Writing about Covid-19 in the midst of the pandemic presents a few unusual challenges. The first is the enormous pressure to write something unique about a nearly universal experience. No background information needs to be provided, no context. We’re all obsessively reading articles online, tracking the spread and trying to protect ourselves. We’re all experts, or we feel like experts, and it’s hard to say anything that hasn’t been said before.
But my situation was unique for a few reasons. I was five thousand miles away from home in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, living in Madrid, when Covid-19 first started disrupting daily life across the world. Plus, I was working in the media, interning for the English edition of EL PAÍS, and thus reading article after article about the Covid-19 virus spreading across the globe. Yet even working in a newsroom, I harbored a deep (although private) skepticism for the way in which the media was reporting on the disease. I saw it as sensationalist and overblown, and I know that many people outside of the industry saw it the same way. It’s ironic, then, that we are now all leaning so heavily on the news to give us more information about the pandemic.
Despite effectively watching the virus approach Madrid, we all still seemed to be blindsided by the effect it had on the city. I started working from home, and the office officially closed in the next couple of days. I had an easy enough job to perform from home, and for a few days I was spending my time in emptier and emptier coffee shops. Then the coffee shops closed, and the bars, and a few days later the quarantine was announced.
Many international students took that opportunity to flee home, and indeed I received an order from my university to return to the United States. But I didn’t go. It wasn’t an easy decision, and I was agonizing over the right thing to do one day as I sat in the park with my roommates, soaking up the final rays of sun that we would see for a while. Both options felt wrong, but my roommates were telling me to stay. One of them looked me dead in the eye and said, “This might be your only opportunity to do something good with your life.” The severity of her tone was a joke – she wanted some company in our quickly emptying apartment – but the sentiment wasn’t. We all knew that fleeing home was irresponsible, that we’d run the risk of bringing the virus with us. And yet the next day her bags were packed and she was ready to leave. The decision is more complicated when its personal: when you have to pay rent or your family wants you back, or you might get trapped in an ever worsening situation far away from your home.
That’s why, the day before the quarantine started, I was still on the fence. I decided to go out to dinner and decide, and two hours later my friends had convinced me to stay. I suppose it wasn’t that hard. There was a certain privilege to our situation, none of us had family that was sick or working in a hospital, and I think we all felt a bit untouchable. We approached the quarantine with a sort of levity that didn’t really match the severity of the situation, but what good would panicking do? There was nothing to do except make the best of it. We had friends move into the abandoned rooms in our apartment, ordered the board game Risk off of Amazon (which arrived in two days, pandemic or no pandemic), and locked ourselves in.
I lived in an apartment with students from across Europe, and their classes moved online very quickly. We were all scrambling to get our work done in the small, crowded apartment. It was hard to keep a schedule – we didn’t have any windows in our living room, and my bedroom also felt like a dark cave. The few windows we did have, which fed light only to the outward-facing bedrooms, featured prison-like bars. Without a way to see the daylight, our schedules soon got out of sync. We were waking up at noon and playing Risk and poker until five in the morning. But we were also working, sitting down for wholesome family dinners, and all-in-all having a pretty good time. One day, my friend looked at me out of the corner of his eye and quipped, “this has really given us an idea of who has the emotional distance to survive the apocalypse.” And it was true, amid the panicking people fleeing the country and clawing at each other’s faces for toilet paper, our apartment truly felt like the eye of a storm.
But the second issue with writing about the coronavirus is how quickly circumstances change. With an administration as unpredictable and unstable as Trump’s, and with more and more flights being cancelled each day, staying out of the country felt like a bigger gamble every day. When a banner appeared on the top of The New York Times website that read “Trump tells citizens – come home now or stay for a while,” I knew that something was shifting. When I read the headline, I slipped my phone into my pocket and didn’t say anything, deciding I’d deal with it the next morning. But my roommates were going through similar things with their home countries. That night I went to sleep with everyone planning to stay in the apartment. The next day I woke up and half the apartment was poised to go home. Three days later, there was nobody left.
I boarded a flight within 48 hours of deciding to leave, and traveled through eerily dark airports in Madrid and Chicago. I missed my flight in Chicago O’Hare, and ended up being re-routed through Phoenix, Arizona. There, I ended up sleeping on the floor of the terminal. If I don’t have Covid-19, I’m sure I contracted some other disease from that carpet. But the next morning, I noticed that the Phoenix airport was bustling with people. It was almost surreal to see a place that the crisis had not reached yet, and it was incredibly nerve-wracking. I’d been through this before, and I know what happens if people don’t take the pandemic seriously.
The unfortunate byproduct of staying in Madrid for as long as I did is that I inadvertently put myself in a position to experience the arc of the virus twice. Everything in Madrid seems to be occurring about a week before the equivalent events in the US. Thus, I’ve inevitably been comparing how each country has handled the crisis. In Spain, I was so grateful that even as everything shut down around us, the grocery stores remained fully stocked. There were six of us in a small apartment, so daily grocery store visits were pretty inevitable, but it was never a problem. In general, people seemed to follow the quarantine order, but the whole country felt strangely calm. On the other hand, there’s a sort of rabid individualism in the US that has worked for us for a long time… but it makes politicians bicker at the expense of lives and it makes people hoard supplies and panic. Empty grocery stores are not an inevitable result of the virus, they’re something we did to ourselves. Furthermore, our healthcare system is laughable, and all our shortcomings are being thrust into the light. There are many lessons that the US could have learned from Spain about how to handle the crisis. We could have learned from their mistakes. But returning into the US is like returning to a bubble, full of people who mistrust the media, sometimes rightfully, and ignore science. We’re so wrapped up in our own domestic politics that we can’t see what’s happening to the rest of the world.
I’ve crossed the world during this pandemic, but my experiences are certainly more visceral and less dramatic than many others. Yet what I experienced is intrinsically connected to the rest of humanity, in a way that’s more direct and obvious than ever before. Our board game came in the mail in two days partly because Jeff Bezos has restrictive sick leave measures which are putting his employees in precarious situations. My decision to go home and spend 36 hours in airports could have put everyone I met at risk. I hope not, but I won’t know for another week, when my possible incubation period is over. And the way that we chose to report about the pandemic at EL PAÍS affected the way that people reacted to it.
Every day, the death toll rises exponentially and we are forced to re-evaluate our role in this crisis and our debt to society. But that’s the last challenge about writing about the pandemic – it’s not over yet, and none of us yet have the clarity of hindsight. I’d love to conclude that we’re going to come out of this with a stronger sense of our shared humanity. I’d love to even be able to make cynical, sweeping statements condemning human nature based on how we’ve responded to this crisis. But this pandemic is far from over, and what we do in the next few weeks is going to make a huge difference in how this event is remembered and, hopefully, how we see ourselves.