‘I’m not sick–I’m crying’

By Harrison Horst, senior contributor

“You mean, you haven’t eaten in nine hours?”

The hazmat-suited doctor standing before me stared at me, pills in rubber-gloved hand, confusion apparent through the voice muffled by a face mask. I shook my head, sitting up on the steel-frame quarantine bed. “Well, you need to have these pills with food…” he muttered, half to himself, shifting uncomfortably. We looked at the clock; it was almost midnight. “I’ll see if I can find something for you.”

The doctor left to order some paratha and curry with the 200 rupees I had given him. I laid back down, curled up into a ball, and against my will, felt tears dripping down my nose. A different doctor peeked into the room, goggles and mask visible through the doorway frame. “You have runny nose? That is coronavirus symptom,” he said in broken English. I looked up. “I’m crying,” I said, a bit brusquely. For the first time in my privileged life, I felt powerless, and it was breaking me.

I had been teaching English at China West Normal University in Sichuan, China and was nearing the end of my winter vacation travels in India with a stop in New Delhi. The Chinese city I was living in, Nanchong, was about 600 miles from the epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. It had been 18 days since I flew out of Shanghai, and my co-traveler had come down with a fever the day before, triggering a bureaucratic tornado of hospital procedures that pulled me along for the ride, even though I felt completely fine and had no symptoms whatsoever. As so, I landed in a burn ward-turned-coronavirus isolation chamber in a hospital on the south side of Delhi at the beginning of February. 

My adventure in the quarantine was the culmination of a series of life disruptions that began as minor inconveniences and eventually sent me flying back to the United States. Around the same time, I learned that my university was postponing the beginning of the semester until the beginning of March, which has since been pushed back even further to March 30 and then suspended indefinitely. Even now, amidst uncertain flight planning and strongly-worded travel advisories, I’m not sure if or when I will return to my Nanchong apartment. 

In the 40 hours that I was inside that ward, I often felt fear rise up from the darkest parts of my soul and threaten to overtake me. Each new person walking into the ward became an instant threat to my asymptomatic self. My stress-induced mind began seeing my fellow quarantine-mates less as individual humans and more as symbols for something much bigger and scarier. This is a fear that I see echoed in article headlines, in the nervous laughter of friends and family, in the rise of prevalent racism towards East Asians on the internet, and in the shifting eyes of the middle schoolers I talked to last week about my time in China.

Occasionally, I even felt my own fear turn to anger, especially when dealing with language and culture barriers in a country far from home. I was upset about the sanitation standards of the ward bathroom, irritated by the need to wear a respirator mask 24/7, and concerned about the disorganization of the entire operation. But anger is blind, and hours spent observing the hospital operations around me taught me an important truth: the doctors, nurses, and patients in the ward were just as afraid, upset, or irritated as I was. The nurses and doctors had probably been reassigned to our ward mere days or hours in advance as the already overcrowded city rushed to find space for an isolation ward. Surely none of the other patients were interested in staying in the ward for any longer than necessary; I talked to one man coming from Beijing who was quarantined for “shortness of breath.” The strain that COVID-19 is placing on already-overworked systems is as unprecedented as the viral strain itself.

The experience of powerlessness I felt at the hands of several non-English-speaking male nurses in an Indian quarantine ward is surely unique, but in the coming months, I expect similar experiences to hijack our safe, sanitary lives in the United States. The 21st century promises to be a period of disruption in many dimensions, and a global lockdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak is just one of many future possibilities. Indeed, significant disruption has now reached Harrisonburg, where a first presumptive positive test was announced on Thursday afternoon, prompting Friday closures for students at the city and county schools for an impromptu teacher workday to prepare for potential longer closures. In the 24 hours prior, both JMU and EMU shifted most classes online through at least early April. Sudden improvisation will become increasingly the norm. 

As COVID-19 may threaten to derail your own life in the coming months and sows seeds of fear into the hearts of many, remember this from my own experience: Other people everywhere are also afraid, and the fear that plagues us all is an opportunity to seek empathy and recognize our common humanity rather than to spread fear-mongering and racism. I think of the many characters in my own story who went out of their way to make my situation a little less scary: an ambulance driver who helped translate the situation to me and later gave me his phone number in case I needed any help; a nurse who shared her iPhone charger with us so we could find a way to get our luggage back; and the hazmat-suited doctor from the first night who returned with some delicious curry and an extra 100 rupees. Each of these people had good reasons to maintain distance and fear, but instead used an experience that none of us wanted to be a part of to promote mutual understanding and kindness. 

Two days later, my friend and I (and about 15 others) walked out of the isolation ward, clutching official paperwork stamped by the Indian government. We were in the clear. We didn’t know if anyone in the ward had the virus; we didn’t know what had caused the fever in the first place; and we didn’t even know the names or faces of anyone who had administered to us. The hazmat suits, goggles, and face masks gave the entire encounter an otherworldly feeling, and walking out the doors felt like leaving an alternative universe – a universe that is now an unfortunate reality for many. We shouldered our bags, strapped on our face masks, glanced at each other, and headed out into the uncertain future.

Harrison Horst and Addy Taylor, another English teacher at China West Normal University, in the quarantine ward in Delhi, India.

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