Last week, New York City’s movie theaters finally reopened, it was announced that arts and entertainment venues could soon do the same, and the number of vaccine doses administered statewide topped 5 million.
And this week, I was inside, with COVID-19. A full year after the pandemic began in the United States.
The irony of getting sick (from where, I couldn’t tell you) a year into the pandemic isn’t lost on me, especially as things begin to reopen and everyone talks about the “light at the end of the tunnel.” New York went from five boroughs I could access whenever I wanted to, to 500 square feet. I called my COVID response officer every three days, woke up at the same time, went to bed at the same time, shuffled through my apartment, made tea, over and over and over again, and I waited for the symptoms to hit.
I was lucky that the symptoms I did have were mild: brain fog and fatigue, and a sore throat. I spent my Groundhog Day-esque days calling friends and family, talking about how lucky I was to not be getting the worst of it, as a consolation prize for being locked inside over a particularly nice week. Instead of making use of my MoMA membership, I spent my time looking at the same six posters in my apartment. Instead of sunny walks up and down the city, I swiffered the floors and vacuumed my carpets.
If you had told me a year ago that part of my twenties would be defined by a pandemic, that my friends and I would be discussing vaccine rollout and production the way we would talk about the newests bars opening, I wouldn’t have believed you. But then again, who would have? (Maybe the people who made that Netflix series, Pandemic).
What I didn’t expect to feel was failure: I had gotten sick. My weekly NYU COVID test (see! I did it even more than I had to!) had come back positive. Worse yet, I had gone to class the day before I got my test results and could have gotten other people sick. What about the friendly old man on my floor who I would see standing outside when I came back to the apartment after class? Or the newborn baby that lives next-door to me? I was overwhelmed with guilt over the possibility that I might have gotten someone else sick.
In one of my calls to my NYU COVID-19 response officer, I told her as much, through tears. I had taken the pandemic seriously. I had unfriended and unfollowed the people who traveled for spring break, or partied with gigantic groups of people. I tried to stay apart from people as much as possible, and still, I got sick. Maybe it was because NYU had experienced a slight uptick in positive cases in contrast to the city overall. Maybe the risks I did take with my social bubble from class– which had been routine last semester, when cases were even lower– should have been cut out entirely. Why did I need to go to Brooklyn anyways? Was grabbing a drink after class worth it?
Her response, which I’ve thought about for the past 10 days of my quarantine, was this: “You are doing your best. You have done your best. And that is all you can do.”
It is not a moral failing to have gotten sick, because the virus doesn’t care about who you are when it gets you sick. All we can do is our best. We can help our neighbors and friends. We can get tested and vaccinated. We can try our hardest to work as a community until we reach herd immunity and life is truly back to normal.
We know that the world is going to be fundamentally different after the pandemic, New York included. With mask mandates being retracted in multiple states, and some having never required masks in the first place, the “light at the end of the tunnel” we’re all talking about may move further and further into the future. In that future, mask wearing might become commonplace, as it is in multiple Asian countries, for people with cold and flu symptoms. Maybe we’ll see people more willing to sacrifice for the common good later on. Maybe we won’t.
New York was once the epicenter of the pandemic, and now cases are dropping and more vaccines are being distributed. Spring is around the corner and with it, the opportunity for the city to come alive again. From the windows of my apartment I’ve been watching and waiting impatiently to rejoin the rhythm I’ve learned to love here. And now, I’m going out, ready to try my best again.