By Sophie Kidd
The scope and severity of the pandemic still hasn’t resonated with me. In America, nearly 4,000 people had died and more than 185,000 had been infected by early April. But those are just numbers.
In some sense, President Donald Trump was right when he said that we are dealing with an invisible enemy. For the privileged, like myself, COVID-19 has yet to materialize itself in a way that directly impacts me, which makes it difficult to grasp the gravity of the situation.
But I’m beginning to see that the toll of the pandemic extends well beyond its epicenters; shock waves have extended across the country and the crisis can be traced in ways other than death counts and infection rates.
Washington and Lee University is known for being conservative about change, so it came as no surprise to me when the administration tried to hold off sending students home as the threat of COVID-19 grew.
Like many students, I was incredibly happy when the school announced that it would continue to operate for as long as possible. As universities around the country shut down, I felt like Washington and Lee had made the right decision. In Lexington, the pandemic didn’t feel real yet.
But the university ultimately closed. Once I had finished feeling sorry for myself, I began my journey back to my home in Houston. The interstates looked just as busy as they did when I had driven up to school in the fall—despite flashing signs warning drivers to reduce travel.
At every gas station, drivers failed to take precautions as they handled gas pumps and cleaned their windshields.
I did spot a few pairs of medical gloves that had been tossed aside. On more than one occasion, I realized the discarded items were actually condoms.
I broke up my trip by staying one night in a motel about an hour outside of Knoxville, Tenn. The building felt empty despite the half-full parking lot. As I made small talk with the manager (who suffered from severe asthma and hid behind a medical mask) he revealed that the motel had closed two floors, fired half of the maids, and suspended all cooking staff in the past day.
In rural Tennessee, he said, it was unlikely they would find new jobs, and he urged them to file for unemployment benefits.
The next day I made the final stretch of the drive without stopping much. When I reached home, the city felt the same as when I had left in January.
In my neighborhood, it seemed like everyone was continuing with business as usual. Bridge clubs met, men stood together in the evening smoking cigars and drinking cocktails in a front yard. My mom went to her hairdresser’s home to have her roots touched-up because his salon had closed.
My family has been trying to help out local businesses by ordering food occasionally.
A few nights ago, I drove to Asiatown to pick up our dinner. The area usually teems with shoppers popping in and out of Chinese and Vietnamese stores and restaurants. But it was now desolate.
Windows have been boarded up and cops patrol the vast and empty parking lots. The man who brought the food to my car told me it’s been like this for weeks. Since the outbreak began in China, he said, white customers have stopped coming to this part of town. I guess they’ve been practicing only selective social distancing.
When I was walking my dog the other day, an older woman from down the street asked if she could pet him. I suppose I should have said no and kept walking. But that felt cruel and rude, so I obliged and spoke to her for a bit.
I suppose I also should have declined when she reached out to hold my hand and thank me. But before she walked away, she said that she would be glad when the “pandemic hoax” was over.
I went home and washed the invisible threat off my hands. But I’m sure she didn’t.