Nina Burleigh, Living Through the Best and (Especially) Worst of Times

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It never seems to end, does it? Three-plus years after it first landed on our shores, Covid-19 is still killing more than 300 Americans daily, while cases are rising again nationally (though sinking in the Northeast and Midwest). And — of course! — two new subvariants were recently detected in South Africa, capable of evading the immunity wall created by vaccines over the past two years (though vaxxing will still make you less susceptible to hospitalization and death).

We’ve all had to live through this in one way or another for what seems like eons now. I’m a careful and carefully masked old man who — despite some members of my family getting Covid — has avoided the disease so far. I was, however, exposed to it relatively recently and had to isolate myself for days. Still, in New York City where I live, I can sense that so many of us have simply thrown up our hands and gone back to something closer to pre-pandemic life. For each of us, at the very least, the Covid-19 experience has been a drama of the first order in which more than a million Americans — the worst record for a rich country — died and so many others, including two aging friends of mine, have ended up with devastating “long Covid.”

Worse yet, Covid has been only one of our pandemics in these years. Can there be any question that this country has an ongoing political fever, too? Call it Long Trump, if you will. And if you doubt it, visit Mar-a-Lago before the next climate-strengthened hurricane hits or have a word with Ron DeSantis, or Dr. Oz, or the Proud Boys recently indicted for “sedition” over their actions connected with the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

With all this in mind, let me offer one person’s account of our never-ending Covid moment, up close and personal. TomDispatch regular Nina Burleigh wrote the superb book Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic. Now, she takes you behind the scenes of her own life to offer one of so many millions of Covid-19 dramas that played out in these years, something that, in one fashion or another, all of us have had no choice but to go through and, of course, it hasn’t ended yet. Tom

My Pandemic in Three Acts

Dealing with the Disease that Never Seems to Leave Town

On New Years’ Eve 2019, Americans celebrated the advent of the roaring ‘20s with fireworks and champagne, amid ominous news alerts from China. Surely that virus would stay on the other side of the planet. I cringe at how entitled we felt then. Covid-19 has now wiped out more than a million of us (by far the worst record on Earth when it comes to wealthy countries). Up to a third of all survivors suffer the sometimes disabling effects of long Covid, with implications for society that will outlast the pandemic — if it ever ends.

I’d like to believe we’ve learned a lesson about our species-wide vulnerability, our planetary connectedness. But in fact, we seem more atomized and arrogant than ever. The pandemic arrived just as technology was driving us collectively mad and pushing us further into our black mirrors.

Researching and writing a book about the science and politics of the pandemic, I lived with it up close and personal.  But my book’s last page wasn’t the conclusion for me — or anyone else. Here I offer my personal Covid tale, organized in three acts only because my storyteller instinct demands a beginning, middle, and end… when in truth, there is no end, not yet anyway.

Act 1:  The Ides of March

My “last normal thing” (as such activities would come to be called) before the first pandemic lockdown was to attend a birthday party in New York City in March 2020. Covid-19 was already causing moderate to severe panic among our crowd, but no one we knew was dying… yet. We didn’t know enough to wear masks. There were no tests yet. The hostess assured us all that there would be plenty of hand sanitizer around. Some invitees didn’t come, but a surprisingly large number of us showed up. A few already had coughs. Others would end up sick with fevers within weeks — by which time the idea of standing within breathing space of anyone but immediate family members already seemed unthinkable.

A few days after the last normal thing, our kids were sent home from college and high school. Survivalism kicked in hard. My husband, the kids, and I left the city the very next day for upstate New York, holding our breath in the elevator on the trip down to the car. We abandoned a neighborhood that, within weeks, would turn out to be among the most ravaged in the United States.

Up in the country, we dispatched one person to Walmart every few weeks to prepper-shop. We made sure to take off our shoes and strip down from our outerwear at the door because who knew if the virus could come in on your clothes? We washed down everything — cans, cardboard oatmeal cylinders, cereal boxes, packages of beef and chicken — in a kitchen-sink bath of bleach, detergent, and hot water. 

Word got around that there was no yeast on the local store shelves. That was alarming even though we’d never bothered to look for it before. So we ordered what seemed to be the last pound of Amazon’s stock, along with a 50-pound bag of flour. Then we had to figure out how to store it.  My husband learned to bake bread and proceeded to turn the weekly making of it into the equivalent of a religious ritual, a talisman.

There was panic and death down the mountain, but we lived like gods. We cooked elaborate meals with our stores of food. Every night, candlelight flickered on the groaning board.

We still had some money in the bank. We lost track of the days of the week. While so many were suffering, it was a strangely happy time for our family. We took extravagantly long hikes in the muddy forests. We marveled at the infinite green shades of the spring mosses, freshly revealed by the melting snow. We walked along trickling waters in mist, in birdsong, in a dream.

Then came April, the cruelest month. We viewed videos of forklifts moving bodies into refrigerated trucks in New York City. We made gin and tonics every afternoon and watched the sunset over the golden forsythia, while tracking the rising death-toll graphs on our phones.

Summer swept in and the night sky looked different. Was it our imagination or did the stars even seem brighter? Nature felt stronger with us at rest. I felt stronger, too. As it warmed up, I biked miles and miles and swam daily in the river, ponds, and lakes, or in people’s pools. I rewatched The Swimmer and then reread the John Cheever short story on which that film was based.

For a while I even kept a journal.

July 10, 2020: “Keeping the dog exercised is becoming more urgent — as I have less to do anyway. I ought to write a treatment for my book. Time stretches, moments of goal-free existence. So — how things will never go back to ‘normal’ — it will be all new after this and that’s good. Or bad, depending on how it goes.”

August 19, 2020: “Awful lack of work, the sense of being forgotten occasionally surges back… I write this as the sun dapples the wood floors, insects trill, a caterpillar metamorphoses in a cocoon on the counter downstairs… I have drifted…”

Fall came and, as I was seeking nothing, the Buddhist thing happened: within a period of weeks, I was offered three jobs — graduate-school teaching, producing a documentary, and writing a book on the pandemic, which would become my Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic the following year.

Act 2: Hot Vaxxxed Summer

I was blessed. The winter of 2020-21 was glorious. Upstate New York winters are usually a seesaw of ice and mud, but that season powdery deep snow fell and stayed. In the morning, I researched and wrote on the nightmare that seemed to be happening elsewhere. Every afternoon I cross-country skied.

While I was living something like a momentary dream, I was researching a pandemic the likes of which this country hadn’t seen since 1918. And like the death counts and infection rates, I can graph my own pandemic state of mind. It took a 180-degree downturn in mid-summer 2021.

One morning in late spring, I was driving to New York City for some carefully masked business meetings about my book, which was soon to be published, when the phone rang on the car screen. It was my mother’s number in Chicago.

“Hey, Mom!”

“I’m having a stroke,” she mumble-croaked.

From the right lane of the leafy Palisades parkway in New Jersey, Siri called 911, which could do nothing for a woman collapsed on a floor in Chicago. My sister and brother there did, however, reach the local EMTs, while I stayed on the phone, listening as she went silent. Finally, I heard a banging on her door and a man’s voice asking my 92-year-old mom, “How you doing, young lady?”

She had indeed suffered a stroke, the same thing that killed her mother. I flew home the next day, while my brother and sister agreed to let the surgeons operate — against our mother’s express wishes — because they said they could stop the damage.

She woke up intubated on a ventilator — the same machine that had been used, too often to dreadful effect, on tens of thousands of the Covid-afflicted. Her doctors didn’t know if she’d survive the removal of the breathing tubes, but we assured them that would be what she wanted, even if it meant death. They told us to say our goodbyes. 

I memorialized that day on the almost-last page of the journal I kept that year:

May 13, 2021: “Bright spangly Lake Mich. Today we go to turn off the machine that maintains our mother. Her eyes already look distant and strange, both seeking and informed, brown. Crabapple trees are blossoming.”

We waited outside the room while they took her off the machine. Instead of dying, she struggled to push herself up from her pillow. That night, in the dark, my mother touched my hair. “Beauty,” she whispered.

“Probably the last time my mom will pat me on the head,” I wrote in my journal, but as it turned out, the surgeons were right. Mom survived and even got most of her language back, though the woman who read us nursery rhymes and always had a book open in her lap can now barely read. Still, she can live on her own, a frail bird in a tiny cage.

That’s how the pandemic passed over mom and me. Friends of mine lost parents to Covid, without even being allowed to say goodbye in person. Mine lived on.

Facing her mortality, and by extension mine, coincided with the end of the first phase of my pandemic experience. The world kicked back in with its speed, competition, and status anxiety, the jostling and elbowing for power.  Everything the lockdowns and my own personal lockdown had held in check came roaring back. I was vaxxed and had a book to promote. I needed to make my mark again, but the more I wanted that, the less confident I got. Thwarted ambition, envy, and avarice returned. FOMO pinched again. I blew up a few relationships. Things only seemed to spiral downward.

I don’t personally know anyone who died of Covid. I don’t have anyone to mourn, even if, thanks at least in part to the pandemic, I descended into my own pit of despond. I mostly stopped taking notes on my observations and state of mind last fall. The journal entries faded away soon enough after they became records of rage and resentment. I guess I got tired of recording a view of my inner life stewing in something bitter. 

Act 3: Flight

In the last pandemic year, like so many of us, I’ve been in a kind of flight, both literal and figurative. I’ve compulsively boarded at least as many planes and visited at least as many remote destinations as I had in the previous many years combined. It was as if I wanted to challenge the virus in person. I turned down no assignment, no invitation to speak or visit anywhere — as long as it was far from wherever I was.

I flew to Chicago, of course, and was inside hospitals and rehabs with my mother. I flew west to Santa Fe and Taos. East 12 hours to Armenia and back through Paris. East again to Lesbos, Sappho’s island, with its infamous Camp Moria for refugees. Almost every month, there were flights to the Caribbean or Mexico or Florida or Norway or Italy. Miles of walks through airport halls, often thronged with other travelers.

I’ve been a glutton for the new place, for the IRL (in real life) experience, often enough publishing pieces of journalism about them. The question, however, was: How to sit still?

Before I take you, dear reader, farther down this hole, let me just say that I know exactly how privileged I am to be able to run away even as millions of people are disabled from long Covid and tens of millions of Americans struggle to keep up with rising prices and chaotic lives, while trying to hang onto their sanity.  And how lucky I’ve been not to get sick at all. (I credit four Moderna jabs. Thank you, science!)

Such frantic movement is undoubtedly my panacea for something. I did note that a popular Instagram therapist’s post suggested that a pandemic seemingly without end challenged the part of the brain that processes anxiety. Depressive people freeze, anxious people act, she explained. Which one are you?

I knew which one I was.

Truth be told, I prefer life as a fugitive now. I don’t even mind the long hours of waiting in airports for delayed flights, the slow trains, the boring highway drives, the hours when I can’t scroll the web. I sometimes prefer the liminal, the in-between place, to the destination.

I’ve been thinking about my journal entry from the first months of the pandemic: “It will be all new after this and that’s good. Or bad, depending on how it goes.”

How is it that I hadn’t anticipated a third option, that nothing would change? That we would learn almost nothing from all this. What if, in the end, the ongoing pandemic leaves us exactly where we were, twitchily scrolling the metaverse? With Donald Trump still lurking?

Remember when we called it “the pause”?  I had forgotten about that euphemism until I started writing this. It’s not used anymore. We just look back on a series of lockdowns that, for better or worse, finally unlocked. The machine is churning again, just with more glitches, more broken parts, more sickness and death, all of it moving faster and faster every day.

In May, our spew of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere reached a new record. And I helped. Greta, flight-shame me!

I hold a kernel of memory in my head of empty time and no plans to do anything with it, of being right where I was supposed to be and not going anywhere else. Maybe there’s an imprint somewhere inside all of us of a sky without jets, roads with no cars, and nobody looking for us. That pause showed us something we might never see again: a world where less could be more.  

Featured image: covid-19 by Prachatai is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr