I’ve been trying to think of a unique perspective to offer during this turbulent, scary time. I could talk about how what most people are experiencing right now — social isolation, fear of losing their health, and uncertainty about how to get basic supplies — is the every day life of many people living with chronic illness. After all, those of us with chronic illnesses have been going through this long before the coronavirus pandemic and will be dealing with it long after it’s over. For years, decades really, we have been living in quarantine, afraid of contracting a secondary illness that could make our conditions worse, as was my fate five years ago when the flu converged with my illness to leave me unable to walk, talk, or eat. Those of us who have lived this life know that the desperate search for treatment and a cure is as terrifying as it is frustrating. Like many people are now experiencing with the coronavirus, not knowing when, or if, a chronic illness will get better is truly scary.
But that’s not what I want to focus on today, because I do feel for what everyone is going through, whether it’s fear of contracting the coronavirus or the social and economic fallout from the pandemic. So I’d like to talk about some thoughts and observations I’ve had about this sudden and scary outbreak. I’ll try to keep it somewhat lighthearted because the world is serious enough right now.
First off, I’ve noticed a lot of people saying: “We’re gonna get through this together.” I get the sentiment, I even appreciate it, but if you think about it, this situation depends on us getting through it mostly apart, not together. If we’re being practical about it, the best way to get through this pandemic is by staying as far away from each other as possible (at least six feet, to be exact).
I know it’s hard to stay apart. As Vin Scully recently said, “It’s a very difficult time to go without hugs,” but that’s what we have to do to survive this mess.
When people say, “We have to get through this together,” I know they mean it more figuratively, but even that is problematic because some of the people who say it are the ones hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer or they’re celebrities who are getting tested for the virus without showing symptoms when non-famous people are literally dying before they get tested. Then, there are all the people getting fired from their jobs, by no fault of their own. It’s a humbling reminder that surviving a pandemic isn’t exactly a team sport. It can be, but we have to get creative. We have to depend on each other to keep a safe distance, we have to keep each other company, however virtually, and we have to help each other financially. It all creates this weird paradox where we have to stay apart but also rely on one another. And thankfully there are already examples of people achieving this delicate balance, helping each other from afar:
This is to say that I’m all for getting through this together, but let’s stay six feet apart and wear masks and disinfect everything every five minutes, and when the zombies come, let’s use the people hoarding supplies as shields.
Now, speaking of supplies, I really feel for those who have been without toilet paper, and I have some advice: use water. I know it may take some getting used to, but I promise it’s worth it to not wait in a mile long line at Costco and risk getting sick. Plus, you never know, you might find that it works better, because it does. Whether you use a bidet or a spray bottle or just jump in the damn shower, I promise it works better than that stupid toilet paper you can’t get your hands (or butt) on. And if you don’t believe me, just read this passage from Jack Kerouac‘s Big Sur:
It was he and George Baso who hit on the fantastically simple truth that everybody in America was walking around with a dirty behind … because the ancient ritual of washing with water after the toilet had not occurred in all the modern antisepticism … “People in America have all these racks of dry-cleaned clothes … they spatter Eau de Cologne all over themselves, they wear Ban and Aid or whatever it is under their armpits, they get aghast to see a spot on a shirt or a dress, they probably change underwear and socks maybe even twice a day, they go around all puffed up and insolent thinking themselves the cleanest people on earth and they’re walkin around with dirty azzoles … All you gotta do is simply wash yourself with soap and water! it hasnt occurred to anybody in America at all! it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard of! dont you think it’s marvelous that we’re being called filthy unwashed beatniks but we’re the only ones walkin around with clean azzoles?” — The whole azzole shot in fact had spread swiftly and everybody I knew and Dave knew from coast to coast had embarked on this great crusade which I must say is a good one — In fact in Big Sur I’d instituted a shelf in Monsanto’s outhouse where the soap must be kept and everyone had to bring a can of water there on each trip … and besides do you know what it does to people to walk around with a dirty azzole? it leaves a great yawning guilt that they cant understand all day, they go to work all cleaned up in the morning and you can smell all that freshly laundered clothes and Eau de Cologne in the commute train yet there’s something gnawing at them, something’s wrong, they know something’s wrong they don’t know just what!”
I’m not a big Kerouac fan, but I do love that passage and he makes a solid point. Whether you use his advice or not, whatever you do, please don’t mitigate the toilet paper shortage by listening to former Arkansas governor and Trump BFF, Mike Huckabee. His solution just sounds painful:
Like toilet paper, hand sanitizer is also in high demand. As someone who hates hand sanitizer but still has to disinfect everything from the IV in my arm to the straws in my water glasses, I suggest using alternatives. If you really love hand sanitizer, you can make your own with some aloe and isopropyl alcohol, but personally I prefer to skip the aloe. Yeah it prevents your hands from drying out, but it also makes your hands a sticky mess, so I just use alcohol to clean my hands. I would wash them with soap and water, which is what I suggest people do, but I’m mostly confined to my bed and getting to a sink is nearly impossible and definitely not an efficient way of cleaning my hands, so isopropyl alcohol it is. Similarly, if you’re wanting to disinfect surfaces, I suggest using hydrogen peroxide and baking soda as alternatives to bleach.
Another issue with supplies is the shortage of masks. As you can see in the photos above (and video below), many people are making their own.
My mom has done a version of this, others have posted instructions online and there are even options for people who can’t sew. Not all masks are equally effective, but any mask is better than no mask. The mask shortage is a big issue because it seems like almost nobody has them. I see photos and videos with people out in public amidst the pandemic and very few, if any, are wearing masks. Where are all these masks that have sold out? Either a few people are hoarding them or people are self conscious about wearing them out in public. Either way, we need to figure out how to get everyone to wear a mask when they’re around other people. I realize that at any other time that would sound a little crazy, but this isn’t any other time. It’s understandable that people don’t want to look like germaphobes out in public, I guess, but this is not the time to be self conscious, it’s the time to be the biggest germaphobe in the history of germaphobes. This is the time to gather every last drop of your inner neurosis and channel it into keeping your microbiome to yourself. The alternative, of course, is much worse. Being self conscious about wearing a mask is worth not getting sick. And nobody is going to judge you. If they do, well, karma will catch up with them.
I’ve seen some misinformation saying that masks don’t really stop you from getting the virus. And while the mask itself won’t actually kill the virus, it will create a barrier and stop it from getting in your body. So wear the damn mask. And wear it as much as possible until the outbreak is over.
Now let’s talk about contagion. People are still going to the beaches (mostly in Florida), ignoring advisories to stay at home and quarantine themselves. As frustrating as it is to see, it made me think back to when I was in college and the H1N1 outbreak was going on. Honestly, I don’t remember much about it, but I’m positive that it wasn’t like this. I would have remembered if my classes were canceled and large parts of the population were quarantined. I’m fairly sure none of that happened, which means we’re in uncharted territory here.
When I was in college I might have been an idiot and had my party on the beach amidst a deadly viral pandemic sweeping the world. In fact, I probably would have. But maybe that’s one reason I’m now as sick as I am. Maybe I’m paying the price for the cavalier attitude I had when I was younger. There’s something about being young and healthy that makes feeling invulnerable practically second nature. It’s hard not to feel that way because you don’t know what the flip side is like, you’ve never been sick and debilitated. But let me tell you, it’s better to be cautious and safe than to have to live the rest of your life stuck in chronic illness purgatory, or worse, actual purgatory because you were unwilling to give up a few beers on a beach during spring break.
Spring breakers aren’t the only ones throwing caution to the wind though. Being cavalier in a time like this can be as seemingly innocuous as not washing your hands or not wearing a mask out in public. Making a habit out of these things takes time, and until that happens or until someone you care about gets sick, it’s easy to take them for granted.
The hard part, of course, is staying vigilant. Even if you’re aware of the potential danger of the virus and you take precautions, it’s easy to let your guard down and revert back to old habits of not washing your hands every chance you get or not wearing a mask out in public. You can get away with these things when there isn’t a deadly viral outbreak on the loose. But right now there is a deadly outbreak on the loose. So, please, take ALL the precautions. It’s only for a finite amount of time.
This pandemic is going to end, and when it does life is going to return to normal. People will stop hoarding toilet paper and making their own hand sanitizer. They will go back to touching and hugging each other, not staying six feet apart. I don’t know when this return to normalcy will happen, it could be a few weeks, a couple months, or a year, but when it does happen, I hope everyone remembers what it was like, how it felt to live in this strange alternative universe of fear and social distancing. I hope everyone remembers it because some people will have to keep living it. Those of us with chronic illnesses will remain in that alternative universe, the one we’ve been stuck in for years. We’ll keep living through it and looking for a cure for our own personal pandemics, but, I promise you, we’ll be gracious enough to not take all the toilet paper.