Returning to our society: COVID-19 is new leprosy


When my teenage kids told me they both lost their sense of taste and smell, I knew I was next. And sure enough, two days later, my chest started hurting.

It was the same day I got quietly fired from my temporary job, which I had taken on because my actual profession in event photography had entered a deep sleep due to the COVID-19 crisis.

It was one of those days when you should be crying, but you end up laughing, for it is just getting ridiculous. When all goes wrong, the only right thing to do is to meet it with laughter.

It’s not something I do on purpose. It’s just a throw-my-hands-in-the-air reaction I have when I encounter these comically asynchronistic, sequential moments full of unfortunate turns of events. A slapstick sketch-worthy collection of mishaps, making the only reasonable response laughter.

Of course, I wasn’t laughing once reality settled in. And being struck by the coronavirus probably doesn’t qualify as a “mishap.” In fact, I had to engage in a lot of self-talk to make sure I didn’t go into fully fledged panic mode.

In hindsight, COVID-19 could have hit me harder than it did. But while feeling ill, it was impossible to predict how this was going to turn out. The anxiety of this uncertainty crept along the entire course of my sick days, as I was torturing myself by reading through endless feeds of coronavirus-related horror stories.

Even recently, weeks after feeling perfectly recovered, I found myself Googling what a blood clot feels like.

After the chest constriction — and with it the fear of dying in my sleep — slowly faded, it was replaced by frustration and insecurity. Was I immune now, or not? According to Stat, “most experts do think an initial infection from the coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, will grant people immunity to the virus for some amount of time.”

The Week, in its April 17 issue, reported that “scientists are confident that those who recover will be immune for at least a few months, but it’s hard to tell … how long protections will last beyond that. Patients who recovered from SARS remained immune for up to 10 years. Immunity from MERS was much shorter-lived.”

Three weeks after the official test identifying me as positive, I received a call from the health department asking me how I was doing. I told them I felt fine, but that I hadn’t stepped outside my front door in three weeks. The woman on the phone officially released me from my self-imposed isolation, and said that I can rest assured, I am not contagious anymore.

I wondered how she could make this statement with such certainty, even though I had read articles confirming that one would be most contagious during active symptoms. However, with this virus, what did we really know? She then carried on, telling me that I may even still test positive, as this thing remains in one’s system for a long time. But that, nevertheless, I would not be contagious.

When I fact-checked later, I found that one can even donate plasma without the condition of a negative test result. Nonetheless, I decided to take her information with a grain of salt and ventured out on my first shopping trip in weeks, masked and gloved up as if I had just been identified as patient zero.

After another week of relative self-isolation, I began to hint to my friends at socially distant hangouts (outdoors, and not in a group setting of course) but each one of them politely shut me down, their hands tied with fear. It’s official: COVID-19 is the new leprosy. At least that’s how it makes me feel.

It’s like when one of your friends has bed bugs — nobody wants to come to your house for at least a year. I know, because we once had bed bugs.

Thank you very much, seventh-floor neighbors. I am now one of those people who would not set foot in a friend’s house who had bed bugs, for at least a year.

I can’t blame anyone, of course. This is a very unsettling virus, and with all the media noise around this crisis, it is difficult to discern the science from the anecdotal — sometimes sensationalist — storytelling.

I have resigned myself to remaining alone, even now that my illness has long passed. I’m lucky to have my kids in the house, an entertaining pair of teenage girls, who are truly great company. When they are not pushing my buttons, that is.

My heart goes out to the ones who have been alone since the beginning of this lockdown. I am very happily single and love my alone time, but I don’t know how I would fare if I didn’t have my daughters in the house. All my video chats with friends are fun, but it’s not the same as a face-to-face hangout, with the wind in our hair, and the sun warming our faces as we sup our takeout coffees.

So hopefully, they’ll get over their fear soon so we can talk some more about the coronavirus. In person.

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S. Ri Han Samman,