Like many colleges in the U.S., my alma mater is temporarily closing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. I feel terrible for the students who won’t be able to finish out the semester on campus — especially those who can’t afford to fly home at the drop of a hat. Scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, my breath caught when I read this comment from a friend of a friend:
"Seems we are allowing something that’s a threat to a small percentage of a small group of elderly people do very real damage to 100 percent of a group of young healthy people who should be making some of the best memories of their lives... why not just keep the vulnerable and at-risk people away?" they wrote.
I’ve heard similar sentiments at work and on the subway: “I’m not worried; it’s just a mild flu.” “It only affects old people with preexisting conditions, not people our age.” “He died, but he had preexisting conditions, so...” People qualify every death by saying the deceased was elderly or had other health problems.
Look, I get it. I know people need to find comfort in these terrifying times. Psychologically, we need to distance ourselves from death. But please know that these words are the least comforting thing people like me can hear.
I’m one of those high-risk people you hear about. I look like a normal 30-something woman. I’m happily married and have a great job. But I live in constant fear of catching a “mild” bug that will put me in the hospital — or kill me.
When I was a teenager, I developed heart failure so severe I couldn’t walk down the hall of my high school without gasping for air. At 17, I had a heart transplant. The transplant saved me, adding nearly two decades — and counting, knock on wood — to my life. But it came with a bunch of complications, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney damage, and an increased risk of cancer and diabetes. I also take immunosuppressant medication twice a day to prevent my body from rejecting my new heart.
My routine hasn’t changed all that much since COVID-19 entered the scene. In a way, I’ve been preparing for a pandemic for years. My whole adult life, I’ve washed my hands after every handshake, subway ride, and dog walk. I avoid touching my face and sharing utensils. For better or worse, I’ve gotten used to a constant internal buzz of anxiety about my health. But lately, hearing people reassure each other that only those with chronic health conditions are dying from the coronavirus, I feel a new kind of loneliness. Am I that easily expendable? If I die from this, will it be somehow less sad than if someone else dies?
I’m far from the only one who would be vulnerable if infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six in 10 Americans live with at least one chronic disease. These are my people — the ones who have already stared down their mortality, and who can’t take any day for granted. If you’re lucky enough to not be one of us, the simple truth is that we have a higher chance of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19 than you do. Being high-risk isn’t an abstract concept. You likely know several people who fall under the high-risk category, whether they look sick or not.
For now, I’m washing my hands and staying home as much as possible. I’m fortunate to be able to work remotely during this scary time. For all the flippant comments I read dismissing the coronavirus as no big deal, I’ve had friends and coworkers reach out, sometimes unexpectedly, to see how I’m doing and offer to provide assistance.
The silver lining of this crisis? I’ve been connecting more with my loved ones and feeling closer to my community, despite the fact that we haven’t been hanging out as much in person. I hope that feeling remains, long after the threat of the virus goes away.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.