My mother was the first to warn me, and like many mothers, she is always right.
The Chinese-American community was the first in the US to take COVID-19 seriously — though I expect other East Asian communities reacted early, too. In those early days, it was they who were certain that coronavirus would hit the United States soon — and I remember because of my mother’s frequent calls, messages, and warnings. They bought extra 50lb bags of rice before anyone else, adopted rigorous personal hygiene and social distancing practices before anyone else. I myself didn’t think it was a big deal yet, and wondered at how alarmist my mother seemed.
Like I said. Always right.
This makes sense of course, given that the outbreak originated in China, so the Chinese community expected they would be the first to contract cases. Family and other visitors from the mainland are frequent, would be living at your friends’ and relatives houses, part of the fabric of your life. This is not to say that disease was actually carried by Chinese visitors in the end — rather, in Colorado where my mother lives, it was carried by rich Europeans and Americans on ski trips. If anything, the Chinese-American community was the most vigilant the earliest because of COVID-19’s origins — not the most responsible for spreading it.
In the following months, the rest of America would wake up to what my mother’s network was already expecting, already braced for the worst.
On the other hand, I get Whatsapp messages from my cousin who lives in Addis Ababa, telling me to stay safe and look out for myself. I joke that Ethiopia is probably safer than here at this time, though I wish they would take the epidemic more seriously. Ethiopian airlines holds up the economy, and therefore has been highly reluctant to cancel flights and services. Large gatherings of people are still held during the week after Ethiopia has its first case, a Japanese foreigner, and a suspected second case, an American marine.
West African nations, meanwhile, like Nigeria and Senegal, are using their existing Ebola infrastructure to tackle and block cases that are appearing in their jurisdictions. The world seems perplexed — why isn’t Africa, the perceived disease capital of the world, as affected by COVID-19? Africans, especially the young and twitter-vigilant, respond immediately. Why expect us to die, if you believe us to be victims of all disease— why not look to us for leadership? By your own definition, we know how this works.
I hesitate to be too optimistic, but I am, at least, encouraged, though I desperately wish the East, less affected by Ebola and less vigilant about coronavirus, would follow suit.
On a Monday I call the CDC to talk about tick and mosquito-borne illnesses, related to my work. The irony of this does not escape me. I’m tempted to ask the administrator on the other end where I can get a COVID-19 test; instead, I express sympathy for what must be a “crazy time over there”.
A post in a Facebook group I’m in, ‘Silicon Africa’ — “We are so unprepared,” a Nigerian citizen remarks. The only chance is to stop the disease before it spreads, otherwise, they feel, it will certainly overwhelm the healthcare system.
Boston all but shuts down. Work has not closed, but I’m afraid to go in, because I helped MIT students move all weekend. I have learned, after studying ticks for the last year, that my cohort, 20-somethings, are like the ticks and mosquitoes of the human race. We carry disease, but in most cases are not ourselves affected by it. I worry about my company’s response — and this irony, too, does not escape me. I worry more about the older — and usually more senior — people at my office that I may infect, not about myself.
Data from South Korea shows that 20–29 year olds actually had the highest incidence of coronavirus by a large margin. Likely many of them had little-to-no symptoms, and thought they were fine. They carried the disease without dying from it — they became vectors, like ticks and mosquitos, like me.
I strongly suspect that I already have it, especially after developing a mild cough with no sinus symptoms, which rarely happens to me. But there’s no real way to tell without tests. And there’s no tests because of the failing national government.
My company responds, finally, with stronger encouragement to work from home, though it does not close. So I work — I am writing a CDC grant proposal (irony again). I do a lot of laundry. I spend one frantic morning trying to get quarters for laundry when all the bank branches are closed.
I feel so, so angry. I want to tell my parents, my mother especially, look, look at this mess.
American exceptionalism is a lie. They clawed their way here for a better life, they survived typhoid and poverty and racism. They, immigrants, are stronger champions and believers in American values of freedom than most citizens that were born here.
I don’t, can’t feel the same way they do. Maybe the only common thing in the genes of immigrants is simply movement, movement toward the best opportunity. I feel that movement now, pushing me away from here. Usually I feel it pushing, strangely, upward — incubating a dream of transcending borders.
But if there is one thing global pandemic teaches us, it is that there is no such thing as moving away any more. The planet is smaller than it used to be. Threads connect me to many parts of the world, and there will always be many threads that tie me here.
Threads attach to my fingers, and my cousin’s, and my mother’s, and my friends’. Threads that stretch miles and kilometers, that pass through mountains like they are clouds. Threads make us move like schools of fish, mirroring each other, even when we don’t know it, even trapped inside.
Threads that, at this time, I pull at every day, and hold my breath, exhaling only when I feel a tug in return.