Last month I got covid-19 for the first time. This is of absolutely no interest to anyone but hear me out.
I was the third person at home to get it last month. We were testing every day and every day a new person tested positive. One morning, the dude from the local medical store came to deliver a new stack of covid-19 home test kits. He arrived unveiled. Where is your mask? I barked from behind my N95. He made gestures like a Balinese dancer towards his scooter.
I sighed and went in to find the four unused and damaged test kits (he had given us in his last delivery) for him to take back. I placed them on the stool next to the door and turned to go back in. But the aura of peril suddenly settled over him and he bleated for me to wait. I turned. Looking most hapless, he asked me to place the unused test kits in a bag.
“You do know that covid is transmitted through air and not from touching plastic bags, right?” I asked, grumpily ignoring the rare case of surface transmission. He said, “Jo aap bol rahe ho wo sahi bol rahe ho,” which is the world’s most polite way of saying, “Whatever.”
I have aged too much in this pandemic to still rail about the state of our public health communication. I went back inside for a bag to put the kits in. Back again, five minutes later, I put the bag down on the stool. He charged forward towards me and the stool to take the bag. Where is your mask? I asked again, now completely exasperated. The graceful gestures scooter-ward again. Then the fingers of his outstretched hand started making pinching gestures as he approached the bag with the test kits. As if only using the tips of his fingers would save him. In the same way that in old American movies policemen would taste white powder gingerly, as if the ginger-ness would save them from whatever powers the white powder had.
I can’t make fun of those fictional cops or be fed up of the dude from the medical store. Or in the words of that famous fictional cop, “I am too old for this s**t.” We are all ginger now, tasting our particular variety of white powder, hoping it is not anthrax and only cocaine.
In the last few years, for obvious reasons, any hint of illness, even a cold, has created a supercharged atmosphere in my life. The old joy of just being grumpy, lying in bed and zoning out, and waiting for your flu to pass is gone. Every sniffle runs to the soundtrack of a Victorian mother screaming: “Your clothes are wet, Elizabeth. You will catch your death.” Two days after testing positive, I started wondering if I was in the middle of catching my death. Perhaps not right then but perhaps from a cardiac arrest two months later. Too many acquaintances, friends and neighbours have died and suffered in the last two years for this to be a melodramatic thought. Too much mortality has been on display for it to be the kind of self-aggrandising thought we all have as teenagers about a world deprived of our light.
What is confusing is that, to misquote the old Latin saying, “in the midst of death we are in life”. Even I, who still wear a mask for all crowded indoor or outdoor activities, have been going to in-person dance classes. I have eaten in a few restaurants. My children, who are not old enough for the vaccine in India, have started going to school. I have been to three parties this year.
Nothing was more illustrative of the completely unscientific but totally necessary calculations we make every day as the last party I went to. A week after testing negative and days after feeling somewhat normal, I was all set and excited to go to this party on the roof of a friend’s home. The morning of the party, my host called to say that one of her children had fever. Did I want to reconsider coming? Armed with the thought that I was supposed to be safe from reinfection for at least a month, I said no, no, no and charged into my much neglected party clothes.
Meanwhile, the call had also set off the rest of the guest list into mathematical calculations at a high level. “If I am travelling to Berlin 12 days from now and I got covid 25 days ago, am I still in the safe zone?” “If I am seeing my girlfriend’s grandparents this week and I have fever this morning, when will the test be definitive?” “If the mother of the child who has fever today tested positive last month and he had fever too but he didn’t test positive, does he have covid today?” “If I got the booster two months ago and get covid now, will it be mild?” And finally, arriving at the big mathematical question, “Does anything matter any more?”
At the party, I danced for two whole minutes and suddenly felt I couldn’t any more. And perhaps that was a good thing, wasn’t it, given everything I was being told by even my most fearless friends about taking it easy for a few weeks. Taking it easy. What a phrase. At the party, our conversations turned again and again to had it/having it/will have it, with occasional breaks for “how about that monkeypox?” and “how about that polio?” I don’t know what I am saying about the state of public health communication because all we can communicate about now is health.
Let me tell you the terrible joke that kept running through my brain at the party. I have lost a bunch of my social skills but I have retained enough not to tell this one aloud at a party. Here goes. The pessimist says, “Things can’t get any worse.” The optimist replies, “Oh I am sure it can.”
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.