On March 12th of last year covid-19 had its first practical effect on my life when I went to a drugstore to buy a card for my wife’s birthday. A woman was standing in front of the card rack making her selection. Hmmm , I thought, maybe I better wait til she’s through, and bided my time at the magazine rack until she moved on.
My wariness at that point wasn’t an instance of what was soon to be the almost ubiquitous recommendation of social distancing. I kept my distance because for the first time it occurred to me there was a finite chance that this fellow human was contaminated.
I had of course been reading worried stories about the virus affecting other parts of the world: China, a few cases in nursing homes in distant Washington state. But until that moment in the drugstore , pandemic or not, the virus was not yet, other than reading about it, part of my life.
On March 10th we had had dinner with friends and spent the evening talking about recent travels. We never mentioned the virus.
The next day I bought an item at a used furniture store at a good price and heartily shook the hand of the guy who sold it to me. That turned out to be the last act of carefree physical contact with someone other than my wife.
On March 11th my first column on the virus appeared. The virus had become an unavoidable subject for a column, but on re-reading what I wrote it’s clear that at that point, I was still in denial.
“As I write, panic seems to have seized the entire planet. Markets are tanking, airlines cutting back, the Louvre closed , South By Southwest, that very big deal event in Austin cancelled, Northern Italy closed until further notice.
I joked about the practical difficulties of the recommended handwashing in a public rest room as if I was not yet taking the recommendation seriously.
Toward the end of the column I got down to the gist of my denial. “Why the crisis mentality, when many stories one reads about the threat also include the information that it will probably not kill as many people as are killed in an ordinary flu season (12 to 60 thousand).”
I admitted that even at my vulnerable age, like a lot of people I had never felt the need for a flu shot. I had had the flu a couple of times and it didn’t seem so bad. If those stats of annual flu deaths were shocking, that still made the risk roughly the same as choosing to use a car as transportation-of-choice, which most of us regard as a completely acceptable risk.
“Why are we more concerned with this novel virus than with flu-as-usual?”
Nevertheless the next day I was giving that fellow card buyer a wide berth.
And when distancing and masks became ubiquitous policy, I behaved as warily of fellow humans as the next person, including, painfully, avoiding hugging even my grandchildren.
The past year has been a test of one’s citizenship. It has been one of being reminded, against considerable inner resistance, that while life feels individual and personal, it is also, always, social.
Much of the time the distancing and masking policy contradicted my personal sense of risk, given the statistics of where I lived. I didn’t personally know anyone who had been infected, let alone died from it. But I came to see that if I behaved as if there were real risk, six feet, masking indoors, that careful behavior which seemed excessive given my personal risk would, somehow, by a logic that still eludes me, save lives across the population.
A year ago I would have strenuously resisted thinking of myself (or being thought of by others) as a member of a “herd. ” But I have over the past year I have felt myself becoming more accepting of that concept.
Joining a line of cars for my recent vaccination this erstwhile self-stkyled individualist experienced a rare feeling of comfort being attended to by the numerous lovely, careful people. I noticed that I felt happy to part of a process larger than I am–OK, part of the human herd, all of us vulnerable. It was an unexpectedly moving experience. I couldn’t thank my caretakers enough.
I even in the fall got my first flu shot–ironically since apparently because of all the covid caution there has apparently been practically no flu season at all this year.