What I wish I knew before contracting COVID-19


Thea Gonzales

I was comforted once by my statistics: young, healthy, careful, smart. Of course I wasn’t going to contract the virus; I wasn’t like most of its early victims. COVID-19 was for the graphs that J.B. Pritzker and Lori Lightfoot pulled up during daily press conferences, it was for eulogies of elderly people states away, it was for depressing email subjects from the college about why we needed to social distance.
And yet, in the past week, my entire family has tested positive for COVID-19.
In the past week, getting out of bed has been a Herculean effort and small freedoms like walking around the block have become forbidden. None of us go to work or  the grocery store.We all lay down and try to manage our symptoms another day.
The virus doesn’t care if you are young, healthy, careful or smart. It doesn’t care if you have bills to pay,  or if you’re about to graduate, and it especially does not care if you think you’re too strong to catch the illness.  
None of us think we’re going to contract the virus until we do.
I contracted the virus in my own home, likely from my father, who tested positive first when he was exposed to COVID-19 patients as a hospice nurse. All of us in the house are compromised in some way with lung problems, and our shared goal is to stay away from the hospital at all costs. Now, I’m learning more about how to live from my own body instead of my online classes.
This experience, though humbling, is the most challenging test of adaptability, reflection and inner strength that I have ever encountered. So what have I learned? And what will you learn when you come face-to-face with COVID-19?
 I.      The testing process is not pleasant
When you go into the hospital for a test (whether drive-thru or out-patient), one of your orifices is going to be poked at with a cotton swab. My test was a deep throat swab. I’ve also heard of people being tested with a swab that goes up their nose.
Either way, if you’re fortunate enough to see a doctor or other health professional, they’ll take your vitals and tell you the same thing: “You can have up to 1000 mg of Tylenol every eight hours if you have a fever. Otherwise, get plenty of rest and drink fluids. Go to the emergency room if you have trouble breathing. We’re sorry, but there isn’t any medicine for this.”
II.    You will feel every emotion under the sun
I have been angry, guilty, scared, frustrated, mildly joyful, incredulous, full of despair. However you’re feeling is okay, and there’s no need to rationalize your emotions. You don’t have to be positive or pretend that everything is fine for anyone. Your body and brain are adapting to the circumstances around you, so let them. Now is the time for emotional honesty.
Your friends and remote family will be scared of you and be scared for you. Both instincts are normal given the situation, and you will wake up everyday to messages on social media and texts from people checking in. You may be emotionally or physically exhausted, but just know that they care for you. It’s okay not to respond right now.
III.           Listen to your body and be patient with yourself
You must prioritize your health above all things. We’re two weeks from the end of school, but classwork can wait. If you are  confirmed positive for COVID-19, Laura Schnack will reach out to you and coordinate with your professors to arrange academic accommodations.
Your life is all you have right now; you must protect it with everything you have because nothing else is guaranteed. If you have trouble breathing, go to the emergency room immediately.
Throughout the course of this virus, I have experienced fever, coughing, body aches, headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, loss of taste and smell. If you don’t want to eat, eat anyway. If you don’t want to sleep, sleep anyway. Take care of yourself not to satisfy your short-term desires but to invest in the future of your body. Some days are harder than others, but we always have the daily chance to win against the virus when we wake up.
IV.      Stop watching the news
This one was especially hard for me as a multimedia journalism major and Editor-in-Chief of the Observer. When you are sick, knowing how many people have died of COVID-19 in Cook County each day is not going to help you recover. Reading about projected social distancing outcomes through 2022 are not going to help you recover. Watching the president talk about injecting bleach or UV light as a safeguard for the disease is not going to help you recover.
Just for right now, a little bit of ignorance is going to benefit you. Watch “Rick and Morty” and have a smoothie or something.
V.       Recognize your privilege
Everyday is a chance to be thankful for what you have. Although I have contracted COVID-19, I still have an apartment that keeps me safe from the elements. I have my family around me, enough food to last the month, and countless loved ones who drop off groceries and supplies for us.
Disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and pandemics reveal the truth about our societal infrastructures and expose weaknesses in our systems. At the intersections of vulnerability right now are “essential” workers who risk their health every day they go to work, “non-essential” workers who can’t afford to pay their bills, low-income people of color who are marginalized by the social distancing guidelines and so many more people. There are impoverished people around the world who do not have the privilege of social distancing in soup kitchens or food pantry lines. There are POC who are being ticketed or arrested for not wearing masks in public. This virus is affecting everyone, but we have to remember that these marginalizations are not new to the disease. Certain populations are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 based on their intersectional vulnerabilities in society: economic, ecological, social.
VI.          Take this virus seriously
You are not immune to COVID-19. Regardless of the toxic myth of exceptionalism that we tell ourselves, none of us are immune to this virus. Even people who have contracted COVID-19 and recovered are not immune; there are multiple strains to this disease. We need to be real with ourselves here. These are not the most uplifting times, but being honest with ourselves is the first step to preparing our response to adversity. Distancing ourselves from the virus by saying, “it couldn’t happen to me” may work as a coping mechanism, but you could do everything “right” and still contract the virus.
I know you miss your friends. I know you miss your campus. But if we are going to beat this virus – if we are going to survive this disaster, we have to stay home unless absolutely necessary. This virus has traveled the length of our known world. It has hitchhiked inside of people and on unsanitized surfaces.
Stay home. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Follow guidelines. We’re not saying this to scare you. We keep saying these things so you understand how deeply we want to protect you. We want to protect all of us. There are lives at stake.
VII.          Remember that there is life even with this virus
There’s a stigma around the disease. Given news coverage and our cultural memory of pandemics like the Influenza and AIDS, it’s easy to give in to the programming that if someone contracts COVID-19, they will die. That is not the truth. Everyday, people are recovering.
You have to do what you can with the time that you have. Cling to the things that bring you joy in these times, whether that be your remote community, your immediate housemates, or something else entirely.
When you get better and health returns to you, you will find impenetrable inner strength like none you have known before. I am only nine days into my experience with this disease and I understand that my recovery journey will be slow, but I have certainty that this will end. The damage COVID-19 is doing to my family and my body will cease, just like one day, the pandemic will.
I have hope because if I am writing this today and someone else is reading it, I am alive. This virus doesn’t discriminate; all it wants is your life. You can’t let it win.
Featured image: Photo illustration by Thea Gonzales on May 4, 2020.