COVID-19 Reflections

I tested positive for COVID-19, had an utterly horrible couple of weeks, and thankfully have survived to tell the tale.

Words cannot express the devastation that came when seeing this

Timeline

Tuesday, November 24My parents start showing symptoms, noticeably coughing and extreme fatigue. I suggest they get tested, but they don’t feel their condition is serious enough. I decide to start distancing myself from them – for example, I stopped eating dinner with them from that point onward.
Sunday, November 29I start to feel a sore throat upon waking up. I contact my healthcare provider (Kaiser) to order a test, but find the first appointment available is Wednesday.
Wednesday, December 2I go to a drive-through testing site, which takes about an hour since there were so many people in line. Post-Thanksgiving rush, I guess. At this point, my sore throat has intensified to the point where it hurts to swallow.
Thursday, December 3My test results come back positive for the novel coronavirus. I tell my parents, who are still showing symptoms, and ask them again to get tested. They ignore my suggestion and in fact have started going back to work at this point. Unbelievable but predictable.
Friday, December 4My symptoms now include shortness of breath and the odd phenomenon of “brain fog”, which makes it very hard to concentrate on my studies. Terrible timing because it’s finals season.
Saturday, December 5I give in and ask for an extension to one of my final papers, which I thankfully received. I believe this may be the first time I’ve asked for an extension in my life. The difficulty in breathing worsens at night, and I start using an oximeter regularly. My plan is to go into a hospital if oxygen levels dip below 90%.
Monday, December 7New symptoms: extreme dry mouth and sporadic rashes (waves of intense itchiness in odd locations like my stomach). I read about Tony Hsieh’s death, and for a moment part of me thought it would be a preferable way to go. (Although, I think I’d be a little more prepared with an estate plan.) Most parts of California had just went under a (relatively weak) Stay Home Order. Seeing people on Twitter upset about this made me want to vomit, though not sure if this was just another symptom.
Tuesday, December 8Contact tracers have finally got around to my case. I start getting calls and messages from the county health officials. If I had been irresponsible and spreading the virus in the past few days, it would have been far too late. I can understand the exponential nature and difficulty of their work.
Thursday, December 10My respiratory symptoms have finally subsided. The rashes are also slowing down and I start having bouts of diarrhea, which I imagine is my body’s way of violently ejecting the virus from my body. The tide has turned and I think I’m going to be okay.
Friday, December 11My parents finally agree to quarantine for the next couple weeks upon follow-up instruction from the contact tracers. The end of this nightmare (at least this round) is within sight.
Monday, December 14All symptoms are finally gone, and I deliver my last final papers and presentations of the semester.

I am immensely grateful that I survived this bout of COVID-19, and can only hope I don’t experience any long-term effects in the future. My relief turned into abject sadness, however, when I learned that at least three of my personal friends (around my age) just contracted COVID-19 as well last week. Unfortunately, their experiences appear to be much rougher than mine – one of them has already been admitted into a hospital. 😢

Reflections

Appreciating my luck

I recognize that this could have gone much worse for me and my parents, who are in the age range where death is far more likely. In fact, the highest percentage of COVID-19 deaths in San Francisco are elderly Asian residents. Whether it’s because of a lack of ability to communicate in English or the bravado that comes from being an immigrant, this unfortunate statistic means that anyone living in an Asian household really needs to be extra careful.

After experiencing (just some of) the symptoms of COVID-19 for myself, I can see how this virus could easily kill people of all ages. If I had just been exposed to a slightly bigger dose of the virus or had a slightly weaker immune system, I could have been in serious trouble. I am so extremely sorry for all of my friends who were not as lucky.

Also, I contracted the virus despite all the precautions I have been taking over the past year and my relatively privileged social & career situation that provides a stable shelter and no need to work outside of my home. The virus truly does not discriminate, but I believe a major reason I fared as well as I did is because of some of these privileges. If I still had to work, lived in a more crowded household, or was unsheltered, my odds of dying would have been much higher – not to mention the added stress making everything worse.

Disillusionment about America

Enough has been written about the failure of the United States in containing the spread of COVID-19. Certainly the country did not have the proper leadership at the worst possible time. Also, the state-by-state/county-by-county approach to things like testing & contact tracing are quite obviously ineffective based on my experience above. (It’s still worth enabling exposure notifications on your phone, however!)

Why every state needs to develop its own notification system is beyond me

My take on this goes beyond just pointing fingers at elected officials, however. I believe there are actually systemic problems with some of the core pillars of American culture, specifically individualism and capitalism.

Individualism over collectivism means that it’s hard to get people to truly care about others in society. The “I got mine, so screw you” mindset stifles empathy/compassion for those less fortunate, leading to worse outcomes for disadvantaged communities. But even for those who don’t care about those communities, the mentality hurts everyone because acts of shared sacrifice (such as sheltering-in-place and mask-wearing) are critical to slow contagious diseases. One could argue that the reason countries in Asia-Pacific (including “western-style” countries like Australia) are handling the pandemic so much better is because the average person feels more compelled to protect those around them.

Capitalism over socialism means that Americans care more about the economy than about societal well-being. People have developed an ingrained love for work and making money, to the detriment of the health of themselves and others. My parents are a perfect example here – continuing to work despite having symptoms, even though they quite frankly do not need the extra income. Owners of capital are also perfectly happy to continue exploiting this desire in the labor force – whether it’s the factory boss encouraging non-stop work (I see you Elon Musk) or landlords who threaten evictions on the unemployed.

These two pillars make American exceptionalism real – it’s just exceptionally ill-prepared for humanitarian crises like these. Put another way: living in America is considered harmful for your health, while being great for your money. I highlight these issues not because I want to express hate towards the country or its people. Rather, I only wish for broader recognition of these concerns – yet I have no expectation that these will change significantly within my lifetime.

How to react to others

Many triggers for frustration here…

Upon reflection, it is so natural to want to find someone or some act to blame. The visceral urge to be upset at the whole timeline and wish you could change a decision here or take a different precaution there is so strong. My gut reaction was to lash out at everyone in the chain of infection leading up to me, berating them for not being as careful as I was or not taking this pandemic seriously enough. However, when I took a step back I realized that there was ultimately no point in this line of thinking.

Sure, I could get angry at tons of people: my parents, their bosses for encouraging the continuation of work, government officials for not enforcing harsher shutdown measures, the people of California for resisting government mandates, the people who still engage in discretionary travel and gatherings to this day, the people who promote the American capitalistic tradition of glorifying the economy and exploiting labor, etc. But in the end, it is almost always impossible to change other minds (see: masks) and rarely worth the effort of trying and the frustration of failing.

I could also play through an endless shuffle of “what if?” scenarios. What if I had kept more distance from my parents? What if I had moved out earlier in the pandemic? What if I had taken that job in Shenzhen earlier in the year? What if I had stayed in Australia or Vietnam when I used to work there? What if my parents had never immigrated to the United States? It really could go ad infinitum. In the end, I could only control so much and the odds were clearly stacked drastically against me. Even if I had dodged the coronavirus this time, the continued unabated spread would be even more likely to hit me in the months to come before the vaccine arrives.

So my conclusion is: each person can only do their best, given the tools and options they have immediately within their control. If those conditions lead to a coronavirus infection, that is unfortunate and disappointing but not yet the end of the world. We can all hope that modern medicine delivers the end of this terrible pandemic and that more people in society eventually realize the significance of shared responsibility, but… I wouldn’t hold your breath.

2 thoughts on “COVID-19 Reflections

  1. Simon,

    Glad to hear you are recovered and sorry to hear about the hell you went through.

    A few random points:
    1. Generally, the high Asian death rates as best as I can tell are just an artifact of demography where SF’s elderly population is disproportionately Asian (https://statisticalatlas.com/place/California/San-Francisco/Race-and-Ethnicity). (or put another way, the Asian population is SF is, on average, older than other groups).
    2. Yes, the risk of infection (though not sure of complications) is much higher in crowded homes. We seem to have done a terrible time properly dealing with this — this story (https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/11/29/on-bay-areas-busiest-covid-ward-less-doom-and-gloom-more-hope-for-second-wave-of-patients/) was particularly telling of a poor response. When the father contracted covid, no attempt was made to isolate him in a hotel (which I thought the county pays for?) – resulting in the grandfather contracting it and ending up in the ICU.
    3. I imagine books will be written about the poor covid response for years ahead. What’s fascinating to me is it is not entirely an indictment of America, but really the entire West failed (compared to Eastern Asian nations with at least above average human development), barring several exceptions (islands like Iceland, NZ, or (stretching the definition) Australia). I agree with you on the “individualism” front there, though in many ways I see individualism = poor response to a pandemic as a downside of that cultural feature, not necessarily an indictment of it.

    Like

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