Coronavirus Chronicles

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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My everyday life under stay at home orders for the coronavirus pandemic has been arguably typical of most PhD students’ daily routines. I continue to work in isolation. I still have homework and classes. Yet, as with many Americans, the virus has caused the personal and professional aspects of my life to collide. I cannot thank those enough who have come together as a community to overcome the virus when we do not have all the answers and so many conspiracy theories about the government, the virus, and etcetera are floating around as much as the germs. As such, I wish my story brings you hope, regardless of whether you are a graduate student.

COVID-19, the coronavirus, made itself known in my life suddenly and without warning. Prior to the spread of coronavirus to America, I had just returned to school from spring break, a week of grading and catching up on some major homework assignments. I began my school week, fueled by coffee, and ready to excel in my studies. I prepared to stay ahead of my course load by writing out every assignment’s due date in my planner for the rest of the semester, and I planned to take a social media hiatus to keep me focused on achieving these goals. Yet, when the news of COVID-19’s arrival on our West Coast made it to my Facebook newsfeed, I could not step away from my devices. My eyes were glued to my phone, and I turned on the television with every update from President Trump and the Coronavirus Task Force.

Suddenly, my professors and colleagues were discussing the possibility of campus closures and preparations to transition to online classes. Professors began asking classes to test various video conferencing applications to determine which one worked the best for large groups of students. My professor began discussing with us alternative ways to find the sources needed to complete our research project. Still feeling like it was all a dream, I contacted the library to see if I could get extensions on my book renewals. I was more concerned about avoiding receiving a fine on the 30+ books I had checked out. Though I was troubled enough to constantly check news outlets for updates about the virus, it still seemed so unreal to me. Was I in denial? Or are Americans so out of touch with what is going on outside of the United States that they cannot fathom it could disrupt the peace we have at home?

On March 13th, I went to campus to lead discussion for the professor whom I work for as a teaching assistant. Class attendance had never been so low. It suddenly hit me. People were really scared, so scared they decided to forfeit their attendance grade to stay healthy. UNCG had not made a call to close campus yet, but in my heart, I knew they would. Before I left campus that day, I cleaned out my office, and brought everything home.

That weekend, UNCG made the decision to close for the semester. Students were asked to leave their dorms, and the library automatically renewed everyone’s library books. My colleagues and I worked with our TA professors to adjust syllabi, assignments, and lectures as instructors adjusted their lesson plans for online class settings. My mom called to say my youngest brother would be doing classes online since the elementary school he attends had closed for the remainder of the school year. That same week, my mom, who works as a nurse case manager, volunteered to take the temperatures of people entering the hospital to screen for COVID-19, something that is not part of her normal job requirement.

I thought it would be a short-lived panic. My apartment complex left flyers on the doors suggesting they would be doing paving work as usual. I had to move my car for the day, so I visited my boyfriend in Boone, North Carolina. He suggested I get some toilet paper because people were panic buying. My first trip to the grocery store since the coronavirus reached the United States yielded people wearing masks and gloves and no toilet paper or bread. That brief visit with my boyfriend and our trip to find toilet paper would be the last time I would see people for two months.

On March 27th, Governor Cooper announced the stay at home order for North Carolina. On April 6th, my parents sent me a video of the family dog, Mitzie, growling at Donald Trump on the television. Mitzie is not trained to hate the president, but I do think that she picked up on the fear and anxiety that my parents felt as they watched his press conferences to see the latest developments on the coronavirus. Though I do not generally write down my thoughts, I began journaling them as a coping mechanism. Staying inside was wearing thin on me as well as the dog. On April 14th, I wrote, “I am still isolated. I have now left my apartment a total of 5 times. I go outside to move my car from one side of the parking lot to the other, just to have something to do.” When I ordered groceries, I remarked, “I wore gloves and sanitized everything before putting groceries away. Two days ago, I also ordered homemade masks for my family... It’s hard to believe I have been at home for a month…”

Staying inside for so long harms people, especially when you feel helpless and scared. So many people who know I study the history of medicine, reached out to me when the news started making comparisons to the Spanish influenza in 1918. I wished I had the answers for containing the virus, but I did not. I recalled my email conversation with my MA thesis advisor, Dr. Lucinda McCray, who wrote, “Having studied social management of contagious diseases for my entire career, I am struck by the fact that although we have advanced in our understanding of disease processes and our techniques for clinical intervention once people are seriously ill, our available means to prevent transmission remain the same as they were 150 years ago: isolation of the sick and ‘social distancing’ of the well.” Her advice is what I relayed to others because it was the only method I knew to have historically worked the best.

Over the last few weeks, my life and the lives of my loved ones have been upended by the pandemic. Regardless of your circumstances, you may feel hopeless or like you cannot do enough to help your loved ones and community members in this time of crisis. I felt this way when my good friend told me she contracted COVID-19, but thankfully, she recovered. I was sad for my fellow graduate student and friend, Carolyn, who had to cancel her wedding shower and reconsider her wedding plans. I continue to be afraid for my mother who works in a hospital that is regularly conducting mass testing of community members for coronavirus.

News of such events left me feeling helpless and anxious. I sought to resolve my feelings by completing simple tasks like home workouts and spring cleaning to stay distracted from COVID-19’s effect on the world. These experiences made me grateful for the coursework I had to keep me busy, but also made me reflect differently on the lives of some of my generally productive students who once classes were forced to transition online, all but disappeared from the course in which I was a teaching assistant. My personal space became my workspace and while home is still a safe space, at least for me, it can also be a confining space, both physically and mentally, for a lot of people.

It's okay to feel scared and anxious, and it's acceptable to worry about those you care about. You may feel guilty about not having taken the virus more seriously or you may feel like it is being taken too seriously. Since I have been following my social media more closely during the pandemic, I realize people feel everything and anything. Though our experiences may be slightly different, no one can deny that their life has went unaltered because of COVID-19.

Once North Carolina adopted the Stay at Home order, a former foreign exchange student from China reached out to make sure I was healthy and safe. She described her fears and anxieties for her family, and for people she knew in the United States. I am incredibly lucky to have someone think of me though they are thousands of miles away! Her message reminded me that as helpless as I feel, all our personal and professional lives have been uprooted in some way. Though it is difficult, following social distancing is best for reducing illnesses, and we must remember that regardless of where we are, when we look up at the sky, we see the same sun and moon. Even in self-isolation, we are not alone.

[Jewel Parker is a PhD History student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.]

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