Are we ready to start re-opening after a year of the pandemic?

We can see the beginning of the end of the pandemic, and yet the future feels uncertain

By D. Watkins
March 14, 2021 12:30AM (UTC)
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Reusable medical masks from multi-colored cotton fabric (Getty Images)

After a full year of coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home life, all of it — face masks, social distancing, constant anxiety, Zoom calls, and COVID-19 itself as a potentially lethal disease — may finally be coming to an end thanks to vaccine programs growing across the country. 

Some of my anti-medicine friends who were initially nervous about being vaccinated have been watching the news, seeing that essential workers are good after having their shots, with little to no side effects, and now even they feel more confident and willing to take their shot with a shot. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one dose and doesn't have to be stored in freezers, which will make it easier to get folks in for a one and done shot.

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This is a real turning point. Outside may be opening up soon. 

The threat of COVID kept us indoors for most of the year, but even then we weren't all safe. Three of my friends — Egan, Dante Barksdale and Dro — were murdered in the last year. Two of them were victims of gun violence. The last thing I expected during a pandemic was to lose friends that way, but it happened. And I am powerless. Normally, when deaths occur in my city, we link up, decorate the place where the incident occurred, attend vigils, throw block parties, take food to the victim's family and then all spill over to a bar for fellowship, sharing the stories of our fallen brothers and sisters. Connection has long been our only tool for coping. COVID stole that, and we were forced to mourn alone before masking up to hit the church to get a glimpse of body now while gatherings are prohibited and funerals have been dramatically reduced in size, or canceled altogether. Mourning alone creates a different type of pain, one that I'm sure I'll have to face in the future. 

Despite the deadly impact this virus has had on the world, and the loss of those friends while the pandemic raged around us, this year has also been magical for me. Transformative, even. My daughter was born a month or so before we reached pandemic status­­. Being forced to be at home, just the three of us, for all of that time means my wife and I have had the luxury of witnessing and capturing all of her first moments. Her first giggle. Her first wet tears. Her first bath. The first time she rolled over. All of it is stored in our camera rolls. We captured her eating solid foods for the first time, first rice cereal cut with breast milk and then, when she advanced to smashed vegetables, we were there for that too. The first time she sat up on her own, the first time she held her bottle, played peek-a-boo, laughed so loud it sounded like screams. We saw her identify her nose, my nose, my wife's nose and ears, and then we captured her standing up. We saw the first time she crawled, the first time she fed herself, the first steps she took. We saw it all and filmed it all. We could literally make a 200-hour-long documentary on her young life. I wouldn't trade having this time with her for anything in the world. But I am sick of being in the house. 

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We've been on lockdown for so long we've entered a strange place where people will shame others for not wanting to be in the house anymore, let alone not accomplishing enough during the pandemic. They're the most responsible, they cook the most French meals, practice yoga six times a day, which causes them to lose 38 pounds (and yet they're also the most spiritual), and they're double-masking even when they're all alone, because nobody is handling this stay-at-home pandemic life better than they are. But this is not normal life. And I'm OK with acknowledging that. 

I hate this. Before the pandemic, it was so easy to find antibacterial wipes and spray and hand sanitizer. We had boatloads of that stuff because nobody washed their hands or sanitized anything except me, it seemed. But I'm sick of wiping stuff down while my wife and daughter look over my shoulder. And yes, I'm sick of being in the house. My wife is sick of being in the house. And if my daughter could talk, I imagine she'd say she is, too. 

We aren't at the finish line yet, but we can see it in the distance. Herd immunity, whatever that means, is coming. My daughter will finally learn there are more than two other people in the world, because we're going everywhere when the pandemic ends.

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Everywhere. 

Cocktails with David Duke and Little Rudy Giuliani at the bar where Candace Owens does karaoke? Text me the address. If Trump starts having campaign rallies again, even if he's not running? We're pulling up with our tiki torches and pressed khakis.

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If there's an Airbnb on Elm Street to book, we're sleeping over. If my wife wants a romantic hiking trip to Camp Crystal Lake, I'm booking their best cabin. Celebrate Halloween in Haddonfield? Trick or treat. Groupon could sell me a luxury stay at the Bates Motel right now — I'd pack my fancy robe and extra champagne. 

We're going anywhere and everywhere. Diversity rallies with that white family from "Get Out." Dinner parties at Hannibal Lechter's house. I don't care what it is or where. We're going. 

Or at least I think we are. Because honestly, I don't really know. I'm going to have to re-adjust to going out the same way I had to adjust a year ago to staying inside all the time.

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This deadly virus has quickly claimed more than 500,000 lives in the U.S. and I think about that number every time I leave the house. I put on my two masks, drench my hands in sanitizer to the point where it burns inside of my fingernails, fill the console of my car with more masks, more gloves, more sanitizer. Every time I see a person talking or coughing or sipping their drink­­, it freaks me out. I never really liked hugs, but now I don't even shake hands. I'm not comfortable around people anymore. I feel like contact with anybody could make me or my family sick. How can I get back to hanging out and having a good time without thinking about shortness of breath, loss of taste and excruciating headaches?

Recently I attended a small celebration for a friend who received a huge promotion at work — the kind of promotion that guys like us don't normally get. This was such big news that even I left the safety of my home to come celebrate. There were ten of us, and even though I was the only one who stayed in the corner with three masks on, barely able to breathe, I enjoyed myself. I had missed this. It felt good to laugh, to talk trash through my layered N-95s, to enjoy fellowship with friends I hadn't seen for a year. But once the eleventh person walked in the door, I stopped being comfortable and had to leave.

How long will I feel like this? Will I be that weirdo still wearing a mask years after this ends, waiting for Nike to start making matching hazmat suits? Will I have any skin left on my hands from the excessive washing and sanitizing? Will I keep wearing gloves and keep 12 feet of distance between me and everybody except my wife and baby, constantly whipping out my phone to Google Dr. Fauci's latest news, scanning his Instagram and Twitter for updates? (Is he on Pinterest, or Black Planet?) Will I still avoid events and parties with more than ten people, or will I be able to readjust?

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I think about this a lot, too: How will the people who lost family members to COVID readjust? Death is normal — it will happen to us all — but it shouldn't have happened like this, so suddenly to so many, in such a short timeline.

What we shouldn't re-adjust to is a society that fails to save lives because of poor leadership, systemic poverty, and science denial. Collectively, we are going to have to figure out what life after COVID should be, and the small roles we can all play in making sure it never goes down like this again. We can start by not rushing back into normal life without taking all of the still-necessary precautions just because we're sick of being in the house. We still need to wash our hands, wear our masks, and get vaccinated as soon as we can. 


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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