in the middle of 2019, i went on a trip with my wife and three dear friends to Vietnam. we spent time in Hanoi, Phong Nha, Hoi An, Nha Trang and finally Ho Chi Minh City, for a total of twenty days in the country. my wife took probably hundreds of marvelous photographs over these few weeks, which i hope i have forever.
this was my first time in a majority Asian country, and the use of face masks to protect against pollution or to stop the flu from spreading in crowded places was pretty noticeable. i grew up in San Francisco, California, so it was commonplace to see little old Asian ladies masking on the bus or while they shopped, but it was more unusual in Aotearoa New Zealand, where i live as an adult. in Vietnam, it wasn’t limited to any particular age range or other demographic; you’d just see people, once in a while, masked up.
for the first time in my life, i joined them in two places: Hanoi, at the start of our trip, and HCMC, at the end. i wasn’t sick (though Vietnam had what you could kindly call “Florida weather” and any time I didn’t have an iced drink in my hand, I was so hot that I was angry), but i was a bit sensitive to the fumes of motorcycles and other traffic in those big cities, so we bought some cheap disposable masks with a pretty good seal and i wore them on long walks through more industrial areas.
for some reason, i took the package of extra masks back with me to Aotearoa. why not? maybe i’d need them!
we got home. inspired by the cats we’d fallen in love with in Vietnam, we got our own in early August, 2019. my wife proposed to me in November. although the new cat was a minor complicating factor, we planned more travel: Asia, North and South America, Europe. a Cambodian friend had been begging me to visit the whole time we were in Vietnam, so maybe we’d even give in and see him sometime, too.
at the end of December, I learned for the first time about an outbreak of something causing trouble in mainland China. this something was at the time vague, and i learned about it only through Asian friends on Neopets and who played the phone game Cookie Run.
at the time, i was very involved with Cookie Run — in addition to being a high-level competitive player, i was one of the very few moderators for the “official” Discord server that had been put together by their English-speaking community manager. at the peak of my time there, we had 13,000 users, which were mostly in the 13-18 age bracket. i mention this for a reason, i promise. in January, the international news of COVID-19 became more solid. China had their first deaths and their first hundreds of cases. the virus received its name. it jumped from country to country.
Aotearoa got our first case in February 2020, though we wouldn’t know it for a long time. travel restrictions were our first step: no direct flights from China, then Iran, and then, in March, from anywhere.
it’s difficult to map out the timeline exactly around this point. everything blurs into a slow, strange vision. when i try to see it all again in my head, i am seeing in several different places and several different times. in Aotearoa, my wife and i play video games and cuddle on the couch, eating chocolates, oblivious.
in Chile, my auntie’s parents get sick and die horribly in the hospital, one after another. then my auntie gets sick. traumatized by the hospital, she refuses to go. my uncle hides her and nurses her back to health. he and their three sons treat her “like a leper” but are rewarded for their efforts — none of them catch it from her.
in the Cookie Run server, the kids, age 13-18, who have come together to talk about a phone game, start talking about the Coronavirus. i’m one of only five moderators, and at the time, the only woman, as well as the oldest. the kids have taken to calling me Mod Mom. as moderators, we’re not sure what to do. at first the temptation is to disallow all conversation around such a serious topic, but i pressure the others to ease up on that. the kids are worried, but it probably won’t effect them. it’s a good idea to give them room to be worried, as long as we can respond to it appropriately.
i remember a particularly anxious 14-year-old, who has previously confided in me about their gender identity, their rickety physical health, and the pressures of the traditional church they attended, is worried about catching COVID in crowded places. there has not been any official recommendations at this point, let alone restrictions, but out of a strange duty to the Cookie Run kids, i’ve been doing as much reading as i can. “it’s really unlikely it’s going to impact most people in the United States,” i tell them, “but one easy thing you can do is to get a face mask and try wearing that on the bus.”
in some ways i feel like a prophet when i look back on this: recommending masking in early 2020, when most people were still either unconvinced the virus would spread, or worried about fomites!
in all other ways i feel like a deep, evil fraud. COVID did, in fact, impact most people in the United States. it impacted dozens of kids in the server. that 14-year-old did get sick. and then they stopped posting. they, and a handful of other kids, who were ride-or-die regulars in that Discord server, got sick, and then disappeared entirely. what happened to them? i don’t know! nobody does! when i finally stepped down as a moderator, it was because what i could and couldn’t do — the decisions i was making that impacted these kids — kept me up at night. that’s one of the ones that keeps me up still.
i’m back in Aotearoa now, in my memories. when is it in the timeline? i’m not sure, only that i’m attending University that day. for the first time, looking at the news, i make a decision: COVID-19 is potentially already here in my city, even if we don’t know it yet. i take out one of the paper masks from Vietnam and wear it outside.
at the first major crosswalk between my house and my university, an old woman on a bike stops at the light with me and looks at my mask. she seems nice. “are you quite scared about all that, then?”
“yeah, on account of having cancer,” i say. “my immune system isn’t very good.” (this is true, but it also feels like the ultimate brutal comeback to a stranger who didn’t really deserve it!)
she gets really awkward. “oh,” she says. “yeah.” the light turns green. she bikes away. i feel a little bad for disturbing her.
just three minutes later, i’m passing the secondary school. a gaggle of teenagers are approaching. there’s a girl, perfectly normal looking, trapped in her agonizing school uniform. but when she sees me wearing my mask, she coughs on me, on purpose, and her friends laugh. i’m so surprised by it that i don’t have any comebacks. i just keep walking to university, where i am the first person to wear a mask, but certainly not the last.
there’s too much to hit every beat, but there are things that will always stick out to me. my city shutting down. sitting down with my wife and having a Serious Conversation about how things are not getting better or going away as quickly as we want them to, so we’d better buy some real masks, some heavy-duty ones rated for this. going for walks on the empty roads late at night, masked, my wife taking photos of the ghostly streets (and me taking photos of her taking photos). getting a second cat in lockdown. getting married, in a brief, beautiful moment of loosened restrictions, but not being able to have my father there. my only real COVID scare, which involved a stranger swabbing me in a parking lot, but came up negative.
deaths. protests. illness. conspiracy theorists. racists. some of the worst people on earth camped out on Parliament’s lawn demanding an end to all restrictions and for our prime minister to hang, and often i feel like in the end we gave them everything but the hanging. teaching students over Zoom when they were trapped in mainland China and elsewhere. the joy of seeing those students arrive in Aotearoa, finally. the stress and disappointment of domestic students who didn’t think their first year in university would be this way. then the stress and disappointment of students whose high school careers had been changed by it instead. i guess next i’ll meet students whose secondary, then primary school years have been changed by COVID.
now i’m one of a handful of people who have never stopped masking. this weekend i went to a conference, vibrant and crowded and social. everyone schmoozed. i was handed nibbles and free drinks. when i accepted them, i turned and walked out of the hall, then down multiple escalators, outside of the event centre, and then around the corner. alone, in the alleyway and the rushing Wellington wind, i’d finally take my mask off to eat. everyone treated this as a funny novelty of mine. even friends who still wear masks to crowded places let them dangle jauntily off one ear to drink coffees and champagne. i skipped the after party and paid for my own lunch far away, which i ate outside, instead of the free lunch surrounded by other humans. i got dehydrated from not sipping water as much as i should have.
Sunday, with the conference over, i started to feel a little sick. Monday morning, as i have dozens of times before, i took a rapid test. “It’s never COVID,” i said to my wife. but within a few minutes of the test strip dampening, i said something else.
“Holy shit. I have COVID.”
i’m dealing with a lot of emotions on top of the physical symptoms. i’m disappointed — where did i slip up? who got me sick? i’m guilty — who else have i potentially sickened? what if my wife, already chronically ill, has long-term effects from this? will my students struggle when i don’t respond to their emails fast enough? am i disappointing the people waiting for me to complete obligations on Neopets and Second Life? am i worrying my dad? i’m scared — how will i take this infection?
above all, i’m sick. it’s hard to think. everything i do, i do slowly and gingerly, like recovering from a hangover or a bad migraine. if i am too fast, too loud, too decisive, i might hurt myself. technically, i may qualify for the paxlovid antivirals, due to the cocktail of underlying conditions i have. in practice, the pharmacist has kindly advised that i can’t have them, because my heart medication, which is not subsidized and costs me hundreds of dollars a month, would interact badly with them. my body is on its own.
i miss Vietnam. not just for everything beautiful that it was, but for what it represented in my life: the last international trip in a world where COVID-19 did not yet exist. my wife and i took a cooking class one day, surrounded by straight couples. our instructor was wonderful, and chatted enthusiastically with us as we walked from kitchen to market to buy ingredients. “You two have traveled together? You must be very good friends.”
“Best friends,” i said, and nodded enthusiastically. i’m sure she knew that wasn’t the only thing she was looking at, because couples act a certain way when they are cooking together and she saw it all day long. i felt pleasantly seen, and not like i was lying, either. i was with my best friend. at least i can say, swaddled up in my weighted blanket at home and feeling terrible, that i still am.