I want to thank the Historical Museum for providing this space to document the unusual times in which we are living. I started writing this diary in August 2020 and have based it on my memories, my calendar, my credit card statements, social media posts, and talking to my family and friends. When possible I’ve used these sources and not just my memory to make sure I get things as close to how they were at the time. I apologize if it is uninteresting or if I ramble too much, but I must say it has been an interesting exercise putting down my thoughts. It’s helped me make some sense of things. I’ve included a lot of unimportant details because maybe that’s the sort of thing that historians will be interested in some day. (Also, writing this has rolled onto ten pages with no end in sight, so I will probably upload it in pieces!)
When the year began, I was 38 years old, lived in a home in Worcester with my girlfriend, and worked as a tenured university professor. My university has a very well-developed study abroad program, and I was scheduled to spend two months in the spring overseas with 24 students. Our destination was a small European country. The way our program works is that faculty apply to accompany students abroad at least a year in advance, and before travelling we spend two months on-campus working with the students to prepare for the trip. (I call it study abroad, but it’s not, really. Students don’t take courses when they’ve overseas, they work on projects with local partners.) So I had been preparing for this trip for over a year, and I even went out and bought my first smartphone – I always hated the idea of a smartphone since I spend all day sitting in front of a computer, but I felt obligated to make sure I could easily be in touch with the students when we were overseas.
The first time that I heard of the Coronavirus would probably have been in January. I remember seeing articles on BBC News, and I would read them when they came up, mostly out of curiosity. This was probably mostly because the outbreak was first linked to a Chinese fish market, and cooking/eating are my two main hobbies, so it attracted my attention. I guess that at this point I treated Coronavirus the way I treated Britain leaving the European Union: Something that I was mildly curious about, and a subject about which I’d read newspaper articles whenever they came up; but nothing that I thought would ever impact my life.
January and February passed as they normally do when preparing to travel abroad with students: Not just getting the students ready to travel, but also making plans for what to do when the program was over. I bought plane tickets for my girlfriend to visit me once the students went home, and we spent quite a bit of time looking at guidebooks and watching YouTube videos to determine what we wanted to see. I tried to learn the country’s alphabet and a little of the language, with limited success. We were going to travel around the destination country, and once she went home I was going to spend two weeks backpacking through Uzbekistan. It seemed like an adventurous idea at the time, and if I was already going to be in Europe, why not. I had to get a Russian-speaking friend to help me with the Uzbek visa application; and when I told my father about my backpacking plans, he couldn’t have been prouder – he’d never been able to go on such adventures because of work and family, and he was glad I was getting out to see the world.
Towards the end of February, the world began to become concerned about the spread of Coronavirus. I, however, was still cavalier – I believed the government and media when they said it was just a bad flu; or that the media was overreacting to fill a slow news cycle, as they had done with Bird Flu, Swine Flu, MERS, West Nile Virus; and so on. Some of the things that I said to my fellow professors will stick in my memory forever: “I’ll be safer from Coronavirus overseas than I would be from school shootings in the US.” “I get 300 hangovers a year, I’m not afraid of the flu.” “If I get the coronavirus in Europe I’ll probably get better treatment than I would in the US, since I won’t have to worry about referrals and pre-existing conditions.” With the benefit of hindsight, it hurts to remember that I said these things, but in January and February, every person in America was treating the Coronavirus as a joke – the sort of thing that could only happen to disgusting, bat-eating barbarians. I believed the government, the media, and everyone else when they said not to worry, that the a pandemic could never happen here.
I just remembered - at some point in January I was at the store and bought a case of cans of chicken noodle soup. "They'll be nice to have around if I get that new flu," I thought. They're still in the pantry, reminding me what an absolutely failure the first few months of the pandemic were.
I am not sure of the exact date, but at the end of February or the beginning of March, two things happened that unsettled me. I have an internet friend, an American English teacher, who lives in a city near Wuhan. In roughly the beginning of March he posted an Instagram story that described his life since mid-January: He hadn’t left his apartment in two months. Every other day he’d open his door and there’d be a box sitting there containing rice, some meat or fish, vegetables, and toilet paper. He posted the story because things were getting back to normal; he could leave his place to go to the grocery store, but had to have his temperature checked and his name written down for contact tracing before he could enter.
I’m not an expert on China, but I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t have any reason to think the Chinese government values the health of its citizens over the health of its economy any more than the US government does. (That is to say – It seemed to me that the governments of the U.S. and China would both happily accept enormous death tolls if it meant the economy kept working smoothly, which I guess has been well proven by now, at least for the U.S.). It made me uneasy that extreme steps that would cripple the economy were being taken if the virus was, in fact, no worse than the flu. (Which, and I want to stress this, is what we were being told on every possible platform in January and February).
From that point on, there was a tiny kernel of doubt in the pit of my stomach when I saw all the smart people on the TV tell me Coronavirus would never arrive here, or that masks did nothing. I remember that around this time there was a flurry of newspaper articles calling mask-wearing “Mao-Style social control” and speculating that China’s efforts to contain the virus was a cover for the start of a new Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Again, I’m not an expert about China but I remember very much doubting that Mao would be impressed by mask-wearing. (Later in the year, though, I’d often think to myself – hundreds of thousands dead in the U.S., half the population thinking the virus is a hoax, even rudimentary attempts to control the spread of the virus becoming unworkably politicized? That sounds a lot more like something the Chairman would be impressed by!)
The second thing that happened was so innocuous that I’m not sure I will ever understand it. I was meeting in my office with four of the students with whom I’d be travelling in the spring. I don’t recall the exact date but I know that at this point the Coronavirus had reached Italy, because one of the students was Italian and said that her family was in lockdown because Italians can’t stop kissing their fingertips and shouting Mama Mia! any time something unexpected happened. (The students all had a real big laugh at this; but the student who told the joke seemed uncomfortable, as though she’d been trying to make light of something that was really bothering her). At the end of the meeting, as the students were leaving the room, one of them casually mentioned that she’d heard that at the passport control desk in our destination’s primary airport, all entering travelers were having their temperatures taken.
For some reason this comment filled me with terror. I can’t explain why. It was as though for a millionth of a second I could see the future. The only thing I can compare it to is how I felt on the afternoon of September 11th, or the first seconds after the bad car crash I was in years ago, when I knew something awful had happened but didn’t know exactly what. The students left and I sat at my desk and just stared at the back of the door for what seemed like hours. From that moment on I knew that we were headed into catastrophe; I had been slow to take the coronavirus seriously, but once I did, I took it seriously 100%. And all because of an off-hand comment of some detail that a student had read in the news.
I suppose I should mention that I do have some friends that took the Coronavirus seriously from the moment they first heard of it. I’d describe all of them as hypochondriacs. Twice a day they post some innocuous newspaper headline on Facebook and claim it’s the end of the world, and have done so for their entire lives. Maybe it’s petty of me, but they consider themselves to be modern-day Cassandras now, and yet I can’t quite give them any credit for a .001 batting average.