March 17, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Coronavirus and the Luxury of Stability

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“I now understand how my parents felt, fleeing without warning from the Somalian Civil War,” my friend semi-joked on Thursday when I told her I would be leaving London the following Monday. I gave a weary chuckle and showed her my friend’s Instagram story saying that she and her mom had Gestapo flashbacks while scrambling to pack the past three months of studying abroad into a bag. It was 2 a.m. in Madrid, and there was a palpable sense that if she and her parents did not leave at that very moment, their rights as citizens to return to their own country would be stripped.

I am only slightly luckier than other students fleeing Europe before President Trump shuts us out entirely. I have four days to pack, say goodbye to my friends and wake up early to see the sunrise over the Thames for the first and last time. My grandfather used to tell me bedtime stories of German bombs following his refugee caravan to Uzbekistan, one of which ripped off the arm of a girl ten feet away from him, turning her white dress red. My last Saturday stroll down Brick Lane to buy the vintage jeans I’ve been pining for can hardly compare. So let’s set the Holocaust comparisons aside for now, even though I’m simultaneously writing an essay on Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil; even in this “increasingly apocalyptic semester” as my professor put it, last-minute essay-writing remains a constant.

On Wednesday, I was insisting to my coworker that it makes no sense for me to leave. I can’t infect my grandparents at home if I am here; New York City is so much worse than London; I already paid for my apartment; I have a job; I made travel plans; I was invited to Passover Seders; I have tickets to a concert with my best friend on her birthday. Now, I join my friends in a two-week quarantine in New York City, in spirit but not in person. Who knows what the city will look like, and who will remain, when we emerge.

My semesters in college have thus far operated according to certain routines, subconsciously built up, with the majority of my life contained to a half-hour walking radius. Going to class (as long as it started after 11 a.m.), starting assignments too close to the deadline, meeting up with friends for late night adventures, the knowledge that support networks lay at my fingertips. No matter what temporary setback I got myself into, I always retained a coherent, known structure to my life.

Even removing coronavirus from the narrative, studying abroad was chaotic from the start, lacking much of the stability I didn’t realized I had grown dependent on. I procrastinated on applying for my Visa and ended up arriving in London a week late, missing a crucial period of making friends; I nearly bailed on going abroad because of the thought that I would spend a semester alone and lonely in a massive city. I made friends anyway. Life went on. In my second week here, my phone was stolen in a campus cafe, and no matter how many managers I talked to at the insurance company, they would not ship my new phone overnight to Britain. While I waited ten days for my mom to fly in with my phone, I meticulously memorized directions, gaining an intuition for the twisting streets of London. I learned to have faith, to trust that no matter what, I would find my friends and find my way back home. Life went on, arguably better without Instagram and Snapchat. The clouds became silver linings.

Now I feel silly trying to placidly accept whatever the future holds, and it gets harder for me to maintain my religious conviction that everything happens according to a plan inherently beyond my comprehension. How do I embrace terrifying risks and uncertainties even though I now have no other choice? We used to have certainty that life will continue on until tomorrow, that our forecasts will be reasonably accurate, that the yield curve inverting means a recession will come, that Mondays mean grilled cheese and tomato garlic soup at Zeus, that Friday sundowns mean going to increasingly lame fraternity parties.

In the space of four hours, I can go from packing for a weekend in Barcelona to buying a last-minute plane ticket home while sobbing to my mom over the phone. Who knows what will happen by Monday, my city may be locked down upon arrival. (Here is one certainty: if that happens, you will find me snorkeling across the Hudson River in my friend’s dad’s wetsuit to get back to the Upper West Side, Bill Deblasio you mark my words.) In one week, we went from believing the virus is contained, to thousands sickened in Italy. In the week after that, it finally dawned on us that coronavirus will spread everywhere and nothing will stop it. Our last recourse is to delay it at the cost of massive disruptions to our routine-filled lives. Life won’t go on for all of us, but it will go on for more of us if we hold ourselves to dramatic yet responsible measures.

I think of my great-grandmother fleeing Belarus in the middle of the night with Nazis on her heels and her infant child, my grandmother, in her arms, of Paris Ghazi’s heartbreaking account of the disaster in Iran her family is enduring, of my immunocompromised friend’s parents’ escape from the Somalian civil war. Now we learn what previous generations knew: Security is a luxury, and we took it for granted. This coronavirus is only a taste of the power a cruel world possesses to upend even the most sheltered of lives.


Robyn Bardmesser is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.