On Saturday, March 28, my father took a calculated risk. After two weeks of silent restlessness, the inevitable need for a grocery run had arrived. The Clorox spray, decade-old gloves from beneath the bathroom sink and masks bought during the swine flu outbreak of 2009 are the main soldiers in our COVID-19 cavalry. My mother commanded them.
Clorox was to be deployed whenever a foreign object was encountered. The mask should stay on until arriving back home, where my father would take it off from the elastic part to avoid touching the front of the mask. He would then leave it to aerate in a sunlit area outside, in order to conserve the precious resource. Gloves were to be donned before going into the store, and shouldn’t be discarded until coming back home and placing the non-perishable items into a closed storage box. They would stay there for three days, allowing the virus to die off the plastic bags, a material notorious for retaining COVID-19 for the longest amount of time along with its accomplice, stainless steel. The perishable items would be thoroughly wiped down with Clorox and placed into the fridge, the riskiest endeavor of the operation.
I am not a survivalist. I don’t prepare to face minutely possible outcomes because the so-called odds are in my favor. But statistics don’t comfort me anymore. While statistics have helped us navigate a world riddled by randomness since the beginning of our history, they can no longer be optimistically applied to viruses. The viral world is simply too vast and complex for the likes of humans to ever feel at the top of nature’s hierarchy. An article in The Atlantic included the testimony of Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research Translational Institute, who affirmed the humbling fact that viruses can beat the odds, forcing the unlikely closer to reality than fiction.
Feeling disarmed, my family and I are attempting to shield ourselves from paranoia with hope. The whispers of antibody-enriched plasma, vaccines and significantly diminished hot zones in China and South Korea are easy to cling to. However, unchecked hope increases the chances of a false positive. To avoid this, we have been spending much of our time holding our breath for the health care workers who find themselves fighting a war on an island, disconnected from the rhetoric of normalcy. Short of personal protective equipment, ventilators, beds, support and gratitude, healthcare workers in New York, Italy and around the globe are in unfathomable positions. My mother, a physician herself, isn’t allowing this reality to be traded nonchalantly for five months at home and cancelled standardized tests.
Tuning into the outside world is leaving little room for background noise. Suddenly, all the quintessential worries of a 16-year-old are laughable. Being a junior, March through May is a time of grade meltdowns, standardized stress and college-visit confusion. Now, everything is underpinned by a "what if" quandary. What if this pandemic stretches on for a year? What if we don’t go back to school in August? What if New York and Italy never recover? What if all that’s left to do is move on?
When I first heard that cases of viral pneumonia were cropping up in Wuhan, I was ignorant. I didn’t draw the line from Hubei Province to Purcellville because back then, I was still consulting the Magic 8 Ball of statistics. But now, as doorknobs are cleaned for the first time in years, and hand-washing techniques put pre-pandemic “scrubbing” to shame, the magnitude of the situation is undeniable.
As we all attempt to soothe our unanswerable questions by adjusting to online school, telework and unprecedented hygiene, I can’t help but think about how the world will be different when we come out of this pandemic. Will cities, jobs, school and travel return to life before COVID-19, or will we become a reclusive species? Would we have learned anything about our damaged relationship with nature, or will we continue to encroach? But mainly, I hope we find it in ourselves to put aside our constructs and be compassionate on a level that crosses race, gender and status just like the virus did.
Arumani is a junior at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville.