During the Covid pandemic I built up a many-layered shell. Like the deep sea “volcano snail,” I formed multiple types of protection against my own version of a high pressured, high temperature acidic hellscape. I am a physician specializing in viral illnesses. The pandemic was my war, and at times it was a psychological hell.
I first formed a protective layer against getting Covid, then added a layer to reach out and help others protect themselves, then more layers to protect against the unexpectedly crushing and demoralizing backlash against basic health tools: masks, vaccines, medications. I spent more time fighting disinformation and confusing information than I have fighting the virus itself. Even public health officials have given up; we are now left to fend for ourselves and our communities. It’s been relentless.
So, my shell is thick and heavy. It represents my response to the complex trauma of the pandemic, both collective and individual. It has also kept me sheltered in my home state of California. This is the longest stretch of time in my life that I have not gotten on a plane to fly to another country.
Even though traveling and exploring is one of my most favorite things to do, I became too fearful to get on a plane. Even though I got every vaccine dose I could, even though I am confident I can wear an N95 mask well, I know too much about what Covid and long Covid can do to our bodies. I know that I’m at higher risk for long Covid. I am also aware of the massive carbon footprint of cross-continental flights. I am afraid of the speed and scale of the SARS-CoV2 virus’ spread and evolution (and the next pandemic). I am afraid of the speed and scale of human-induced climate change. Both things have turned out worse than I expected, even as a public health and environmental activist.
It’s one thing to know that things are bad, and it’s another to accept it.
This past year, as I watched our pandemic efforts get dismantled, I started accepting that this is going to be how it’s going to be: the virus will spread freely around the world, people will continue to get sick and die, variants will rapidly arise, and we don’t know what the next big mutant or microbial jump will be. I hope that our efforts around masking, vaccine and medication access and education have helped people stay alive and healthier. I am tired of carrying this big heavy shell. My armor has served its purpose, and I wanted to release the weight.
My love of adventure and learning about other parts of our planet had been buried underneath. It was time to stick on a mask and break out.
I decided it was time to go to Taiwan and South Korea. We have family there, and masking is culturally normal, so maybe it won’t feel as scary. We are having a do-over of an epic trip originally planned for the summer of 2020. The initial shock of being on a packed 14-hour flight with a lot of maskless, coughing and sneezing people has waned a bit. Since then I have also been on packed-like-sardines public buses. Fortunately many local people in Taiwan are still masking (even outdoors!), though it seems that some young adults in Taiwan and tourists have stopped masking altogether.
I’m posting this 9 days after a long flight, a train ride and dozens of public bus rides. So far so good; my rapid Covid antigen tests have been negative. I wear an N95 on public transit and in indoor public spaces. I wear a KF94 (similar to a KN95) in crowded outdoor spaces, such as night markets and sites with big tour groups. We are doing rapid tests before and during indoor family gatherings.
My middle-aged body can’t travel like it used to, but some old ways die hard (like taking public transport, walking everywhere, hanging out at night markets and eating street food). At tourist sites and nightlife areas I’m sometimes the only one wearing a mask. Dowdy and uncool? Yeah, maybe. Lighter than my pandemic shell? Alive and kicking and enjoying life? For sure.
p.s. The photo above is from Dongdamen night market in Hualien, a city on the east coast of Taiwan. So far, I’ve found that masking rates are much lower in tourist-centric markets like this one, while at local markets (day or night), most locals are still masking, even outside. Masking here is more valued and seen as a respectful and hygienic thing to do. Still, it’s taken me a week to shed my US-based anxiety around feeling ostracized while wearing a mask. It does feel good to be in a culture that is more values-aligned around our collective and community health!