Experiencing COVID-19 these days brings to mind the scene in “Ben-Hur” when the lepers are proclaiming themselves “Unclean! Unclean!”
People compare COVID-19 to the flu, which in many cases is pretty accurate, but people don’t react as if you’ve had the flu.
The comic Nate Bargatze’s take on COVID-19 is that it is impossible to cough in public now for fear of alarming people.
“You drink water wrong at a restaurant, (you might as well) just go walk in traffic,” he said. Even the people at your own table will ask you to leave.
My personal experience with COVID-19 coincided with the placing of 700,000 white flags on the National Mall in Washington, each one representing someone who had died from the virus. That’s not like the flu either, unless you are thinking of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20.
Those white flags didn’t make me feel any better as I lay on the couch and tried to get up the energy to watch “The Price is Right.”
The truth is that I wasn’t likely to become a white flag myself because I was vaccinated. If I hadn’t been, the odds were pretty good I would have been spending some time in the hospital. My symptoms were controllable thanks to a small drugstore of over-the-counter medicines that a kind friend brought over.
It turns out that having COVID-19 brings out the best in many people. Friends did some shopping for us, and other friends provided us with chicken soups. Our children — being millennials — paid for some takeout meals.
While we greatly appreciated the help, my wife losing her sense of taste and smell made the meals somewhat less interesting. Unfortunately, she is still at the “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is all I can taste” stage.
But despite the many kindnesses, there is that leper feeling, much of it self-imposed. It reminded us both of the early days of the pandemic. We stayed inside except for wary walks around the block — when we had the energy to do that. It was just the two of us and a television.
By the second week of our 14-day quarantine, I was really missing Mass. I was also missing human contact. As God observed in the passage of Genesis read at Mass recently: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”
In fact, I was not alone. My “Eve” was right beside me. But the isolation still felt debilitating. People gave me feedback at a safe distance — like over the phone or a Zoom call: “You sound better, I think.”
Once we ended our quarantine and tested negative for COVID-19, we still felt a bit unclean. Even though, as several people told us, we had extra immunity now, we didn’t feel it.
And if you think you have to suppress a cough before you have COVID-19, wait until after you have had it. If I felt a cough coming on at Mass, I was about ready to go walk in traffic.
But those 700,000 white flags do haunt me. People are dying unnecessarily still. If one death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic, then we are losing sight of the fact that each flag stands not just for a person, but for a family, a circle of friends, a neighborhood.
If you haven’t gotten a vaccine, please do. Do it for yourself, of course, but do it for those you care about, and those you may only casually come in contact with. Getting vaccinated really is an act of love for others, and a testament of hope that we will get through this pandemic together.
Greg Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].
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