It’s been about 6 months since life has dramatically changed for many of us as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. I write this as I sit outside on my balcony freely breathing in the summer-fall air of September as I dread the upcoming winter. Every summer I feel as if I have accomplished a gargantuan task--surviving another Chicago winter--but this summer I have also been surviving physically and mentally through a worldwide health pandemic and quarantine.
Before it got “serious” in the states, I started following the pandemic in January when it became widespread in China because there was a chance I was going to teach there for 4 months this past spring semester. For unrelated reasons, I decided not to teach there.
When I was reading the news about coronavirus, I kept thinking that it could have been me/my students in China living through this, and I selfishly felt relieved that I wasn’t there. Little did I know it would spread all the way to the U.S. and it would get just as bad, if not worse.
In February, it hit the West coast and there was an outbreak in Washington state, but it still wasn’t bad here in Chicago yet. I remember celebrating my birthday at the end of February not realizing that this was going to be one of the last parties I’d attend for a while and that the freedom to hug and dance closely with my loved ones would no longer be a reality for an indefinite period of time.
At the beginning of March, coronavirus was here to stay in the U.S., and during the first week of March, I started to read about covid-19 cases in Chicago. Schools and colleges were potentially closing. As a philosophy professor, I started to feel anxious about my own college, the life and health of my students/colleagues, and of course the health of myself and my loved ones.
My college was not prepared for this pandemic as most colleges weren’t and decided to close at a tortoise-like pace mid-March after many others announced their closings.
Why was I so anxious and worried about the coronavirus? In Italy and China, the main demographics of individuals who were being hospitalized and dying from it were age 60+ along with people who have underlying health conditions. I do not fall into either of these demographics, but I sure as hell didn’t want to get it since many healthy people were experiencing severely adverse symptoms, and there is so much unknown about this novel virus. And I especially feared for the health and lives of people I knew who did fall in these demographics.
At the end of February, I had listened to a coronavirus episode of the New York Times podcast, The Daily, and that’s when I realized it was going to get bad here, and I need to be prepared for it, especially because no one else in my life seemed prepared. I was growing frustrated with the lack of concern from the people I would see or communicate with on a daily basis. I started to have an internal ball of emerging anxiety that felt like a knot in my throat. I sensed we were at the beginning of something terrifying and that we couldn’t rely on our government to save us.
I remember I was at a small party the weekend of March 7th, and I decided I wasn’t going to shake people’s hands (it’s a gross custom anyways). I was introduced to a white woman and she reached out to shake my hand, when I turned it down and said nice to meet you, she looked super offended and shocked. I kept thinking, Am I the only one keeping up with the news here? Am I the only one worried about this? Am I being crazy? The reason I mention that she was white is because I assumed she isn’t used to people not shaking her hand since she is viewed as the dominant race in this country.
We aren’t immune to this pandemic as a country or as humans (contrary to what our chief dictator and his other anti-science orcs say) so better safe than sorry. Another white woman at the party later joked about shaking people’s hands and how she “doesn’t have coronavirus” while laughing it off. I didn’t know if this woman was mocking me or not, but I wanted to tell her that it can be spread asymptomatically. Again, I mention race because I was one of the few POCs at this gathering, which is how things usually are, and racial dynamics play into our everyday experiences. Today, I wonder what these people are thinking. I hope they appreciated my caution or at least that’s what I tell myself.
I tend to be hypervigilant about a lot of practices in my life. I would always walk around with hand sanitizer when out, drink a glass of water for every alcoholic drink I consumed, and would always wear a helmet while riding my bike no matter how much it would ruin my hair. So when I realized that this pandemic was spreading to my “world”, I applied that same hypervigilance. I started slowly stocking up (not hoarding) on canned beans, toilet paper, and bought a few (10) surgical masks online “just in case” at the beginning of March for my boyfriend and I.
Being The “Crazy” One
When I told my boyfriend I was slowly stocking up on food, flu meds, and getting prepared for the pandemic at the beginning of March, he looked at me like I was crazy. I got that “here is Shanti being Shanti” look and I just ignored it since our “survival” took priority over whether my boyfriend thinks I am being “crazy” or not.
I did wonder whether I was being “crazy”. As a woman, I am used to boyfriends saying I am being “dramatic”, “over-worrying”, “too sensitive” so when this happened to me regarding the impending covid-19 crisis, I just brushed it off. I am used to gaslighting and even when I have all the facts, my authority and knowledge are still always questioned. That’s what happens when you’re a woman, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, differently-abled in this world.
It really felt like no one seemed to take coronavirus seriously until Trump declared a “national emergency” on March 13th even though it was raging throughout the world since January.
For the last two weeks of campus being open, I was anxious because I knew we needed to close, but nothing was communicated about this until the very last minute. I was losing sleep because I didn’t know if I needed to take matters into my own hands since there was no guidance provided at the time. I thought to myself, if my college doesn’t close, do I need to independently hold my classes online? What about my students who have underlying health conditions? What will they do? Will I get fired if I hold my classes online if the college isn’t closed?
I told my students about coronavirus and how they can try to stay “safe” because we don’t just teach our material, we also teach about public health in our classes. On March 13th, my college finally announced they were closing, and we would teach remotely. I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Yes, our students have access issues but a campus closure was for the best given how this pandemic spreads. Colleges and schools all needed to be closed.
On my last day of teaching in person, students were doing presentations where they would have to come up to the front of the room and touch the same computer keyboard/mouse. It felt strange but I remember telling them I would be the only one to use the keyboard/click the mouse and that we all needed to stay at least 6-feet away from each other. It was the most surreal teaching day of my life. I remember saying bye to them knowing that I wouldn’t see them for a while, and it broke my heart. I will have a separate post on pandemic teaching.
Early Quarantine Days: Crying and Cooking
- My Vegan Eggplant Curry Recipe on Chiveg.com
How did I feel at the beginning of the quarantine? There were some aspects of it I was really enjoying to be honest. I loved not having to drive 2 hours to work 3-4 days a week, loved sleeping in more as a night owl, loved not having to wear makeup/dress-up every day, and not having to interact with a lot of people as an introvert.
This quarantine was an opportunity to do things I have been wanting to do but never prioritized. Since my social life was essentially over, I filled my commute time and social time with working out, cooking more than ever before, baking treats I was previously scared to try, and learning how to DJ. You can check out our Soundcloud here.
Seeing and hearing all of the amazing DJ sets while doing work and cooking also helped me tremendously. I missed seeing DJ’s and dancing a lot, but I would try to live through what I was seeing/hearing online. Even though we can’t go to shows anymore, we can still appreciate the brilliant music produced. Nothing can stop us from enjoying art even if it’s virtually.
- Our Evanti DJ photo by Arvin Dang.
I had no obligations to anyone else other than my boyfriend I was quarantined with, and it was a liberating feeling. The odd thing is that while I physically can’t go anywhere other than outside, I felt freer to choose what I did with my time. Prior to the quarantine, I would work my butt off during the week, do my food blog at night/weekends, and see friends/family on weekends while also grading and doing other work duties.
Now the days blend together and while I still work my butt off, I have more time for ME. I used to experience so much FOMO, which is one of the reasons I would go out every weekend to bars, parties, shows because I want to experience as much as I can. But at the same time, it was exhausting and I didn’t really give myself enough time to regenerate.
I am not saying I was happy or living my best life during these early quarantine days. For the first month of the quarantine, I would cry every other day, feel a heaviness in my chest when reading the news, and feel frustrated at my boyfriend’s relaxed/“chill” reaction to everything when I was feeling the weight of the world. But over time, I found ways of coping with these issues, and my boyfriend and I grew better with communicating our expectations to one another.
Even though restaurants/bars and other spaces needed to close, I felt terrible for the furloughed and laid-off workers. I felt powerless. Chicago’s restaurant bar/scene makes this the city I know and love. I can’t imagine my life without these delightful spaces to eat, drink, dance, and people watch. It was tragic watching this all unfold.
Of course I was disgusted with our government, feeling hopeless about things improving given how little people in this country care for one another, and how already pernicious class/racial inequalities were even more exposed. I had to take breaks from the news and social media for my mental health. I noticed that on days when I would barely use social media, not look at the news, and cook more, I felt so much better and more energetic.
Since most people were spending more time at home, social media use increased and it was draining/exhausting. I started doing more with my vegetarian food account on social media with IGTV and quarantine cooking recipes.
Prior to the pandemic, IGTV seemed daunting and scary. I started posting more applied philosophy videos on YouTube and IGTV. I wanted to share how applying existentialism and Buddhism have helped me get through some of the darkest times in my life. We can’t control other people, nor can we control our circumstances, but we can control how we react to them and still strive to live the lives we want to live.
I could choose to be miserable and depressed during this quarantine, or I could try to make the best out of dire circumstances. I also want to acknowledge my privilege in this situation since I am still fully employed, healthy, and quarantined with my boyfriend who I generally get along with.
Perhaps this quarantine helped me gain the courage to put myself out there more. I have always been rejection-averse but being a food blogger who is very active on Instagram has given me thicker skin along with more confidence to put myself out there. I started posting my IGTV videos (my mom’s encouragement helped too) and got such a positive reaction to them even though they weren’t directly food related. While social media can be toxic, I also saw it as a way of connecting to people who were open to more genuine connections and conversations.
One of the activities that made me feel better was perusing restaurant menus for delivery/take-out. It was the closest thing I had to normalcy considering how much I loved going to restaurants. In order to distinguish the weekends from the weekdays, my boyfriend and I would do take-out/delivery and dress up for “date night” on weekends while we cooked every weeknight. Eating out on the weekends was also my way of helping support small businesses that I cherished who were truly hurting from these closures.
When the patios opened up, I grappled with whether I should eat on them or not. It really is an ethical dilemma - servers are risking their lives so we can have a "tasty" meal but then many patios in Chicago have a lot of restrictions that made them seem somewhat "safe" for everyone involved. But I have no idea what it is like to be a server at this time.
I decided to eat on some patios: they were open regardless of whether I would go or not, they are a way for me to maintain my sanity during the summer since it's only warm enough to eat on patios for a few months during the year in Chicago, I wear a mask when interacting with any restaurant staff, and tip at least 25% given the risks that these servers are forced to take.
Many patios are using QR codes, temperature checks, online ordering, payment, and have rigid and necessary mask requirements. So I decided that there is a safe way to eat outside on a patio as long as they truly are socially distant even though restaurants, salons, etc. should all be closed and employees should still be paid but that's not the society we live in.
- Vegan Nachos from Upton's
Nevertheless, I felt trapped living in a 2-bedroom apartment and when it’s colder than 62 degrees, I really have no interest in going outside. Once the weather started warming up in April, I would try to go on walks/jogs, but there were too many people who weren’t respecting social distancing so I continued to do exercise videos at home.
One of the most painful moments of the pandemic for me was seeing my favorite neighborhood dogs who I would previously greet and pet every time I saw them outside, but out of concern for social distancing I no longer did that. It broke my heart. These lovely dogs would look at me with a confused look on their face. I wish I could communicate to them that it’s not them, it’s the pandemic! Eventually, we adopted an amazing dog, Amelie Belle Lakshmi, which helped me feel better about everything.
- Amelie Belle Lakshmi
The Pandemic “Normal”
Over time, I got used to this new lifestyle of zooming with loved ones and friends, cooking and doing way more dishes, and communicating with my students virtually. I discovered local produce and bread deliveries and welcomed the challenge of cooking with limited ingredients since I was already partially used to it as a vegetarian/wannabe vegan.
Now that more people are wearing masks, I feel a lot better about leaving my apartment to go outside. Living in Chicago, it takes forever for it to warm up outside. It was FINALLY warm enough to enjoy the outdoors at the end of May, which is one of the few things we can enjoy.
It has helped me tremendously to be able to spend more time outside on my balcony or take masked walks in my neighborhood and hang out in the park while maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from a few loved ones. Yes, it’s still annoying when two people are walking on the street and they don’t move into a single-file arrangement or when unmasked joggers just zoom by you without social distancing. However, as a smaller woman, I am used to these kinds of things happening before the pandemic.
It took me 6 months to get here though. For the first two months of the quarantine, I did not feel inspired to read or write. I still struggle with that. I have so much paper grading throughout the semester (over 100 students) that I honestly get burned out from reading. It took the semester ending for me to have some time to reflect on these past few months and feel the energy/inspiration to write. I think being in a much better mental state gives me the cognitive space to think through what’s happened.
While there are still a plethora of uncertainties and many scientists are predicting that it will be a long time before things ever get back to “normal”, if ever, I have learned about myself and have grown more creatively as a human. I thought it would be a lot harder for me to stay at home all the time but since I have a quarantine partner, am an introvert, and am channeling my stifled creative energy into writing, music, and cooking, quarantine life is much more palatable. Oh yeah and having a dog now helps! I don’t think any of us predicted we’d have to live this way, but alas, this is our reality and how I have grappled with the pandemic and quarantine life.