Pandemic Privilege

Three months ago, I read a smattering of news articles about the emergence of a “novel coronavirus” spreading like wildfire across China. Around that time, I heard murmurings among the medical community about if and when it would become a problem for the United States.

20 days ago, I told my roommates that they should start buying a few more nonperishable groceries.

18 days ago, the governor of New York announced that large public gathering spaces would be closed and small gathering spaces would be reduced to 50% capacity.

16 days ago, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York State started climbing exponentially, stories of testing deficiencies surfaced, and restaurants were shuttered.

As someone who studies germs and how they spread, I saw the writing on the wall.

15 days ago, as food establishments, bars, and retailers closed either by government order or their own volition, my partner rented a car while I rode the subway to my lab, tidied up my experiments that could be salvaged, and disposed of the work that could not. As I donned an N95 respirator and handled the bacterium that causes the most deaths from an infectious disease worldwide, I felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that doctors, nurses, and cleaning personnel in the hospital above me were already running low on important personal protective equipment (PPE).

14 days ago, as the morning light illuminated the dark streets, my partner and I loaded up two suitcases and the dog into our aptly named Ford Escape rental car and drove west. Early morning drizzle over New Jersey gave way to a bleak, overcast sky as we crisscrossed the Appalachian Mountains on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Every rest stop was closed.

After a relatively uneventful nine-hour sojourn, we pulled into the driveway of my family’s home in Central Ohio, which is where I currently sit writing this post. The best data the medical community has about COVID-19 suggests that the upper limit of the incubation period for this disease is two weeks, so my partner and I decided to limit our interactions with anyone outside of my household for that amount of time. As of right now, 14 days later, neither of us is symptomatic.

12 days ago, my institution announced that all research activities unrelated to COVID-19 must cease by the weekend and that non-essential lab personnel–including graduate students–would be barred from campus.

3 days ago, due to extensive community transmission of the coronavirus, the CDC issued a travel advisory urging residents of NYC and surrounding areas to refrain from non-essential domestic travel. I felt vindicated by our decision to get out early and hoped that it wasn’t too irresponsible. Still no fever or cough, and my senses of taste and smell remained intact. Phew.

Being homebound in Ohio is quite different than it is in my beloved New York City. I knew this would be the case, and this is part of why we decided on our particular exit strategy. In New York, our apartment is small. We rely on public transit, which feels like an Petri dish for infections–especially in a place where the infection rate is now estimated to be 1 in 1,000 people–to get around. The tension in the air and on the trains was inescapable.

By contrast, here in the suburban Midwest, I pore over scientific papers while I peek out an array of large windows to a stone patio and a pond with a fountain. We can take the dog for a walk and stay much more than 6 feet away from our neighbors, which is especially important given the confirmed diagnosis of someone in a house one street over. Though we insist on helping finance the grocery runs and paying for the dramatic increase in utility charges, my parents cook dinner almost every night. We have puzzles, board games, movies, TV shows, baking supplies, spacious trails, and lots of hugs. There are multiple rooms for us to spread out in, whether we just need a break from each other or we have Zoom calls to take. Additionally, Ohio took one of the earliest and most aggressive approaches to social distancing among states in the country, resulting in a case rate much lower than other places. For reasons psychological and physical, I feel safer here than I did in my small Manhattan apartment.

Though I am now a remote graduate student, I stay involved academically to the best of my ability. I meet weekly with my advisor and analyze data, stored safely on my hard drive in New York, using a remote desktop connection. I am participating in two courses via Zoom, which involve critical reading of scientific literature and active involvement in discussions.

Importantly, I aim to stay as informed as possible by receiving updates on the ever-evolving COVID-19 situation from the Department of Medicine and Division of Infectious Diseases at Weill Cornell. As a budding science communicator, I’ve done my best to break this deluge of information into digestible bits and share it on social media in an effort to combat misinformation about the disease, which I see with unsettling frequency coming out of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the White House.

After attending college out of state at age 17, studying abroad in Spain, participating in two summer research programs on the coasts, and immediately matriculating into my PhD program in NYC after I earned my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, I never thought I would live at home again. These past two weeks are the longest period of time that I have been in Ohio since I started graduate school. I took pride in my financial independence, my freedom, and what finally felt like real adulthood. I often wonder when I will feel that way again. Who knows when it will be safe to return to the city and the lifestyle I’ve grown to love?

The last time I rode the subway in NYC, I found myself in an empty car. Now, the MTA has reduced operating capacity, forcing commuters into close quarters despite social distancing guidelines and an extremely high incidence rate of COVID-19.

For now, however, the Buckeye State feels like a paradise amid the mentally taxing task of social distancing. It’s a bit ironic that many of the reasons I chose to leave–the sleepy pace of life, the lack of hustle and bustle, the low population density–are now what make this place so attractive in the midst of a global disease outbreak. Life comes at you fast. But each day my newsfeed is constantly bombarded by the news out of the city I call home: rapidly filling ICUs, hastily constructed field hospitals in convention centers and parks, and supply shortages running rampant. I think of all the New Yorkers who cannot afford to stay home. I think of all the New Yorkers who cannot afford not to stay home. How can they possibly be handling this?

My partner and I are both extremely fortunate to be receiving steady income during this time. Because I am still working remotely to the best of my availability, I am still receiving my stipend, and his employer has guaranteed their workforce six weeks of pay. I think of all the service industry workers who lost their income streams and are incredibly stressed about how to pay their bills and expenses. How can they possibly be handling this?

I am lucky because the pandemic is offering me an opportunity: to refocus my academic efforts, to catch up on sleep, to escape from my hectic life for a little bit. But there are so many people who do not have these luxuries. They are waging an all-out battle against this virus. I think about the medical providers who wake up, put on a mask (if they are available), and take care of patients while putting themselves in extreme danger each and every day. They have loved ones, too. How can they possibly be handling this?

A significant amount of my emotional capacity over the past two weeks has been focused on these questions. I am happy to have left the city, but what about all the people who can’t and are now in harm’s way? Having grown up in Ohio, with access to these resources, is a privilege that many others are not afforded.

Additionally, I feel additional guilt because of my goal to one day be a medical provider. What does it mean that an aspiring doctor fled from a medical crisis instead of volunteering to help in some capacity? Normally, first responders run toward the problem, but I chose to run away. What does this say about me? What does it say about my capability to make the hard choices later in my career?

Ultimately, I have to remember to give myself grace. Since its inception, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a rapidly evolving situation with no other precedent in my lifetime. Nobody prepared us for how to handle these situations, and when push came to shove, I made a choice. I had to strike a balance between my mental health and wellbeing and my responsibility to the health of the communities I occupy. For me, that meant going to a place where I could wait out the worst of the virus and feel supported. For my community, that meant leaving as soon as possible and staying away from others until the fourteen-day period had elapsed. And I’ve been trying to convince myself that the best way to prepare myself to be a physician in the future is to care for myself in the present.

The ability to return to Ohio and conduct my studies remotely for the foreseeable future has been a gift and a privilege. I’ve been wracking my brain for ways to use that privilege to help those on the front lines of the pandemic, but I’ve had a tough time coming up with anything solid. For now, I’ll continue what I’ve been doing: practicing good hygiene, staying home, providing accurate and up-to-date information for those who need it, and advocating for effective public health measures (like PPE conservation and donation and social distancing) on my social media outlets.

It’s not always easy to check one’s privilege, especially during a time of uncertainty and rapid societal change. These two weeks, however, have made me realize just how good I have it–and that I want to be part of the solution, whenever that comes, and whatever that entails.

Stay safe and healthy, everyone! We’ll get through this soon enough.

For ways to help with the coronavirus response in your community, this website has a lot of options, including monetary donations to help laid off workers and health care professionals. Another good option is the WHO’s COVID-19 Response Fund. Additionally, the organization Mask Match helps partner people who have extra PPE with those who need it.

Finally, continue to wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water for 20 seconds, contact your healthcare provider or local health department if you think you are infected, and always practice social distancing, which includes remaining more than 6 feet away from other people and minimizing your trips away from home. More information about COVID-19 can be found at the CDC and WHO websites.

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