A year ago, I felt like chicken little.
I had immersed myself in news articles about the novel coronavirus, and didn’t like what I was learning.
The virus was highly contagious, deadlier than the flu and had no cure, and the images from countries hard-hit by COVID-19 were frightening. Overwhelmed hospitals and overrun morgues, entire cities locked down and ordered to shelter in place – hard as it was to imagine any of this happening here, I was starting to imagine it.
A modern-day plague.
I had a lot of things I was looking forward to, and I canceled them all.
“We should probably postpone our Boston trip,” I emailed friends from high school on March 12, 2020. “I am not sure this is the time to visit a city that will almost certainly see its coronavirus caseload grow exponentially by the time we’re due to meet. Also, the museums will probably be closed by then anyway.”
“I’m already scaling back activity here,” I added, “and both Albany and Schenectady are reporting their first cases today.”
Re-reading this email, it all comes rushing back to me – the anxiety and fear of those early days of the pandemic, but also a sense of urgency. By mid-March, I understood that COVID-19 was going to be unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, and I wanted to make sure others understood, too.
Of course, we’ve learned a lot since that frantic week in mid-March when I emailed friends and loved ones to cancel plans and suggest they cancel their plans, too.
We’ve learned that the virus mainly spreads indoors, when people are in close contact or in crowded spaces.
We’ve learned that the virus is transmitted primarily through the air, and that surface transmission is a rarity.
We’ve learned that simple mitigation measures, such as opening windows and moving activities outdoors, can do a lot to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
These were major breakthroughs in our understanding of the novel coronavirus, and they allowed me to enjoy life during the pandemic, albeit in a somewhat constrained way.
I met up with friends outdoors. I stopped worrying that picking up the mail or touching doorknobs might give me COVID-19. I spent time at beaches, parks and nature preserves, and went for many walks.
What mystified me, as the year progressed, was how slowly the public health messaging around COVID-19 seemed to evolve, even as our understanding of the virus increased.
Even now, I see signs and social media posts urging people to stay home and stop the spread, or articles and advertisements detailing the deep cleaning being done at schools, offices and businesses to disinfect surfaces that play a minimal role in transmitting a virus that mostly spreads through the air.
It’s been a hard year, and the failure to emphasize what people can do – as opposed to what they can’t, or shouldn’t do – has made it even harder. The continued over-attention to cleaning is a waste of resources and leads people to believe that they have more to fear from surfaces than they actually do.
“We’d have been much better off if we gave people a realistic intuition about this virus’s transmission mechanisms,” Zeynep Tufecki, a contributing writer to The Atlantic magazine, wrote late last month. “Our public guidelines should have been more like Japan’s, which emphasize avoiding the three C’s – closed spaces, crowded places and close contact – that are driving the pandemic.”
Looking back, I wish more had been done to empower people to make better choices around COVID-19, and to give them guidance on how to reduce risk.
Too often, the message was one of fear, with little attempt to educate or enlighten.
One year into the pandemic, I no longer feel like chicken little.
I’m not particularly anxious or fearful.
I send my son to daycare. I do errands. I go about my business with a minimum of fuss, and I look forward to the day, hopefully not too far off, when I can return to movie theaters, and concert halls, even church.
I’ve learned how to live with the virus.
But I’m eager for the day when I don’t have to.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.