I confess, I have become obsessed with reading about the “coronavirus,” or, COVID-19 as we’re starting to refer to it in the Seattle area. Last Sunday, in church, we were given explicit instructions not to touch one another at the passing of the peace. We were also given permission to take simply the bread at communion and forego the (fortified port) wine. Our vicar has a reasonably healthy outlook—she has served through SARS, MERS, and innumerable flu seasons, and survived them all. Yet there is something about living in a place that has become the epicenter of an outbreak that shifts one’s perspective. The daily (hourly) updates with new information, a rising death toll—largely within a given vulnerable population, the realization that this thing has been going around unidentified for a while, all contribute to a sense of helplessness and sobering reflection. On the one hand, everything is continuing as normal. On the other hand, nothing seems normal anymore. The most banal advice given by health officials—wash your hands, don’t touch your face—sounds as though they’re attempting to supply the fire brigade with plastic pails and kiddy pools.
Meanwhile we wait.
We are waiting for the testing to come fully online. Waiting for the reports and updates to emerge. Waiting to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up quarantined. Is that last item rational? Of course not. Nor is my sudden urge to read Camus.
I was talking with my sister this morning (who, oddly enough, is training to become a nurse at this particular moment), and we both felt as though we’re hearing reports of a big storm coming in, but we cannot know from which direction(s), or when, or just how long it will last. When I pick up my spouse from public transit these days, an added layer of concern settles like ash upon the station. We are all well aware of who can and cannot afford to just stay home.
Our deacon last Sunday shared with me a chilling thought, “if this virus hits the homeless. . .” she went on, but my spirit was already shuddering.
Here in Western Washington, we are accustomed to hearing about other epicenters—as in, either these things happen elsewhere, far away; or, we prepare for when ‘the big one’ hits and an earthquake’s epicenter yawns beneath our feet. In either case we typically just shrug our shoulders in a PNW reserved sort of way—can’t do much about either, except expect it to hit sometime. But the current epicenter is different. We cannot distance ourselves from the possibility of exposure. And isn’t that what is so frightening?
Mayra Rivera, in her Poetics of the Flesh, recounts the work of Jean-Luc Nancy when she describes the notion of expeausure. “The concept highlights the body’s connections to everything that surrounds it. ‘Expeausure’ evokes sensible connections.” (Poetics of the Flesh, 101) The alteration of spelling highlights our skin’s porosity—the fact that when we touch something that someone else touched (in the context of an outbreak), there is a risk of contamination, of vulnerability to whatever germs are careening around shared spaces. This is why public transportation is dangerous. This is what makes not only strangers but now acquaintances, friends and family, suspects. Any semblance of control, particularly in these early days, flies out the window. This is the stuff of psychothrillers.
What’s worse, there is no way to shield those we love. We are all equally vulnerable, though we will not all be impacted equally.
Perhaps this is how it feels to live amidst a series of aftershocks. Persistent uncertainty has become the daily norm. For myself, I don’t know when I will be able to visit my aunt again; she lives in an assisted living dorm. Perhaps they’re still allowing visitors for now, but I’ll just have to call and find out. Seeing her in person has quickly become the only time we can communicate. Her health has rapidly declined and she no longer answers her phone. Her short term memory runs in a closed loop. She can’t write the date. I worry about her. The virus might not reach her facility but, for a time, we might not either.
For those who may be interested, below are a few links to local information about COVID-19:
King County Public Health
The Seattle Times > coronavirus
(My favorite headline: “Coronavirus anxiety outpacing virus itself in the U.S.”)
Letter from our Bishop, Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, Olympia Diocese of the Episcopal Church.