For the last few months, the world was changing, but I was blissfully ignorant. Sure, I saw news coming from China and thought, ‘Oh, those poor people. What a tragedy! It makes me realize how lucky I am.’ It is human nature to simultaneously feel badly for someone while feeling grateful for how good life is at the moment.
When did you realize the magnitude of the pandemic? Perhaps this will replace the old question, “Where were you when JFK was shot?” or later, “Where were you when 911 happened?”
For me it was Tuesday, March 3, 2020. I was working in New York City and news that the Coronavirus would likely impact our part of the world was rumbling. Because my job involves global travel, I had started to receive cancellations for a five-country tour planned the next month. First Kuwait, then Paris, then Amman, leaving me with London and Doha – and a lot of space in between. In the middle of a very hectic work day, I ate a turkey sandwich for lunch. By 6:30 PM, I went to the lower East-Side to have dinner at a friend’s apartment. As I walked up the four flights of stairs to her place, I started feeling dizzy and nauseous. She welcomed me into her apartment, but I needed to sit down as she gave me a cool towel. It was totally out of character for me to get so sick; experiencing chills, sweats, and I felt confused. Suddenly I rushed to her bathroom to projectile vomit. How do you know when someone is a real friend? When she holds your hair in a pony-tail and says soothing things despite the fact that you are throwing up inelegantly. Eventually, we sat back down on her couch and I tried to sip some water. After another hour, I was fairly certain I would not be sick again and took an Uber back to my hotel.
It was a sleepless night of incoherently wondering, ‘Am I sick with Covid-19? Did I make anyone else sick on this trip? Have I been anywhere dangerous lately? (Answer: Seattle and 12 different airports. Twice I was directed around large groups of Chinese travelers being held for screening.) How do I get out of here? I took the train from Boston, should I take it back? Not if I am sick, but could I rent a car and drive home? I don’t think I am well enough to make it.’ On and on, until the sun came up, I worried and realized that this ‘far away problem’ is now feeling much closer.
By 6:30 AM I called a doctor-friend. He heard my story and said it sounded like food poisoning but that I should go a medical clinic a few blocks away by 7:00 AM. They were kind, saw me right away, tested me for the regular flu (clean), took my temperature (no fever), and told me it was likely that I had food poisoning. I asked if it was possible to screen for the virus, but they said there were no tests available. I rushed back to the hotel, showered and worked all day. I slowly felt better and was able to eat soup 48 hours later. My illness never materialized into a respiratory issue, and I feel confident it was just the sandwich. That said, it was a small window into the difficult choices many people will be making for the next few months. People will choose whether they should work sick or lose a paycheck. People will choose whether they want to pay rent or buy groceries. People will choose whether to leave their children home alone or skip the job interview. People will choose how to run their business through an unprecedented market. They will do what they have to do to save their business. That is, if they have a business left to save after this is over.