On February 2nd, when I returned from a 6-week trip to visit family in Nigeria, the novel coronavirus was already ravaging China.
At JFK, the officers at the international terminal wore gloves and cheap surgical masks as they herded hundreds of passengers through a winding path to customs. The officers closest to me — two Caribbean women in their mid-to-late forties — wore their masks half covering their mouths, so they could chat easily with each other. Watching them, I chuckled, wondering why they bothered with the masks at all if they didn’t wear them properly. Sliding my passport into the scanner, I punched the buttons with my bare hands and passed through the checkpoint without so much as another thought.
A few days later, I flew to Stanford for my a cappella reunion. Hundreds of friends came in from all over the world — Great Britain, Italy, and Germany, among others — to sing, celebrate, and commemorate the group’s 30-year anniversary. We sang and danced, shared hugs and food.
I don’t remember any of us talking about COVID-19, although it’s possible it came up in any one of the hundreds of conversations we had that weekend. When I flew back to Brooklyn, to celebrate returning to the city, I took an Afrodance class taught by my friend, Nado. There had to be 20 of us crowded into that tiny room at Ripley Grier Studios, exchanging sweat, high fives, hugs, and laughter for 2+ hours. None of us talked about the virus then, either.
What amazes me is how quickly things have changed.
Two days after the class, on March 1st, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Manhattan. And two days after that, there was another — a lawyer, who worked in Midtown and lived in New Rochelle, a city just north in Westchester County.
Thus, New York again became ground zero in the United States.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the man’s wife, 20-year-old son, and 14-year-old daughter had all tested positive for the virus, as did a neighbor who drove him to the hospital. By then, he had already gone to his synagogue, his daughter off to school in the Bronx, and his son to Yeshiva University in Manhattan.
On March 7, Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York with 89 confirmed cases: 70 in Westchester County, 12 in New York City, and 7 elsewhere. At least 100 families tied to the synagogue were put under quarantine. Schools, houses of worship, and other large gathering spaces were closed.
The state established a one-mile radius containment zone. I asked my aunt, who lives in New Rochelle, how she was faring, whether she was still going to work and if anybody was sick there. “We’re all good, by God’s grace,” she replied. Luckily, she lives outside of the zone, but I was still worried.
And on March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
As soon as I heard the lawyer worked in Manhattan, I knew things were going to get bad. As each day went by, more and more cases sprung up around the city and the world. Tests were limited and hard to come by, so the projections were far worse than the reported numbers. Medical professionals lacked proper protective equipment. People were starting to share quarantine stories, tales from the front lines, and obituaries.
Friends of mine who suspected they had the virus couldn’t get tested so, instead, they hunkered down indoors, waiting for the symptoms to pass.
My sister, an ob/gyn practicing in Maryland, texted that a patient of hers who’d been exposed to the virus came in for a check up without saying anything until after the appointment was over. The thought was horrifying. I posted a message on my a cappella group’s Facebook page about how grateful I was that we’d gotten to sing and reconnect before the pandemic. A friend replied from Italy, in red-zone quarantine lockdown. She said she’d started self-quarantining before the official government order was put in place.
About two weeks ago, I started staying home, too.
I stopped taking the subway, told my client I’d telecommute for all meetings, and only left the house for essential supplies like food, medicine, and fresh air — at a safe social distance of 6-feet apart from everyone else. But, for some, life went on as usual. They were still going to the gym, bars, restaurants, beauty parlors, and nail salons.
It was obvious that the official response to the pandemic was moving far slower than the actual spread of the disease.
Having earned my first degree in biological sciences — with a concentration in cell biology — I’ve always had an interest in diseases. The pandemic took me back to “Infection and Immunity,” a first semester seminar, taught by Stanford Professor Pat Jones.
In class, we read Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague and watched Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak — an old Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman flick about an outbreak of the fictitious Motaba virus in California — unpacking the veracity of the plot, the science, and the public response to the disease.
Americans’ reactions in the film ran the spectrum from voluntarily surrendering themselves for testing and quarantine to stockpiling guns and attempting to flee the hot zone, only to be shot down by the military.
As I watched the film again last week, holed up in my house with several weeks’ worth of food, I marveled at how similarly — 25 years since the film’s release — the real-life plot has unfolded. While the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has not kept pace with the global spread of disease, the public’s response has lagged even further behind that.
Even now, I still can’t believe my eyes.
A few days ago, in my neighborhood, staff at a Chinese-owned fish market in my Flatbush neighborhood, frequented by Caribbean immigrants, were still handing out metal bowls to patrons to hand-select their own fish. Checkout lines at Bobby’s Department store wound around the store with no more than inches between customers.
People were raiding grocery stores, cleaning out any and everything they could carry. The last time I went to the gym — almost two weeks ago, before voluntarily banning myself — desk clerks were still scanning in members’ key cards with their bare hands while fitness instructors told students to “clean” their shared gym mats with stiff paper towels and mystery liquid in spray bottles.
Elsewhere across the nation, people were buying guns and ammunition as a precaution against rioting and looting. Quack science and misinformation was being passed around the internet. And as stores started shutting down, groups of people started congregating in parks and on beaches, bringing their kids along for play dates. Students even partied on crowded boats in Miami over spring break.
It seemed like not even a pandemic, predicted in decades of popular fiction and nonfiction, was capable of changing people’s behavior.
Back in Nigeria, as of Thursday, a social dance club I’m a member of was still holding salsa nights. Media reports suggested that the virus had been well contained there, starting with an Italian tourist who landed in Lagos. After all, the country had fought Ebola and won. But gradually it emerged that the contact tracing wasn’t as rigorous as previously thought. Predictably, the number of cases has risen to 30, with no telling how many are still unidentified. In a city of 20 million, the illness and fatality projections are staggering.
And with Trump’s pronouncement of the potential success of anti-malaria drug chloroquine in treating COVID-19 — though the drug’s efficacy is still unproven — two Nigerians have already been hospitalized for drug overdoses.
As of now, confirmed cases have reached 370,000+ worldwide. Facing protective gear, respirator, and hospital bed shortages, almost every nation has closed its borders to fight the disease. While China has begun reporting no new daily cases of the virus, there has been little success with the U.S. campaign to #flattenthecurve.
Here in New York, we’ve all been instructed to stay at home.
Confirmed cases in New York State have risen to more than 21,000, with 12,000 in NYC alone. All non-essential businesses have been closed. As the businesses go, so do the workers and the economy. Creative friends who earn their living through shows, gigs, and teaching, living paycheck to paycheck, are suddenly broke — while countless of healthcare professionals, supermarket cashiers, delivery people, and other essential workers put their health on the line to keep the country running, some working while sick for fear of losing their jobs.
As news travels, I hover in virtual space, worried about my family and friends across the globe.
I write to wish you well in this tumultuous moment. I hope that you and your family are healthy and safe. I realize that many people are sick and the rest of us are scared about catching it, or infecting family members. I can’t imagine how devastating it must be to lose a loved one like this — in a hospital room, or at home, in isolation.
By now, if you’re well, you may have transitioned to working remotely, homeschooling your kids, or taking care of family or community members.
Maybe you’re one of the essential workers on the front lines, or a gig worker figuring out what to do now that your contracts have fallen through. Like my client, you might be scared and spiraling, wondering how you’re going to make it if things get worse. But just like I told him: stick to the plan. If you read my last post, maybe you already know what that is.
What’s the one thing that, if you achieve it, would totally transform your life in 2020?
Maybe what mattered most to you last month doesn’t matter as much now; or maybe it matters more. Times like these have a habit of throwing everything into stark relief. If you’re like me, when major events happen, I pause to reevaluate my choices. I ask myself whether I’m living with authenticity, whether this is the path I should be on, or the legacy I want to leave behind.
If I’m not living in alignment with my highest goals, I try to make a different choice.
Although everything has changed, it’s still your Wonder Year.
Everyone in the world is focused on global health, wellness, and minimizing the spread of disease. We’re all being forced, willingly or not, to confront our shared mortality and find a new normal. This is a necessary time to reconsider your physical, spiritual, mental, financial, and relational wellbeing. Let this be a gentle reminder of this important work.
So your challenge for your Wonder Year, again, is:
It’s the truth that lives inside your bones.
Maybe you wrote it down last month, or before you finished reading this post. If you did, read it out loud and notice how you feel. If it feels right, carry on. But if current events have left you questioning yourself, now is a great time to rewrite your story.
Though difficult, this moment forces us all to reflect and recalibrate how we live. In the coming weeks and months, the entire world will change in ways that we can’t imagine.
Disaster requires acts of imagination. The pandemic lays bare the cruelty of living in such dismal inequality. The minority in power may act savagely to make opportunistic use of the emergency. But emergency can be, and almost always is, a moment of emergence. You might look at the scenes of extraordinary care that ordinary people show one another; the spontaneous singing from balconies in Italy.
This is the most dramatic global crisis I’ve ever lived through, but I’m no stranger to change. I was a sickly child, in and out of hospitals. I’ve had hard times, buried loved ones, and gone completely broke at several points in my life. No matter what happens, the thing that always saves me is knowing who I am.
One thing I know for sure is I want to be a part of positive change.
Now I’m not asking you to get busy working indoors, as this pandemic warrants a much-needed pause from business as usual. But I am asking you to recommit to being the best version of yourself. Remain intentional, thoughtful, and engaged along your path, even in this time of suffering and uncertainty.
Luckily, there are many bright spots to guide you:
- Dozens of mutual aid groups, or community networks for giving, are banding together to help people in need.
- With China’s cases on the downturn, they’re offering humanitarian aid to countries newly grappling with the disease.
- Cuba is sending doctors to Italy.
- For creative inspiration, you can take a virtual tour of 12 museums around the world from the comfort of your home.
- Dance along to DJ DNice’s Homeschool IG parties, which are drawing massive 100,000+ crowds of people jamming at home. It’s become a lifeline!
- Meditate with Oprah and Deepak’s free 21-day meditation, Hope in Uncertain Times.
- Read my favorite thinkpiece, an op-ed in The New Republic, “Against Productivity in a Pandemic,” by Nick Martin.
How are you faring? Post a comment below.
Onward & upward,
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Iquo B. Essien is a writer, director, and business consultant with an MFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In addition to filmmaking, she helps artists fund their creative dreams and socially-conscious brands tell stories that connect with audiences. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.