March 11, 2020

GHAZI | Holding Our Breaths for Coronavirus

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Before we went from basking in a rare slope hangout in early March to frantically making phone calls 24 hours after to reconcile how our slope sunsets are numbered, an equally unlikely scene unfolded before my eyes just two months ago: Me, on the floor of a bathroom in Cornell Health, crying.

I didn’t weep because of compromised health. I wept because the employee taking my blood told me how she met her husband at 19, how their union was love at first sight and how he tragically died last year. With one swoop of a needle into my forearm and a tale of love found and love lost, she pulled me out of my Ithacave during a routine vitamin-D test. This woman lost the love of her life. How dare I think my life bears any real deficiency? I was yanked out of the Ithacave once more this week — me and over 14,000 others who now wonder where the roof above our heads will be in a few weeks as the global spread of COVID-19 led to the cancellation of all Cornell in-person classes after spring break.

In my other-verse of student-only problems, I grappled with decisions like which Zeus soup to eat and scanned my curated Ivy League life in search of self-growth as it relates to social currency and a nutritional insufficiency that could threaten my bone health. Today, I text my parents for updates on how many more people in their hometowns in Iran, the site of the third most coronavirus cases in the world, have contracted the illness and which family members in critical sites I should reach out to as we approach a bitter Persian New Year.

Our American lives provide us a relief that the rest of the world hasn’t had: the power of waiting. We may sanitize our doors, but we aren’t closing them to each other yet. So we hold our breath. Waiting, waiting, waiting. We ask, “When will it be here?” In a recent phone call with my uncle from his living room in Northern Iran, he said he wakes up every day and asks, “am I the next one?”

Your immigrant peers and anyone with a loved one an ocean away carry a chip of guilt for being the lucky ones in our families to experience the comforts afforded by our insular U.S. lives. Days ago, I was naive enough to think that maybe this virus would absolve some of my guilt and give me a problem to relate with family over. Just for a second, I almost believed that coronavirus was going to be some great equalizer — haven’t you heard? Disease doesn’t discriminate (when a six pack of Lysol disinfectant wipes sells for $99.99 on Amazon, it does). I believed that what would bring the neighborhood frat star and I together would not in fact be a diversity-themed round-table but, rather, a shared desire to sanitize frequently and not share cups. I laughed at how a biological demon could be the catalyst to finally sharing problems with the student that never thought beyond the Ithacave because the Ithacave is not in fact a cave to them, just an extension of the luxuries they have only ever known.

When the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New York State jumped to over 140, officials responded by calling on the National Guard to create containment areas and install a coronavirus testing facility in the densely affected community of New Rochelle. Meanwhile in Iran, where coronavirus is diagnosed based on symptoms alone as no testing kits are available, people question systematic cover-up by their government of death toll statistics on top of questioning their survival. The serene hometown that I’ve never associated with anything but childhood memories of tea on my grandparents’ back porch in a lazy summer sun is now fraught with “Fear. Just fear,” my uncle said. “Debit cards are washed with alcohol twenty times a day. Door handles wiped twice a day. We don’t hug. We don’t kiss. Life is totally paralyzed.”

When a family friend called my uncle because his brother had crippling back pain but feared going to a hospital at capacity with only the severest cases of coronavirus, my uncle, a physician, asked him to drive his brother to his door and let him inspect the patient from the vehicle. With the car door open, not a hair closer than two meters away from the patient, he instructed him to perform motions to evaluate whether he needed hospital care. “I told him to take some pain medication and not risk the hospital.” On the same night when news of Cornell’s in-person class cancellation spread, Noyes hosted a spa night with ice cream and massage chairs to relieve any tension we might have during this trying prelim season. Not even treating back pain, it seems, is created equal in the time of coronavirus.

On an average day as a pharmacist in Tehran, the capital city of Iran with 1,945 cases of COVID-19, my aunt estimates that about twenty customers come in with prescriptions for drugs administered for coronavirus. “You have the education of disease in America. That doesn’t exist here,” she said. “An 80-year old woman came in today, sweating, coughing all over the pharmacy. She was a walking coronavirus. We asked her why she didn’t go to the hospital. She said they told her to come back when her symptoms were worse.” “Worse” for us means trading an afternoon at Musée D’Orsay during spring break for wallowing at our suburb’s all you can eat buffet — served by the restaurant employees, of course. For these patients, it means death.

My aunt sighed, laughed, inhaled. “I just want this to be over.” I exhaled with her, 6,000 miles away.

So we wait, wait, wait, our day-to-day disrupted for prevention. Today, this means swiping ourselves into the gym and foregoing reusable coffee mugs. We join college students everywhere in facing fears that yesterday felt like science fiction. Stanford can provide a glimpse of what our Cornellian future holds, as students there have already transitioned to online instruction. For Stanford senior Cathy Yang, who mostly takes studio art classes, “It has made things complicated for sure,” she told me in an interview. “Many of them have just cut things short since it’s very hard to share work, make work or offer good critiques over video calls.” But as demoralizing as educational hindrances have been, Yang deals with the response both on her campus and in her family group chat made of relatives in the U.S. and China. “This has tuned me into the suffering of many Chinese people which I think Americans are generally not aware of,” she said.

Consider, then, that your worst case scenario at the hour that crisis struck was a different kind of pandemonium for your classmate. While I heard one student lament that the parties they’ll attend till fall will be in basements of high school seniors in their hometown, another student now panics at the crippling thought of “returning home” when that is a phrase they use to refer to Ithaca. Sun columnist Weifeng Yang ’20 told me he now worries about his residency in the U.S. when his F1 Visa expires come matriculation. “Worst case scenario is all law schools reject me, I can’t find any job offer and I have to go back to China because of the cancellation and worrying of the coronavirus getting worse and my Visa status as an American is terminated,” Yang said.

And to those of you boasting that you haven’t cancelled your spring break in Cancún because Mexico only has seven confirmed cases of COVID-19, know that a margarita at Playa del Carmen come April 1 amid a global public health crisis is not your badge of honor. Your resistance does not confer clout. It’s irresponsible. As hopeful future health care providers, lawmakers, tech experts, media voices and the bona fide 21st century world savers we touted we’d become in our college applications, we can and should do better. When it comes to a pandemic that has shrunk our world, we are agents of contagion in more than the mere spread of disease: The language we use to talk about how it frustrates us is just as infectious.

To the Californians rioting at their potential 5 a.m. wake-ups to Zoom in for what would be an 8 a.m. class: You’re right, this is a nightmare. Seniors, the bitter disappointment of an underwhelming graduation and departure from Cornell is worthy of your grief. I too would like to see my BRBs roll over, and I will camp outside Day Hall with you till we find out the fate of our tuition dollars. But as no one’s collegiate plan Bs accounted for worldwide pandemic, realize that if the consequence of our coping is forgoing Slope Day, we need to zip through our denial, anger, bargaining and depression stat. Because while we wait for disease, we also wait for policy. Let us accept our inconveniences so we can craft the answers to questions that no authority can provide.

“You are so lucky. Your alarms are ringing soon,” my uncle said. “Here, by the time we knew, it was too late. We didn’t wait for a big epidemic to arrive, you just look outside and it’s happening. One by one people are falling.” And I wept again. I wept because two months ago I walked myself to Cornell Health for a now ridiculous concern that a couple of over the counter multivitamins could quell. Two months ago, I acted out of prevention and preparation because my Western education has taught me to treat my health as something to guard, disease as something to prepare for. I mourn a past when a lack of sunshine was the unifying ailment. But I find myself here now alongside you, waiting, waiting, waiting, holding our breaths. When we do eventually exhale, please, cover your mouth.

Paris Ghazi is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]La Vie en Prose runs alternate Thursdays this semester.