Jan 2, 2007, somewhere in Oregon, I noticed my throat was sore. Probably just a cold, no big deal, I thought. This is where the narrator of my life should have said, “But it was not just a cold and it was, in fact, a very big deal.”
That sore throat was the beginning of the worst flu I have ever experienced. I spent the night in a roadside motel in Twenty-nine Palms, California, alternating between lying naked on the tiled shower floor to try and cool down, and putting on every layer of clothing I could find and shivering feverishly under the covers. Today I looked up my blog post from that time and it included the following description:
Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke with the horrible realization that there were approximately 27 hedge hogs dancing the Macarena in my stomach and someone had turned the thermostat down to Antarctic-Degrees-Celsius. On top of that, someone was pouring hot, liquid lead down my ear canals; another someone had set fire to my eyeballs and was inflating them with a tire pump. Meanwhile, Mike Tyson was busy perfecting his right and left hooks on my kidneys. I was in the grips of a monster flu and my sole consolation was that we were in a motel room and not camping on some deserted stretch of nowhere.
Ugh. Yes, I remember it well.
The next day, we arrived at the home of our dear friend Liz, and Fred ran interference to protect our host from the plague. I slept for 24 hours solid. What followed was weeks of misery. When the globs of grossness I was hacking up started coming out bloody, I gave in and went to a doctor (always a scary prospect for a Canadian in the USA). The prescribed medicine helped, but for months afterward—months!—I remained constantly tired and lethargic. I fell into a funk and would later discover that I was one of the lucky few for whom the flu increases the risk of depression. Hooray. I’d never experienced actual, clinical depression before that time but ever since that flu it rears its morbid head when it is least appreciated.
What I had was “just the flu” and it was fucking awful. I suffered for months and the time I should have been spending hiking and fishing and enjoying the Baja countryside and my friends, was spent sick, in pain, or battling depression. And I was lucky.
Let me repeat that: I was lucky.
I was lucky because I was on vacation at the time and had the luxury of a nice place to recover, a husband and friends to take care of me, and I was otherwise young and fit, which made recovery easier. I didn’t miss any work. I didn’t have kids or family members to look after. I was able to afford the prescription medicine that eased my symptoms. But, most importantly, it was just the flu. Yes, the flu kills many people every year—mostly those who are very young, very old, or who are already vulnerable—but for someone like me the virus would be a minor annoyance and the after effects (with the exception of the depression) would vanish soon enough.
I was lucky because it was “just the flu” and I didn’t have to reasonably worry that anyone I’d come into contact with, including our lovely host, could end up dead.
There is a “but”, though.
But…that “just the flu” didn’t have to happen.
Why did I get that flu? Because I’d attended a small house party on New Year’s Eve, with some good friends, and one of their friends chose to come even though she knew she was sick. I didn’t know she was sick. Not when we hugged at midnight, not when we were playing hilarious party games like “pass the orange from neck to neck”, not when we laughed and ate and drank so dangerously close to each other.
All that needed to happen for me to avoid months of misery, and depression that will follow me for the rest of my life, was for a sick person to choose to stay home and avoid infecting others.
Of course I was angry when I found out the cause but I couldn’t stay mad for long. We’ve all been there, right? We feel a little “under the weather” but we don’t want to miss a good time, so we go out anyway. We go to work sick, even we when can afford not to. We shop sick, we go to school sick, we exercise sick. As long as we can, we do. Not because we’re selfish monsters and we want everyone else to be sick, but because we’ve been bottle fed on the idea that illness equals weakness. Because it’s “just a cold” or it’s “just a flu”. We have put a sadly low price on our health and the health of others—and now we’re paying a much higher price for that attitude.
I’ve noticed a steady decrease on social media of the “just a flu” comments around Covid 19. In part, because the virus has shown us how much more pernicious and dangerous it is compared to the usual seasonal flu, in part because I’ve been ruthlessly unfriending people who refuse to accept basic science, and in part because the new hip topic is masks. To wear or not to wear?
The fact is simple: masks help stop the spread of Covid 19 and almost everyone can wear one with no side effects whatsoever. However, once more, waves of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and junk science are creating another infodemic.
You may be on the fence. After all, it was confusing that in the beginning we were told that masks were not necessary and yet now we’re being told the opposite, right? Or maybe you do know that masks help protect others buuuuuut it feels weird to wear one and you don’t want to be looked at or laughed at while you grocery shop. Or maybe you’re looking around where you are and there are no cases so you feel safe, and, sure, you know there are no cases because everyone took the appropriate steps early on but that’s all behind us. (It’s not, but we’ll put that aside for a moment). If so, I ask you to consider my story of “just the flu”.
How would you feel if you were sick for months and you found out it was because someone chose to be around you when they knew they were sick and probably contagious? What would you think about that person while you missed work or couldn’t care for your family or perhaps missed out on an important life event all because they didn’t take one simple step to protect you? What would you think about that person if your illness put you in the hospital or left you with debilitating side effects for life? What would you think about that person if you caught their illness and didn’t develop symptoms but unknowingly passed it on to someone you loved? What if that person you loved died from it? All because one person chose not to take the smallest, simplest action to protect you.
What if you were the person who made that choice?
I wear a mask in every indoor public place, and in every public place where I know I can’t safely distance. I wear a mask because it’s easy, it’s safe, and it works. I wear a mask because screw the social norms that have devalued our health and wellness for generations. I wear a mask because even if Covid 19 was “just the flu” (it’s not, to be clear) I don’t want to be the asshole that puts someone else through what I went through in 2007. I wear a mask because some slight social discomfort is worth more than finding out one day that I was responsible for someone’s preventable death. I wear a mask because the more people who do it, the easier it will be for people who aren’t as socially daring as I am. I wear a mask because I want this to end and I want to hug my friends and family and go to New Year’s Eve parties and play silly games and laugh and kiss and dance, and the sooner we all work together to stop the spread, the sooner that can happen.
Covid 19 is not just the flu. A bad flu is fucking awful; Covid 19, unchecked, is mass graves, economic collapse, people you love suffering and/or dying alone, supply chains breaking down, every existing social ill exploding exponentially, hospitals overwhelmed and health care workers in constant danger, borders between friendly nations closed indefinitely.
I am willing to bet everything I own that, even though the stakes were low, if the person who infected me at that party in 2007 could go back in time and choose to stay home to avoid passing their illness to others, they would.
Now the stakes are high.
The choice is yours and it’s a simple one.
Wear a mask.