How I Spent My COVID-19 Vacation

By Marvin Druger
Email: mdruger@syr.edu

COVIDAs I write this article, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government is deciding whether to continue lockdowns or slowly open the economy. The matter is a balance of risks. Either we open the economy, regardless of the continued spread of COVID-19, or we risk another Great Depression.

We all know the main rules: wash hands thoroughly and frequently for at least 20 seconds; avoid touching your face; stay away from people; stay home if you feel ill; wear a mask.

Testing and tracing are fundamental to controlling the virus. Social distancing is very important. As Dr. Anthony Faucci said, “If you stay away from people, the virus has no place to go.”

Everyone I know, including myself, is frightened about catching this very contagious disease.

There is good reason to be anxious and frightened, but this is not the first viral pandemic. In the past, we have dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide, polio, measles, smallpox, SARS and MERS. Somehow humanity has survived these pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused emotional stress and behaviors have changed. Life will be different from now on.

I began to reflect on changes in behavior caused by the pandemic and what the long-term future will be like. Before COVID-19, I went to Metro Fitness Health Club in Fayetteville frequently and then spent an active day socializing and doing a variety of things.

Since COVID-19, I have adopted different lifestyle. I get up at my usual time, (6 a.m.), and think “Where am I rushing to?” Then, I go back to sleep for an hour or so. Then, I do a morning exercise routine that involves stretching, lifting weights and pedaling on a bicycle machine. This is followed by a shower. I eat breakfast, but then what? There are many tasks to be done in my house and outside, but I have difficulty getting to do them. Motivation is lacking. My attitude is that I have plenty of time to do these things tomorrow, but I don’t feel like doing anything today. I may vacuum the house, work on a jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, watch some of the COVID news on TV and plan lunch or dinner. Sometimes, I wipe doorknobs, handles and surfaces with disinfectant. I wonder why? Am I afraid of catching the virus from myself?

In the afternoon, I take an afternoon walk around the neighborhood. Before I can organize myself to be productive, the day is gone, and I prepare for the barrage of text messages and phone calls from my family. In the evening, just before going to sleep, I read a few pages from a book. I am reading Charles Darwin’s last book on earthworms (i.e., “Vegetable Mould and Earthworms”). Thrilling reading.

Before I know it, another day has gone by. I often forget what day or time it is. I put the garbage at the curbside on Mondays. It seems that Mondays come very quickly and I am always putting out the garbage. I feel like I am in a perpetual daze. I think of my poem in my book “Strange Creatures and Other Poems”:

When I sleep,
I sleep like a log,
When I’m awake,
I’m in a fog.

Since my wife passed away in 2014, I live alone in a large house. I enjoy solitude, but not loneliness. I can imagine what it is like in a family that is in lockdown. Usually, husband and wife separate during the day and are away from the children. Because of COVID-19, a married couple spends much more time with each other and with the kids. This leads to conflicts and emotional stress. In happy marriages, husband and wife usually follow their own unique interests much of the time. There is a limit to “togetherness.” Too much “togetherness” can lead to getting on each other’s nerves.

Shopping for groceries has become an interesting challenge. I called the supermarket and they told me that the store was least crowded at 7:30 p.m., so that’s when I shop once a week. It is strange to see everyone wearing a mask and pushing a sanitized cart. Shoppers walk briskly and avoid each other. Sometimes, quantities of purchases of a particular item are limited. Toilet paper, sanitizing fluids, detergents, napkins, disinfecting wipes, soups and cans of tuna fish seem to be in high demand. Everyone seems to rush to complete shopping as quickly as possible.

Take-out dining is an interesting experience. I order my food by phone and pay in advance with my credit card. The restaurant has parking places for take-out and a worker brings the food to a small table near the car. I get out of the car and grab the food, making sure that my face mask is in place. In one Chinese restaurant, the entire counter is walled off with a sheet of plastic, except for a small area near the cash register where food and money are exchanged. My reaction to take-out is: “Get used to it. I’ll be doing this for a long time.” It’s difficult to imagine how dining in a restaurant will ever be the same.

Schools are closed and online teaching has become well-established. My daughter, Lauren, is a first-grade teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, and she teaches daily using Zoom. She works very hard preparing the Zoom sessions and the students and parents seems appreciative of her efforts. She misses not seeing the students in person, but schools will have to adopt online teaching indefinitely.

Masks are the items of the day. I have some 3M masks, but I don’t wear them because they should only be for health workers. I bought them for my trip to India and wore them because of the severe pollution in Delhi. Rather than explain how I got the mask, I use other ones. My daughter-in-law, Suzanne, is an artist. Her masks are colorful, breathable, washable and even have a replaceable filter.

I want her to start a business and sell them online as “Suzanne’s Masks.” When I see a person in a mask, I try to imagine the expression behind the mask. Is the person smiling at my jokes, or sneering? When I enter a store, I feel like a masked gangster. But masks are definitely the apparel of the present and the future.

The weirdest experience nowadays is taking a walk in the neighborhood. I have been exploring streets that I never knew existed. When someone walks toward me, I cross the street. If someone is gardening, I stop and yell greetings. What strikes me most is the ominous silence. There is no noise of everyday living. The silence is oppressive and eerie. I feel like I am in a dream world, actually more like the twilight zone. Is this all real?

I have to keep reminding myself that pandemics have happened before and humanity has survived. The best scientists in the world are working frantically to develop a vaccine and drugs for effective treatment of COVID-19. Scientists are using advanced technologies that may help speed up the process. Meanwhile, we have to live in this surreal world. Someday I will awaken from this nightmare and realize that it was just another bad dream. Or was it?

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