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It started as a far-off speck in a faraway land. Reports of coronavirus started trickling in from Wuhan, China, by November last year. By December, it was clear it was more than a local outbreak. Some made the case it would be the worst in 100 years. The Spanish flu killed roughly 50 million people around the world, including three of my paternal grandfather’s grandparents. This peculiar fact of my own family’s history made my concern about COVID-19 that much more acute.
The coronavirus has a two-week incubation period. This means that before Wuhan was locked down, and two weeks before the first case was identified and tested, the virus had already been spreading unabated around the world. Its infectiousness was like the flu, but the high death toll made it much worse. Earlier estimates by the World Health Organization placed the death rate at 3.4 percent, and even higher for the elderly and people with weakened immune systems or other underlying health conditions.
This situation was concerning for me. I’m in a very unusual medical situation, especially for someone my age. I suffer from a rare neuromuscular disease known as Becker’s muscular dystrophy, which causes progressive deterioration and weakness in certain muscle groups, and as a byproduct produces heart and lung complications. Essentially, I am a young man of 26 stuck in a body that is steadily declining in some ways, but healthy in others.
It is hard to know exactly how my immune system would respond to this virus should I contract it. My vitals show that it should not be very diminished due to my intensive regular care, which possibly makes me healthier than others my age. But I have other conditions, like reduced lung function, and cardiomyopathy, that render me more vulnerable. So, it is much more likely if I catch the virus that I will need to be hospitalized and much more likely that I progress to severe complications.
Given my health situation, I monitored COVID-19 news much earlier than most people. It became clear to me by mid-February what was coming based on what was occurring in China. Given how the global economy is interconnected, and how Wuhan is now one the world’s great industrial cities, it seemed obvious that if a disease with a two-week incubation period was manifesting itself like this, then it had likely already spread around the world and we were just waiting for the symptoms to hit. Following that, I started to warn my friends to move investments around. But it was still an abstract thing, and it took analysis of epidemiological data to see the magnitude of what was going to happen.
I began to prepare. I stocked up on groceries, medicine, and cleaning supplies a week before the run on the stores happened. I also stocked up on first aid medical supplies on the assumption it would be safer to treat medical accidents at home rather than at overrun hospitals. My plan was to basically be a shut-in for about one month until people adopted better health habits, making it safer to leave. While I was doing this, several people expressed that I might be crazy or paranoid. But I was simply following the math.
Despite the recent reopening of businesses, I am mostly staying at home, and leaving only for essential trips. I could or could not be more vulnerable to this; I don’t know for sure how my conditions will or won’t exacerbate the virus should I catch it. This also makes me much more acutely aware of the struggles elderly or health compromised people will be affected, and much less desirous to go out and potentially spread it.
I would say I’m managing the isolation well overall. Most of my hobbies are ones that are done alone, such as writing, playing guitar and keyboard, and reading. I also regularly keep in touch with family over FaceTime, and stay in touch with friends over virtual happy hours in addition to in-person hangouts with my neighbors. I’m also fortunate to live near the River Walk, where I can take my dog on walks and enjoy the outdoors.
Now businesses that are starting to reopen, there will more than likely be a spike in cases over the next couple of months, but the lockdowns appear to have accomplished their original goal of preventing an overwhelming of the hospital system. The economic toll of maintaining a lockdown until we have a vaccine is too great and too many people will be hurt by it, mainly working-class people who are basically forbidden from working. Often I feel this fact is lost on the public figures pushing hardest for the lockdowns and the government officials implementing them because they will have work and a steady income regardless of what happens.
Most of the people who I regularly interact with are younger, healthy, and are at low risk of any complications. They often project this as invincibility and continue to go out and be active as before. But that also makes them vectors for the virus. Back in March, I would frequently look through my social media feed and see that many people were out at bars, or cramming into restaurants, and otherwise not paying attention. This was people not putting themselves in other’s shoes. I didn’t resent them, because if I were young and not dealing with a chronic disease, I would likely be doing the same things.
Ultimately, the best and most sustainable solution is for governments and health officials to provide guidelines for the public to follow and for businesses to operate safely, while using law enforcement as a tool to prevent large gatherings and shut down businesses that are not following guidelines. I am not so concerned with the reopening of business as I am with people being less vigilant about practicing social distancing, washing hands, and other mitigation efforts.
This is where I try to strike a balance to appealing towards compassion and empathy and persuading people I know to modify their behavior for others without being overly critical. Most people, and this applies to most situations, do not go out of their way to hurt others less fortunate, and willingly correct themselves if provided with the necessary information. So, one Sunday morning in March I was prompted to post about it. I used an image of a Twitter post advising people to take this seriously and take precautions, but not to panic. With this I added a message about how myself and others are part of vulnerable populations, and that the best course of action to protect these people was to stay home if possible.
Everyone needs to remember that, as difficult as this situation might be, your social life will be there, and so will all the activities you normally enjoy once this time passes. Odds are, this will be the first and only major pandemic you experience in your lifetime. I’ve found the two best ways to pull through a chronic illness is to keep yourself in the present and to mentally reframe challenges as opportunities. Staying home is an opportunity to reconnect with family, with hobbies, and to learn something new. I used to frequently attend networking events, but now I am using the spare time to help build a tech startup and to begin writing on a consistent basis. There is abundant opportunity to be found in the time freed by the slowing down of a hectic schedule.