A Young Woman’s Perspective on Living in a Time of COVID-19

Before my second birthday, the worst terror attack the nation has ever seen took place in my childhood state of New York. Before my 13th birthday, 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 years old were killed thirty minutes from my school.

Before my 18th birthday, scientists put a 15-20 year timer on our planet’s health. Now, before my 20th birthday, I am quarantining in my childhood bedroom during a pandemic that has killed more than 4.000 and affected at least 80,000 people in New York.  

This pandemic is the strangest, ugliest, scariest event I have lived through. Somedays, I feel as though I have every right in the world to my grief, fear, and bitter disappointment. I mourn the life I built for myself at school; friends, mentors, opportunities, adventures, experiences. All of the events and milestones I had to look forward to have disappeared into the uncertain fog that is the future.

My schoolwork feels meaningless, and I can’t focus on anything but refreshing the news and tending to the knot of dread in my stomach.

However, the thing about being alive during so many horrible tragedies is that they occurred in tandem with the best moments of my life. As a toddler in New York City, the events of September 11th fade into the vague, glowing memories of a happy childhood. Sandy Hook terrified me, but I still felt safe in my middle school, and when I got the lead in the musical that year, I thought I would die from happiness. I learned about climate change in high school, but I also learned how to love for the first time. 

The truth is, I am so privileged that it sometimes dazzles me.

I am sheltered in a large house, surrounded by nature and wanting for nothing. My family is here and our relationships are healthy and loving. We have access to food, medicine, and steady income from my mother’s job. I have never known conflict, hunger, abuse, neglect, or poverty. So, when I begin to cry, or can’t focus, or can’t get out of my bed, I am furious with myself.

What right do I have to unhappiness, when so many people are dying, when so many have nothing? How could my experience constitute suffering?

I mourn my plans to study in Amsterdam while others mourn their loved ones, and I berate myself because I feel as though I haven’t earned the right to be unhappy.

Yet, I am slowly learning that I achieve nothing by punishing myself for feeling the way I feel. During this pandemic, I search for a middle ground. Sadness is a unique experience, and there’s not a finite amount of it in the world. I don’t feel it less because others feel it more. It makes sense that I am struggling, but it also makes sense to acknowledge that I have it much, much better than many do.

Today I will have to bear witness to the horror of COVID-19, but I will also hear my father laugh, play with my cats, and sing in the shower. Today I will feel fear, and that’s okay, but I’ll also feel happy, and that’s okay too. I can’t “earn” the right to my emotions because it’s something I intrinsically have. 

I’ve heard many people say that we “can’t give into fear” because “then the virus wins!” But a virus isn’t a terrorist or fear monger. It doesn’t care what we feel; all it cares about is invading our cells and using them as hosts for replication.

Pretending we are unafraid, in my opinion, gets us nowhere. I believe the only way to get through this time is to admit that we are afraid, and learn how to carry this fear alongside the rest of the emotions we carry each day.

Luckily, we are animals and our bodies are built to make use of fear. The adrenaline and frenetic energy of this time has fueled some interesting hobbies; personally, I’ve developed a voracious appetite for Ted Talks. I listen to experts in paleontology and Rwandan politics while I bake a batch of cookies every other day, and I love getting answers to questions I never even thought to ask. I have also taken up painting and watched an entire docu-series on the history of professional art conservation.

When is the last time I learned just for the sake of it? For better or worse, there’s never been a more ideal time to indulge in our “unproductive” loves.

Maybe it seems silly to wrap up my musings on fear, suffering, and a pandemic by mentioning the kitschy ways I pass the time. But personally, that’s what managing this new reality looks like for me. My mother always tells me that “I can’t stop time,” meaning all bad times pass, as do all the good.

This pandemic will end.

Although it’s more deadly than 9/11 ever was, there is no vaccine against terrorism. But, in a not-so-far-off future, there is a COVID-19 vaccine. I trust science to bring us out of this mess and I trust that I’ll be okay in the meanwhile. I have to. We have to.

Guest post by Moira Honohan, a young security studies scholar and a student at The George Washington University 

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