It seems my experience with COVID-19 has been organized by numbers. For weeks, I have looked at the New York Times Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Outbreak, looking at all the reported cases and deaths. After weeks of deliberation about how long my study abroad program had left, I received two emails from two different organizations within one week, leaving little doubt that I would be going home. After those emails, how much money I spent to change my flight, an anxiety provoking number that was only relieved by the idea of travel insurance and my school covering the costs. On the way home from semester break, I thought about how many days I had left, how many days I spent in Botswana, thinking I had more.
Once I started traveling, I became preoccupied with how many hours until my next flight, how many of my flights were cancelled, how much money changing the flights would cost, how little sleep I had gotten. But, finally, we got onto the second flight (after a two-hour delay). Thankfully, we were able to get onto the third flight and fourth flight with minimal issues, though our bags were lost. In the airports, I thought about the number of people wearing masks, and if I was six feet away from the people around me.
Now, after the ultimately 72-hour-long journey, I’m home. I’m counting the days until I can be sure I don’t have the virus, but as the orders to stay home are extended indefinitely, my self-quarantine loses its significance. In the midst of quarantining, I’m calculating my academic credits and how many hours I need to spend on a certain assignment. I’m counting how many people walk past my house with nothing else to do and how many walks is too many for my elderly dog. I’m privileged to not have to worry about dwindling savings, lost paychecks, or an increase in bills as so many people do.
In many ways, I feel like my journey home, as well as others, parallels the trajectory of COVID-19. Uncertainty played a major role when I was going to leave Botswana and when I was going to arrive home, just as the world is uncertain of when they can return to their pre-coronavirus lives. Further, things seemed to change rapidly, leaving little time for adjustment. Most importantly, this process has been so difficult. For me, leaving Botswana, and for others, leaving their jobs and everyday routines, has been a process of grieving. We’ve all lost so much, and as tantalizing as numbers can be, only a portion of our losses can be quantified.
But the one thing that breaks up the monotony of numbers and the pain of this pandemic is the people around us. While in the Johannesburg airport, seeing people who just met each other comfort each other in the midst of a global crisis filled me with hope. The friends I traveled with made the journey that much easier, acting as a source of comfort in the midst of sleeping on airport benches and changing flights. Enjoying walks with my family and phone calls with my friends make this crisis that much more bearable.
I don’t want to gloss over the hatred and selfishness that is running rampant. Asian people are suffering from increased racism, and there are numerous problems with our systems and with how people are acting. But I’m hoping that, just like the instances of kindness I saw during my long journey home, people can demonstrate kindness in the journey to the end of this pandemic. It’s a cliche to ask people to choose kindness, but in the midst of this crisis, it bears repeating. As I said, there’s parallels between my journey home and the virus. In addition to the shared stress and uncertainty, I’m hoping that the random acts of kindness I experienced in various airports and planes manifest in wherever we’re quarantined.