It’s been more than 10 months since the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time I had just moved into a house with eight strangers through a listing I found on Craigslist. Everyone in the house took steps to self-quarantine, reduce exposure, and improve sanitation around the house, but still, we each had our own separate lives. We made little collective, coordinated effort to adopt consistent precautions, other than limiting the number of guests at the house.
I continued going into work, the lumber yard where I was employed at the time having been declared an essential industry. We adopted mask wearing and social distancing procedures in accordance with government mandates and guidelines that emerged after the outbreak, but still, I was around coworkers and customers four to five days a week from March through the end of September. I hung out with three or four separate friends on a regular basis, but otherwise limited my interactions to my immediate household and coworkers.
By the end of September it came time for me to leave Seattle. I drove down to Oregon, crashing with several friends on the way, and spent a month living on an organic farm with four other people. Occasionally neighbors would stop by. No one ever wore a mask—the population was so spread out in the area and no one seemed too concerned. From there I journeyed down to California, where I visited my family and several friends before moving into a group house with a dozen other people to start a conservation program. Christmas break came around, and I stayed with my family in Bakersfield, only interacting with my immediate relatives and the handful of people they had over for dinner on several occasions.
I had taken precautions that I felt were reasonable, but after all that exposure due to my particular life circumstances and decisions I figured there was a good chance I had already contracted COVID and simply had an asymptomatic case. I’ve been exceptionally healthy my whole life and don’t get sick often. I’d felt healthy the entire year. Just to be safe, I decided to get tested shortly after Christmas in anticipation of a wedding I would be flying to in Austin four days later. In the meantime, I was able to self-isolate at my sister’s house. She and her husband were out of town and had asked if I could housesit for them.
The morning of my flight I woke up with a slight cough. I had just received a negative result from my test four days earlier. I got dressed in my suit (so I wouldn’t have to pack it) and put my suitcase in my car. I paused and coughed intentionally, paying attention to how it felt. My heart sank. This was no inconsequential case of clearing morning phlem. My body was responding to something. I was sick.
I would have to leave within the half hour to make it to the airport in time for my flight. Frantically I called a friend who worked at the CDC and explained my situation. I was caught between a negative test result, a slim window of exposure since then, and the slightest of symptoms. To my friend’s credit, she didn’t tell me what to do. I had to weigh the risks as best I could and make the decision for myself.
I thought about the health disclaimer the airline I was flying with required all passengers to affirm: that they hadn’t knowingly been exposed to the virus or had symptoms in the past two weeks. I had symptoms right now. I couldn’t tell a lie and board an airplane in good conscience (much less attend a wedding two days later if my symptoms were to worsen). I called my friend getting married and left a teary voicemail. I wouldn’t be able to come to the wedding.
I scheduled a COVID test two days later. In the intervening time my symptoms did get worse. My cough intensified and I became congested. My sense of taste and smell began to feel…off. I couldn’t taste much sweetness in anything. I couldn’t smell a scented candle burning in the room. I wondered if it was just the congestion. I hoped it was.
Five days later I got my test results: positive. I had COVID-19.
I’d be hard pressed to invent a more ironic turn of events. After all that exposure over the first 10 months of the pandemic, I finally had the chance to self-isolate for a few days. After a negative test and minimal exposure, I came down with the virus the morning of the only flight I had booked since the pandemic hit. Like what the hell? Just when I thought I could start putting the year 2020 behind me, I found myself in isolation in my little sister’s old bedroom, watching Netflix and eating fresh-picked oranges from the backyard amid leopard print duvet covers and Eiffel tower wall art.
This is my COVID story—or part of it, at least. I know we all have one, each chock full of our particular losses, frustrations, and griefs. But something feels different now that I’ve actually contracted the disease. I feel like I’ve finally stepped beyond the abstract, risk-management mindset. I’m no longer someone with such-and-such a percent chance of contracting the disease and such-and-such a percent chance of being hospitalized. In this sense the new case rates in my area are suddenly irrelevant. The virus is here, inside me, right now. I feel it in my breath, my muscles, my tongue. I am the host. The flesh-and-blood battle has come to me at last. In some mysterious—I’m tempted to say miraculous way—my body is waging war against a virus that the wealthiest nation in the world has proved incapable of stopping and that the brightest minds on the planet are still struggling to understand.
Waging war…and winning.
In the early days of the pandemic, I was on the phone catching up with a friend who works in wealth management. He told me about a comment a bank executive had made in a recent briefing with investors that was, in the words of my friend, “straight-up metaphysical.”
“Our bodies are the best defense we have right now,” the executive had said.
I’ve thought about that line a lot over the past year. It’s a remarkable thing to consider. For the vast majority of us who encounter COVID, a brand new contagion that we’ve never seen before, our immune systems will find ways to fight it off. And in many cases we will fight it off so easily that we don’t even realize we’re infected.
Don’t get me wrong, I bless making space for the experiences of loss and grief this year. I know that hundreds of thousands of people have died. It’s been really, really hard and the pain is really, really real. However I also hope that even in the midst of the hardship we can find ways to stay in touch with the wonder of our bodies and the deep knowledge we hold in our being all the way down to our very cells.
My former therapist often concluded our sessions with a bold affirmation: “You have everything you need inside you.” He meant it on a spiritual and emotional level, but now I can feel within me that it’s true at a physiological, immuno-response level too. I look at my hands and stretch my limbs, I take a deep breath and feel oxygen rush into my blood, I stand up and feel my muscles activate in my thighs and hips. I wake up and notice that I am not as sick as I was yesterday. I can literally feel the coronavirus being eradicated from my body.
Truly, I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
I recently took an hour to read Lawrence Wright’s excellent account of the pandemic in The New Yorker. It’s a veritable epic, ranging from closed-door conversations among CDC leaders and the White House coronavirus task force, to on-the-ground horrors faced by doctors in New York City, to the last hours of an aging World War II veteran who died neglected in a nursing home. I’ve read a copendium of such accounts over the year, from analytical articles centered around macro-level statistics of rising cases to individual stories of death and loss—people who died alone after an excessive immune response flooded their lungs with fluid, for example.
And here I am, carrying within me the same malicious sickness that so much ado has been made about, calmly typing away on my laptop and sipping a glass of water. It’s quite unsettling, almost to the point of being absurd. I feel like Boromir picking up the Ring of Power on the the Pass of Caradhras, staring at it in perplexed wonder: “It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing…Such a little thing.”
So strange, and yet like the One Ring I do find there’s a sense in which this disease feels fundamentally evil. I’m wary of any theodicizing that would attribute COVID to the Devil or claim that it’s God’s judgement on the world, but still, something feels undeniably nefarious about it. It has a trickster quality, as if it had been contrived and set loose by the Joker or Professor Moriarty. Many cases are asymptomatic. The disease moves by stealth and deception, leaving one person seemingly untouched only to strike with deadly fury in the next.
And when it does strike, well, it’s liable to target just about anywhere. As Wright describes in his account: “COVID is unusual in the variety of ways that it causes the body to malfunction. Some patients require kidney dialysis or suffer liver damage. The disease can affect the brain and other parts of the nervous system, causing delirium, strokes, and lasting nerve damage. COVID could also do strange things to the heart. Hospitals began admitting patients with signs of cardiac arrest—chest pains, trouble breathing—and preparing emergency coronary catheterizations.”
“There’s not a lot you can do but hope they get through it,” says one doctor in the piece. Since the outbreak began the medical community has developed some helpful treatments, but we still don’t really know how to cure this thing once infection sets in. Our only hope is the preemptive measure of a vaccine. In the meantime, we’re essentially left with only our bodies’ natural defense systems.
Even the more mundane symptoms of COVID show up with what feels to me like a malevolent quality. For instance, the virus has drastically diminished my sense of taste and smell, and it has forced me to care for friends and family by enduring the sickness in solitude. In my worldview and theology, this is what evil does.
In other words, I find that COVID has made a fundamental assault on the richness and beauty of my humanity. I trust I will almost certainly make a full recovery, so I’m not freaking out yet, but knowing how much harm the virus has the potential to cause, I am also not at ease. A friend of mine had COVID months ago and even though he has recovered, he is still experiencing lingering sensory fallout.
“It’s depressing to not smell correctly,” he told me recently. “I loved the smell of coffee and considered myself a gourmand in a way. My wife’s perfume she wore when we first met doesn’t smell the same. An avenue of joy is potentially altered forever. That’s hard to come to terms with.”
Indeed, the psychological devestation of anosima, losing one’s sense of smell, is well-documented. Doctors say it can be even more crippling and threatening than having a limb amputated. When the loss of smell is permanent, it almost always leads to depression, and in some cases suicide.
Is this not evil’s great twofold work: isolation, the severing of human relationships, and numbness, the undoing of the sensory, embodied pleasures that allow us to enjoy the good gifts of life? As the demon Screwtape reminds his temptor-in training in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [that is, God’s] ground…He made the pleasure: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.”
Pleasure is good. Taste and smell are good and at the core of what makes us human. The only thing evil can do is eradicate, twist, and diminish it. We’re made for feasting after all! People in every culture, from Bible-thumping Southern Baptists to ancient Athenians to indigenous groups around the world, intutively recognize this. To live the good life is to feast with those you love, and that’s right where COVID has hit me and many others the hardest.
One of my semi-regular practices during the pandemic, as the occassion calls for, has been to yell out loud, “Fuck you, COVID!” Sometimes I belt the curse out with friends. Other times I scream it by myself, raising my middle finger to the sky. I know the virus can’t hear me, but I make no apology for such outbursts. After all the measures we’ve taken and the sacrifices we’ve made over the past year to get a handle on the pandemic, COVID’s assault on my body feels like a violation. Taking my sense of smell and taste? That’s a low blow. I curse the disease again, “Fuck you COVID!”
We’re coming up on a full year of living with this goddamn disease, what else is left to do?
We can be angry and feel pent up. I think that’s a good, honest place to start. And then sometimes, in between my frustrated cries, I find shards of gratitude and little pieces of perspective. I take a deep breath and thank God for my lungs. This too shall pass. It will. The vaccine is on the way. There will come a day when I’m free of the teal walls of my sister’s bedroom—it’s only a weekend away, in fact. Soon and very soon. Like the flowers of the field, these dark, lonely days will fade away, and we will again see goodness in the land of the living.
For now, though, I must wait, bearing my own small portion of the weight of the world. The virus will rage and linger, but on the battlefront of my embodied existence, this heart and skin and bones in which I live and move and have my being, it ends right here.