The latest reports I’ve read estimate coronavirus lasts “in the air for up to three hours, on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic for up to 72 hours.” But no one seems to have studied a critical metric—how long COVID-19 is planning to live on in our brains.
Best guesses put it at: forever.
I remember the week that I realized coronavirus had become the only thing I was capable of thinking about. It was around March 8. I had received a notice from the American Conservative Union informing me that an attendee at its annual conference had tested positive for the virus. CPAC, for the unaware, is a gathering of devoted Trumpists; I’d attended as a journalist and been exposed—both to the president’s delusional followers and to a pandemic. March 8 was also when I started keeping my kids home from school (our school nurses had requested). After that it happened fast—a steep slide into a world that contained nothing but coronavirus. As soon as March 13, coronavirus was all I was reading about, although it still felt unreal. I remember a particular piece on the NPR website about South Korea’s drive-through coronavirus testing, and it seemed like something out of a science fiction movie, with people dressed in hazmat suits standing around cars sticking swabs up people’s noses. Now I’m just jealous of their access to reliable testing, and the image is one of several dozen that I mentally flip through over and over, like a montage on repeat.
I live in New York, the Wuhan of America, so it makes sense that I can think of nothing but coronavirus right now. The death toll has climbed into the thousands. Our streets are empty except for the occasional ambulance. Our restaurants have been closed since March 17; our schools have been closed since March 15. The things that used to make our lives great—good food, great music and theater, our local bodegas—now arrive via delivery or streaming. Our stores have a limit on how much toilet paper we can purchase at once. My building in Manhattan has been abandoned, five families out of around 80 still here. The skeleton crew of New Yorkers who have remained behind consist of essential workers, patients, and the holdouts. Here, of course, we’re attuned to coronavirus all the time. What else is there?
But even outside of our ground zero, coronavirus is eclipsing whatever else would otherwise have our attention. Social media is full of people documenting their experiences with it, sharing obituaries, even recommending the best shows to binge under quarantine. It seems like 9 out of 10 headlines begin or end with “In the Era of Coronavirus.” We can stream an infinite number of series, games, and specials, but our brains are turned to a single channel: pandemic.
For all but a handful of centenarians, the coronavirus is unlike anything we have ever lived through. The closest similar outbreak of mass disease was the influenza pandemic of 1918, which was 102 years ago and in an age before it was possible to refresh Twitter. Most of the people who lived through it are dead. Until now, the biggest disaster I had lived through was 9/11, which was 20 years ago. And even that was different. We refer to it as 9/11 because it happened on a single day; the effects are still being felt, but no one talks about 9/12 or 9/13. Coronavirus will never have a day on the calendar. We have no idea when it will end.
I think that’s what my brain is grasping for—a finish line. I can’t think about something else until I know when this will be over or even what “this” is. So instead I’m scrolling through Twitter, rereading the guidance on how to shop for groceries or the updated death count. There’s no room for another topic, no room for even another thought. Not until I figure out how to make sense of something that has never happened to me or to anyone else I know. Not until I master how to live in a world that is largely shut down. It’s like being in love or like a terrible breakup—your mind pulled back to that one thing, obsessing over how it is possible that one moment you felt one way, and in the next, life was different. The world takes a backseat to COVID-19, and it probably should. Most of us will be forever changed as this pandemic sweeps through the country burning lives and jobs, like a slow-moving forest fire or an explosive car crash. How can we not look?
Our government estimates between 100,000 and 250,000 people will die from the coronavirus. New York City alone will lose thousands of people. As of this weekend, New York State had already counted 4,376 lives lost. In the last 24 hours, it’s closed in on 5,000. It’s hard to wrap my mind around that kind of loss. It’s hard for any of us to process that kind of loss. Even if you don’t lose a relative or a friend, a loss like this one is collective. We all suffer in a world that is hemorrhaging humanity.
So I keep thinking about it, hoping that it’ll somehow start to make sense to me. I read that 45 mobile morgues have been set up in New York City, and our hospitals are buckling under the strain of the pandemic. I read that people who’ve lost loved ones have to wait up to two weeks for their burials, because, as ABC News reported, “funeral directors are being squeezed on one side by inundated hospitals trying to offload bodies, and on the other by the fact that cemeteries and crematoriums are booked for a week at least, sometimes two.”
In 12 or 18 months, we hope, there will be a vaccine. When that happens, we’ll have time to mourn. Then we’ll once again wait in cramped lines at Starbucks and complain about the post office. We think about our to-do lists. An hour will pass and then two and then a week, and we’ll realize with a jolt that we haven’t thought about it in a while. Until then, it’s all coronavirus, all the time.
Molly Jong-Fast is an editor-at-large at The Daily Beast.
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