In the Shadow of the Coronavirus

“Oh, damn.”

That was my first thought when I woke up on Friday the 13th. I had that scratchy feeling in the back of the throat, my lungs felt like there was something they wanted to expel. Sure enough, I coughed. I hoped it was a one-off. No. I coughed again. I sat up and felt the chilly air hit my body as I peeled back the duvet. I wanted nothing more but to lie back down.

“Damn,” I thought again and gathered all the sensations from my body into a single status. “I’m getting ill.” As if to emphasise the point, I involuntarily sniffled. I grabbed a tissue from my bedside table.

I wasn’t sure where or how I had gotten this sickness. I have been mainly self-isolated apart from one trip to an office in Slough on Tuesday.

Yes. That may have been it. I had sat at one of the hot desks and found packets of tissues and sanitary hand wipes there, unused. I had been careful and used the wipes. I washed my hands whenever I went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. As I examined my memory, I remembered that there was an echo of sneezing. There, perhaps, I had picked it up. I had only been there for about 2/3rds of a day. I hadn’t shook anyone’s hand. But apparently the virus requires very little to do its malevolent work.

Maybe that wasn’t where I got it. After all, it can take several days to gestate. I go to the corner store from time to time. I stand in queues. Perhaps it was then. Perhaps it was when I last went to the gym, the hard exhalations of my fellow patrons filling the air. I recall someone saying in the locker room that they had recently come back from Australia. We are increasingly linked to a variety of networks, and yet we don’t realise that these connections are neutral: they can bring trade and tourism, but they can also bring disease. The Black Plague made its way down the Silk Road. The coronavirus, its less potent descendant, catches a flight to Munich, and from there it takes connecting trips to London, Milan, and Los Angeles.

If this was another time, my rising illness would be a cause for mere annoyance. I’d say to myself, “I can’t afford to have a cough”. Or a cold. Or the flu. I have things to do. I’d take vitamins, I’d tough it out. But the coronavirus has cast its shadow: I think with each cough, is it the virus? The NHS has told me to sit and wait for seven days. If it’s not better, then perhaps I should get tested. Meanwhile, stay at home; don’t go out, don’t mix and mingle, keep the door shut. I need to stay away from anyone who might be vulnerable…just in case.

The shadow extended further later in the day. Some groceries were delivered. The driver, wearing thick glasses, a green and white shirt, and a grey jacket kindly told me that he couldn’t do anything other than leave the bags on the doorstep. He couldn’t hand them to me directly, either. He also couldn’t take back the plastic bags for recycling.

“There’s been a memo sent to all customers,” he explained. He was apologetic. Nevertheless, he was upset when he made the faux pas of handing me a bag directly, even though I didn’t touch him. I believe he was glad to escape. His caution was welcome: a previous driver who had been less hesitant to carry groceries into the house was visibly ill.

My parents are currently visiting the United Kingdom; they are due to go back next Wednesday. I stayed up late earlier this week, listening with half an ear to Trump’s announcement of a travel ban, halfway wondering if they would be trapped here with me for a while. No, apparently not: they can go, because apparently Trump believes the United Kingdom is handling the coronavirus well, despite flimsy evidence for this assertion. Then on Friday the 13th he seemed to reverse himself. Never mind, my parents, who are in their seventies, are likely to go home before Trump can shut the door. That said, they are returning to New York, where there are already 400 cases. My parents have some pre-existing health conditions; for example, my father once had a rare infection of the spine. What impact will the virus have on them? They often hang out with my little niece. What about her? If this was the flu or a cold, I wouldn’t worry. It is the unknown of all this that makes it so menacing.

Perhaps there’s no point in worrying. I am following expert advice: I have self-isolated, remained inside, avoided contact. Saturday dinner with my parents at my home has been cancelled. My connection to the world is mainly expressed through a long black Ethernet cable which runs under the door into the router in the hallway. I sit in my study with my books and music and television and catch up on programmes I didn’t really care about beforehand. A box of tissues rests on my table. I cough into a tissue, take it to the bathroom, flush it away, and wash my hands while singing “Happy Birthday”. I am grateful to Gloria Gaynor for giving me “I Will Survive” as an alternative.

Local elections are cancelled. Sporting events are on hold. The Olympics is in doubt. I wonder where my dog-eared copy of Marquez’s “Love in a Time of Cholera” is located. I’d like to lie in bed as this ridiculous cough torments me. I will take another lozenge and read the Marquez while lying flat on my back. I want to shut my eyes and dream of the chill that lingers in this house dissipating in the warmth of Spring. Yet, I know that I will wake up tomorrow and the cough will still be there. I felt a chill earlier running through my shoulders. I’ll take a paracetamol. I’ll tell myself for now that it’s all within the normal parameters of being sick. Will it get worse? I don’t know. Perhaps. Perhaps tomorrow I will find that it was merely a garden variety illness. But what if it isn’t? What will tomorrow bring? And what will I do if the shadow lengthens?

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