The first time I heard the word ‘coronavirus’ was at our last dinner in Istanbul. (note: COVID-19 is the newest strain from the coronavirus family, but forgive my then-ignorance of epidemiology.)
“What virus?” I asked.
“It’s happening to a few people in China, but no one knows what it is,” J said.
“How do you spell it?”
I googled it. A smattering of headlines confirmed my friend’s announcement. WeChat was eerily silent. Usually, my grandpa would send me health tips and motivational pieces six times a day.
The next day, I bought three masks at the pharmacy beside the hotel before heading to the airport. They were dirt cheap.
At the newly built Istanbul airport, amidst the milling crowds, I was the only one wearing a mask. A spot of blue in a sea of blank, buoyant faces. People shot me quizzical looks.
Fast forward a month and a half. I’m now typing out this post on the transpacific 15-hour flight from Boston to Hong Kong. Practically everyone on my flight is wearing a mask. Many are also sleeping with their goggles on. Some are decked in full-out hazmat (hazardous materials) suits. Earlier on, the atmosphere at the airport was unprecedented. Tension lined every face. The terminal was almost ghostly, with only a stream of quiet, intense activity. The group of us flying together wore two layers of socks (the outer layer to dispose of after walking barefoot past the customs check), multiple disposable gloves, goggles on our eyes (or over our glasses), hats/caps/hoodies to cover our hair, and were each armed with N95s, hand sanitizers, and alcohol wipes (and hand cream, for me). I covered my seat with a blanket and asked for another. Before I put my bag on the floor, I covered it in plastic wrapping. We wiped down every surface before finally sinking into our seats.
New rituals and habits come quickly. My knuckles are red and raw from frequent washing and the kiss of alcohol. Never has flying, which often veers into the morbid with its own rules of death and disaster, felt so much like staring at the gaping chasm in the eye. We are neat rows of cattle on defense, suspending our breath beneath an invisible hovering knife. We erect barriers — polyester, rubber, territorial, epidermal — but we are only human.
I’ve read theories on the state of emergency/exception. Carl Schmitt. Giorgio Agamben. Walter Benjamin. The suspension of normalcy. The intervention of the sovereign (or the state, or the university, or any authority really) to transcend the law for the public good. A moment when rules are remade, when the abnormal is made into the new norm.
On March 10, at 8:29am, Harvard announced the move of all classes to online instruction and advised all students to no longer return to campus after spring break. A mere 20 minutes later, at 8:49am, Harvard followed that announcement with another: “Harvard College students will be required to move out of their Houses and First-Year dorms as soon as possible and no later than Sunday, March 15 at 5:00pm.”
Essentially, the school was shutting down. The last time Harvard was disrupted on this scale was during World War II.
It has been five days since the move-out announcement. Rumors, insider’s stories, and emergency alerts have been flying across screens and schools. Boston might be under a lockdown starting next week, says one source. 40% of the campus is already infected, speculates another. Four hours before I leave for the airport, Harvard finally tells us that there is one confirmed case of COVID-19 on campus. Though they are testing only one close contact of that person, I think it’s a conservative estimate to say that the truth is closer to this: there is at least one confirmed case.
Reading about pandemics, plagues, outbreaks, contagion, and state of emergencies is wildly different from being smack in the middle of one that looks to be spiraling out of control around the world. Anxieties conflict: we want to escape from the looming portent (or reality) of community transmission on a close-knit campus, but the deeper, unspoken fear is “Am I a carrier?”.
As we stream across borders — we, the students from numerous campuses across the world that have shut down one after another — we bear our passports. Our countries take us in because they have to. Maybe that’s what home means. In times like this, citizenship becomes the real differentiator on a global scale. As globalization turns against itself, our identity paperwork determines where we can go or where doors slam shut in our faces; where we can get expedient, affordable healthcare or where neither testing nor solutions exist. How vastly different histories we live on the same earth. How similar the bodies we inhabit despite all the distinctions drawn by passports.
Surreal. Maybe that’s the only word I can summon. This reality in which we live is suddenly inflected with the extreme and tinged with the irrational. I wonder too if we will one day think of this surreality as very much a part of the norm. Will we, years later, look back and see this as the vague beginning to how humans had to renegotiate life in the face of increasingly unpredictable forces of nature? Perhaps, we are standing at a threshold.
To all of you reading, and your loved ones, stay safe, take care, and keep well. 🙏💪
With love and prayers,