My wife and I were driving in the car. I can pinpoint the day — January 20, Martin Luther King Day. It was just a casual bit of conversation, but something about it stuck in my head.
“Have you heard about this disease going around in China?” she said. “It’s some kind of pneumonia and it’s overwhelming the hospitals. There are videos being sneaked out where even the doctors are in tears because they don’t know what to do. It’s awful.”
I was looking for an address, so I wasn’t fully engaged in the conversation, but something about what she said stuck with me. As a matter of fact, I had heard something about it. I wake up every morning to the world news played back to me by podcast from the BBC and Deutche Welle. There’d been mention of it a few mornings. But nothing had made me really pay attention until I heard my wife talk about it.
But then I shoved it aside and went about life. Once a morning, I got a daily update by podcast. The disease spread. China instituted a strict lockdown as the important Lunar New Year festival began, but by then, millions of people had left for their hometowns. Soon, there was news of the disease cropping up everywhere: Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea — even the U.S. But I wasn’t alarmed. What was one case? There was even a case or two of Ebola in the U.S. in 2014, but those were easily isolated and nothing really came of it. We could handle it. I was certain.
Then everything got worse. Rapidly.
Ship of Ghouls
By 2020, I’d lived through a couple close scares, as far as global pandemics go. There’d been the 2003 SARS scare. That one hit Toronto, and I actually flew through Toronto that summer. But aside from a flight canceled at the last minute, it didn’t affect me in the slightest. What a privilege. Next came the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which my wife and I did contract. We were good and sick for a week, but other than feeling the same as getting the basic flu, we didn’t suffer unusually for it. Ebola? Please. It’s a terrifying disease, but unless you’re inside certain zones of Africa, you really don’t have to worry. I do know someone was nearly taken down by West Nile virus last year, and it is frightening, and Zika was the latest cause for concern on the world scene, but nothing — nothing — caused panic like this thing.
So having gone through a few dry runs for global pandemics a la “28 Days Later,” I admit to being a bit jaded. Sure, I’d heard a million times before that we’re overdue for a global killer, a virus or bacterial infection that could kill off a wide swath of humanity. But we’d done so well in swatting them away so far, I felt cocky. We would certainly do it again. But then, there were signs of trouble.
I heard that things in China had progressed to the point where people were not just quarantined, but actually being welded inside their homes. People who were sick were being separated from their families to keep from spreading the disease, and some of them were dying alone. Scientists had isolated the pathogen and discovered that it was, in fact, a close relative of the SARS virus, but unlike that one, far more easy to pass from person-to-person. I started to get incredibly nervous.
I reached out to a college friend of mine on Facebook who went on to become a doctor. She’s an epidemiologist by training and hand worked with the CDC, and had been sent around the globe to work on all kinds of terrifying outbreaks that would make the hair stand on end for regular people like you and I.
“Is it time to panic?” I asked, “Because it kind of feels like it’s time to panic.” The date was January 31.
“NO.” she replied, all-caps. “NO PANIC. WASH YOUR NASTY-ASS HANDS. That’s it. Feel free to ask me again in a week.”
I gave it three weeks and asked again, but by then, she was too busy to reply.
In the meantime, the Diamond Princess had begun its doomed saga. The ship bearing 3,711 people had come to dock in Yokohama, Japan, when it was discovered that 10 passengers were infected with COVID-19. The ship became stuck in a morbid limbo. No one wanted them. The ship and its passengers remained shipwrecked in the harbor, unable to leave, unable to disembark, with people onboard becoming sicker and sicker. In the end, nearly 20 percent of the people on board — 712 people — became infected. Ten of them died. The Diamond Princess was nothing more than a floating petri dish, a ghoulish experiment in just how contagious and deadly COVID-19 is.
By this point, I knew what we were dealing with. I knew the threat was real. But still, I wasn’t up nights worried about it, either. That would soon change.
It took the Coronavirus hitting the northern region of Italy — and getting out of control there — that made me realize my own world was about to radically change. All along, I’d been tracking the progression of the virus across the world and keeping a nervous eye on the calendar, as my family had been planning a trip to Amsterdam starting May 3. News that COVID-1 had slammed Iran was alarming and unfortunate, but I didn’t see it derailing our own travel plans. But Italy? That was a different story.
It just so happened I had a former coworker making her own European trip around the same time. She was in Venice around the time the Coronavirus made its appearance in northern Italy, so I was obviously concerned for her. But she enjoyed her time in among the canals and at the carnivals and returned safely — and just in time.
Soon after, the region went on lockdown. It was a looser lockdown than China had instituted, though ,and it soon became clear that it wasn’t as effective. Not only didn’t it stop the spread of COVID-19 in Italy, people had been given enough advance notice that they had left the region and went to other parts of Italy and other countries. The disease was now everywhere. It was a fire raging out of control, I now realized. It was around February 21.
Two things I realized quickly: If Italy, where people have generous sick pay rules and universal health care, couldn’t contain the spread of COVID-19, we in the U.S. were sitting ducks. When it finally started to gain a foothold here, we would be powerless to stop it. Now the panic started to set in.
I first alerted my family and warned them that there was a 50/50 chance that our trip would be canceled. That’s what I said, but I was trying to ease them into the certainty that we would not be going. While they were still thinking I was a bit off my rocker about missing out on our vacation, I floated the idea of stockpiling on groceries. I could tell my wife wasn’t into the idea.
I started feeling like Cassandra of Troy, the priestess who was favored by Apollo with the gift of prophecy, only to be cursed by him when she rejected his advances by having everyone disbelieve her.
News from Italy became increasingly frightening. I heard of doctors being forced to triage people out of medical care. If you were older than 65, if you had diabetes, if you had a lung condition, if you had high blood pressure — you were left to die because there weren’t enough ventilators to go around. By now, I was panicking nightly.
I was no longer suggesting we set aside enough food for a lockdown; I was saying we need to do it. I was asking my boss at work what we would need to do to prepare to have everyone work from home. I was warning them that a big event we had planned for March 25 probably would not happen. People still didn’t believe me.
COVID-19 comes home
Michigan held its presidential primary on Tuesday, March 10. My wife and I went to vote about an hour before the polls closed. Immediately after, we went to the grocery store and loaded up shelf-stable groceries. When we came home, we heard the news: Michigan had its first confirmed case of COVID-19.
Things changed rapidly from that point on.
The next night, I came across a news account from Germany that said that they anticipated that 40 percent to 70 percent of the population would be infected from COVID-19. Meanwhile, scientists were expecting a case fatality rate of about 3.4 percent. I ran the numbers. Assuming just half the population were infected in the U.S., we were looking at 5 million dead. That was the expectation if no action was taken to thwart it.
I was terrified. From that point on, I struggled to find sleep. I wept several times a day. I ate little. I had panic attacks. Facing an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, I did the only thing I could. Risking sounding like chicken little, I took to social media and sounded the alarm, hoping to get people I knew to take this threat as seriously as possible.
That week, my workplace decided to move or big event on the 25th to an online gathering. I was immensely supportive. Over the weekend, my bosses decided to close our office and move us to a complete work-from-home environment. My relief was complete when my wife’s office followed suit a day later.
But still, our state wasn’t on lockdown. I went through my list of contacts looking for all the people I knew who worked in the governor’s office of Department of Health and Human Services and pestered them with messages, begging them to have the governor issue a “shelter in place” order. If they read this: I apologize. It was all I knew to do. I was frantic.
That order came March 22. I finally felt I could breathe again.
I truly hate to say I told you so
Believe me when I say that I take no joy in saying “I told you so.” I’m grateful that my mother now listens to me when I talk about this plague and asks my advice on how to avoid contracting it. But when she asks me how long it will last and how long we’ll have to live like hermits, I have no good answer. A lot depends on how quickly scientists and doctors can find good treatments and vaccines. And how responsibly political leaders can act during a time of crisis. And how patiently the populace can live with restrictions.
I still feel like we’re in the calm before the storm. As I write, Michigan now has more than 6,000 cases of COVID-19. Already, hospitals in Detroit are swamped. Already, people I know have died. One of them is a state legislator who was a true voice of the people. And I’m bracing, because I know he was just the first of many I will likely lose.
I’m terrified that COVID-19 will come for me, or my wife, or my mom, or her mom, or, or, or. I’m scared anytime I feel a sore throat, which isn’t too rare now that allergy season is coming on.
I wish I hadn’t been right up to this point. I’d give anything to have been wrong, to still be looking to our trip in May, to have been that Chicken Little. But that time has gone. And the future?