A Very Messy Personal Essay About Coronavirus And My Coming Of Age

I was in my local supermarket yesterday, walking past people pushing trolleys filled with panic-bought food and empty shelves once filled with pasta, and I suddenly remembered my favourite scene in Lady Bird.

I watched the film for the first time about a month ago. It’s set in 2002, not a particularly famous year, and the most memorable scene for me is the line where Lady Bird says she wants to live through something. Deep down, I think that’s always been one of my strongest desires, even though I know it’s selfish — to live through something that would be studied in history textbooks for years to come, something that would make my life a little less monotonous and dull.

Standing in an aisle of that supermarket, the end of Sleeping Lessons by The Shins playing through my headphones like I was in a scene of my own coming of age movie, it hit me. I had gotten my wish; coronavirus was what I was going to live through.

On December 31st, 2019, the first reports of the new coronavirus that would come to be known as COVID-19 began in Wuhan, China. The virus spread worldwide and now, three and a half months later, it’s been classified as a pandemic.

Every morning for the last week or so I’ve been checking the news, and every major story is an update on the virus. At least one coronavirus-related topic or hashtag is trending every time I check Twitter, usually some variation of coronavirus spelled wrong. Most of my Twitter timeline is now the virus, or the Democratic primaries in the US. We’re being bombarded with news.

It’s pretty clear that, for most countries, the virus is going to get worse before it gets better. It’s not a matter of if, anymore, but when everything is going to get bad. Especially for where I live, the UK, where the measures put in place by Boris Johnson on Thursday are restrained if you’re an optimist or totally useless if you’re a pessimist (like me, in this situation). No schools or large events are being closed, and the advice that is being given — wash your hands, don’t go on cruises if you’re over seventy, self-isolate if you have symptoms — is just common sense at this point.

Boris has pretty much just accepted that people are going to die. We’re 7-10 days behind Italy here, so we have just a week to put preventative measures in place, but we won’t. One of our scientific advisors has said that “at least 60% of the population needs to contract COVID-19 in order to develop ‘herd immunity'”. 60% of the UK’s population is around 40 million people, so if the virus has a 2% mortality rate, 800,000 people will die. And the government is actively encouraging it.

Nothing is going to be done, and I just have to sit here with the knowledge that there’s nothing I can do to prevent this loss of life. It’s sobering, to say the least.

For me, though, the worst thing about all this is the waiting. We still have time — just, just enough time — to put measures in place, since the virus hasn’t fully set in yet. We’re still not in a situation like Italy or China, even though we’re close. It reminds me of climate change, of how we have just enough time to do something about that, but no one who can make difference, like the world leaders, is really doing anything.

Last week, the virus still seemed so far away, like it was never going to affect me personally outside of distant news reports from far-flung countries. I still thought it would all just blow over before it got too serious. But now, it feels so much more real, so close to home, because it is. Everyone has realised by now that this crisis is going to affect all of us, a realisation I hadn’t prepared to have to accept.

At some point, very soon, it’s all going to get worse. Case numbers will spike. Schools will close. The NHS will become too ill-equipped to handle the number of cases. The country will go on lockdown. But we just don’t know when.

When we look back on all this, assuming there are enough of us alive to look back, we’ll be able to pinpoint the exact moment when it really started getting bad. Right now, we don’t have that luxury, so we have no idea how much worse it’s going to get from here.

This BuzzFeed News article, which inspired me to write… whatever this is, really hits the nail on the head by summing up how much all this dread and anticipation of what’s to come is putting everyone on edge —

“The great collective feeling of the day is one of impending doom. And all anyone anywhere wants to know is how bad it’s going to get.”

I’m supposed to just get on with my life, going to school and revising for tests, while I and the rest of the world wait with baited breath for what’s going to happen next, even though that’s near impossible. We were already practising remote learning measures in my Chemistry class today; one of the only words on people’s lips for the past week has been coronavirus.

This is our last stand before shit hits the fan. So what should I even be doing, other than washing my hands, stockpiling toilet paper, or still pretending everything’s going to be fine?

I’d always thought I wanted to live through something, mostly because I also knew, deep down, that it wouldn’t happen. Even when I was younger, my life had been proven time and time again to be boring, disappointing, and only really exciting on a personal level with events that would only affect me and the people directly around me. I thought I’d just been born at a point when everything was just alright in the world.

When I began to get online, though, I found out that the world was not alright. My first introduction to politics and social justice came with the rude wake-up calls of the Brexit referendum and the 2016 election, which I thought at the time were two events in a one-off terrible year.

However, when I was introduced to climate change and communist theory, I began to realise that what I was living through — the climate crisis and the demise of late-stage capitalism — would be more of a slow process than what I’d originally thought living through something would be like.

I was born into a cursed generation, the first who’s entire lives would be shaped and dictated by the climate crisis. I’ve grown up knowing that things would start getting worse when I was 30 or 40, that my future would be severely impaired by climate change, that when I was an adult and could do something real it would already be too late. I’ve also been witnessing late-stage capitalism’s effect on the population and how bad things are getting on the economic front, which hasn’t helped the climate, as politicians and big business continue to prioritise profit over people’s lives.

From then on, I realised that the things happening around me in the news would be key events for future historians to study. But they were all very long-term issues that would likely stretch over my entire life, and, as of now, the consequences for me haven’t been very extreme.

By contrast, the coronavirus outbreak has exploded into the news, filling up all our minds in a few months. It will definitely have major short-term consequences that will be affecting all of us soon enough, whether directly or indirectly.

My coming of age will be more fractured than Lady Bird’s, regardless of whether the coronavirus disappears tomorrow or hangs over us like a dark shadow for months, but at least I got our wish. Now it’s really happening, though, I don’t know if I really meant it or if it was just a pipe dream, something I’d just say, with no real intention behind the words.

I guess I really should be more careful what I wish for.

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