March 16, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Ruminations from Quarantine

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A few days ago, shortly before chaos shattered my Cornell-infused world, I called a family member, only to hear him laugh off COVID-19. “Just you wait,” he snickered. “And I guarantee in the next ten years a real virus will shake this planet!”

Real virus or not (is that even a question?), COVID-19 has made a real dent in my life and in the lives of many of my Cornell friends. It also reminded me of a timeless truth: high school science terms always relive their teenage glory! As for 2020, it’s the throwback year for “quarantine.” And I am in quarantine.

It is not that I am the likely culprit of Ithaca’s COVID-19 transmission but rather that I was recently exposed to out-of-town people who had it. And it is not that I am showing any symptoms of the disease but instead the potential that I could develop them. Worst of all is my complete lack of knowledge, because the fact of the matter is that Cornell Health refused to test me at all. Instead, they advised me to just self-quarantine.

Just self-quarantine? I laughed at it, yet am doing just that. I was deemed an unlikely candidate for the illness, being asymptomatic, but still had to isolate myself. What does that say about our health care system’s response to COVID-19? And what does it mean if we don’t even test the people who ask to be tested?

On one hand, being cooped up has its benefits. For many Cornell students, I think it will do us good. Time has become such an unlimited commodity that I can’t even grasp its value anymore. Fifteen courses anxiously await on LinkedIn Learning; my family’s genealogical treasures will soon be uncovered on familysearch.org; and by gosh, by golly, I can even look up running tips to help me clinch a spot at the next Boston Marathon! These are all things I told myself I never would have time for during my study-intensive weeks. Having fourteen days unexpectedly thrust at me seems, in a way, a gift from heaven. It makes me think about me.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I am one of the more fortunate Cornell students because I know where I will be going next. Too many of my friends are grappling with where to go, how to pay to get there, and — once they’re there — if they will manage to find a stable network connection to continue their classes again. My heart bleeds for my friends who are seniors, partly because I know that could have been me. Had I not chosen to graduate early to start my masters degree, I would have been graduating with them.

My experience, while unique to me, is a microcosm into the larger narrative of everyone — Cornellian and non-Cornellian — who right now is doing their best to deal with these bleak circumstances. I am isolating myself from the world out of the chance — however slight — that I pass a disease to another person, potentially leading to a death. I’m willing to isolate myself to avoid that risk. While I will sorely miss not seeing or hugging my friends before they depart Ithaca, I believe that a goodbye means nothing less than “see you again.”

Francine Barchett is a Master of Professional Studies student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.