From the publisher: My Covid story, from doubt to infection

Vivian and me moving to Brazil during the pandemic. I'm the balding one on the left. Photo by Christina Asencio

The first time I heard about Covid-19, I put it in my mental file for Asian viruses that did not affect my life. SARS, swine flu, MERS and so on. The outbreaks came and went. Even ebola stayed put. I had such an impoverished understanding of contagion. Didn’t we all?

China put a whole city on lockdown. A city larger than New York City — no one allowed to leave. This was over two years ago, at the end of January 2020. And do you know what I thought? “Dictatorships are gonna dictate.” I thought it was just China being China.

This was, in hindsight, a thoroughly stupid conclusion. But what’s worse is that I didn’t update my thinking as time passed, the lockdown remained and others emerged.

I was living in the Dominican Republic at the time (my wife works for the United Nations, and we often live everywhere but home). In late March, a friend visited us from D.C., and we climbed a mountain. We had no cell reception for 30 hours. When we began our climb, the world was basically normal. By the time we descended, it no longer was.

A friend back home, a freelancer, messaged me, “I lost all my clients.” Governments were closing their borders, and flights were being canceled. I’m sorry to say I still did not recalibrate.

In fact, I viewed the severe reactions from governments and airlines as over-reactions. We’ve seen this before, guys: It’ll get a lot of news coverage because the media love to use stock photos of Chinese people wearing masks, but this will fizzle out. I should have taken their alarm as a cue to re-examine my own initial nonchalance and seek more data.

When we got home from the mountain hike, our friend said he needed to cut his visit short and fly home immediately. He was worried the Dominican or U.S. government would close the borders and he would be stuck on the island. We thought he was being dramatic. 

The next morning, Europe announced it was closing its borders, and the airlines serving the D.R. began restricting transit, with limited flights even for citizens.

Finally, I understood this would not fizzle out. We began reading stories about the transmissibility and severity of the coronavirus. That morning I returned our rental car, and I did something I would not do again for a very long time, something that still feels uncomfortable after two years: I shook the service agent’s hand. Even in that moment, I realized it was the last handshake. (It was a good one, too. You know what I mean.)

Christie, my wife, stocked the kitchen with a month’s supply of rice, beans and canned vegetables in case it became too risky to go to the grocery store or the island ran out of food. I stopped going to the gym. The government imposed a curfew. Santo Domingo, normally full of life, became a ghost town. We left a note on our apartment door asking the food delivery people to leave our order on the welcome mat. We washed everything that came in.

In April, we decided to move home. Images from Ecuador alarmed us: people collapsing dead outside emergency rooms, improvised cremations in the streets of Guayaquil. If the kids needed a doctor in an emergency, we feared they might not have one. We took a direct flight to JFK, which was nearly empty, and rented a car to drive to Ohio. It seemed safer than boarding a regional jet and entering another airport.

From our temporary home in Kent, I worked on my marketing job at a tech company for 10 hours a day and then put in another eight on The Portager, which was now a month old and growing. Christie spent long days with the kids. We saw almost no one. When we saw my parents, it was outside and at a distance.

In hindsight, our precautions may have been extreme, but they worked. We never got Covid, and neither did my parents. We got the vaccine in April, the second dose in May and the booster in December. By then we were living in Brazil and felt like we had made it through the worst of the pandemic, and truly we had.

Then omicron arrived, and daily cases in Brazil went from 2,000 to over 150,000. I don’t know where it infected us. It could’ve been Vivian at kindergarten (the vaccine has not become available for 5-year-olds here yet). It could’ve been a server at one of the restaurants where we sat outside. Omicron will come for you anywhere.

Christie got sick first and longest, with congestion and malaise for days. Vivian took a long nap one day and woke up fine the next. Marco, 3, had a fever and nothing else. I felt like crap for a whole Tuesday and that was pretty much it. It’s now a week later and I feel fine. Oddly, I’m not quite 100%, as I would be following a typical cold or flu. Just now, as I write this, I suddenly started coughing. That’s Covid for you.

It felt like a good run. Two years without an infection. I feel lucky to have faced Covid with three shots in me.

This pandemic could have been so much worse. It could have favored children for severe disease or killed 10% of us instead of 1%. Disease experts have not ruled out more deadly variants, and certainly there will be new pandemics, especially as development and climate change put us into closer contact with animal reservoirs.

When it comes to infectious disease, my new posture is to be receptive to new information because I now know that anything can happen. Even a once-in-a-century pandemic. A real superpower would be to assume that posture in every domain: lower all my defenses around long-held beliefs and be open to surprise. It’s fun to be wrong!

It’s just too bad I was wrong about Covid.

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Ben Wolford is the editor and publisher of The Portager.