inform. I had previously called my state health department to self-report a case but didn’t get through. Official counts don’t include cases like mine; we are the invisible wave. One billion tests are soon going to be conducted from home, their results unreported and unknown.
It seems as if our leaders, caught completely unprepared by this wave, are increasingly leaving it up to us to figure out how to get to the other side. For the vaccinated, the stakes are different now. Serious disease is unlikely, and it seems we’re moving away from a state of emergency. Schools are open, business goes on, and quarantine periods are now down from 10 days to five. But the virus is still here, and we each have to reckon with it and make wrenching decisions on our own, every day. We move forward by putting one foot in front of the other, even when we don’t know where we’re headed. I thought “getting better” would feel better than this.
When my isolation period ended, I left my room and gave my children the tightest hugs. I pressed them into me, pushed their fleshy cheeks against mine. I had missed them more than I could imagine. It had only been days, but they somehow seemed bigger. I wished I had answers; all parents do. I held them and thought, For however long this lasts — even with no end in sight — we are in it together. ●