#SIP - Essay by Shea McCollum


13 Ways of Looking at a Virus

1. It starts with a whisper. One headline amongst many. A lesser order disaster of concern. Only one person asks, Have you heard what’s happening in China? They say it’s already infected over a thousand people. Contagion. Like something from a low-budget horror movie, so over-wrought in fiction, it feels played out in reality. Nothing novel enough to be afraid of. Besides, China is half a world away. Miles of ocean and land stand between us. Centuries of history and language, endless chasms of cultural differences. What infects them could never touch me.

2. I heard it’s because they eat bats there, a woman says with an up-turned nose as she takes another sip of her beetle-dyed pink drink.

3. The Chinese borders have closed. But borders are about as meaningful to a virus as a line in the dirt is to a wolf. It turns out we made the world too close together. We thought we were being clever when we invented machines that sewed the distances between the continents, that took week-long journeys and compressed into the span of a few hours. But it turns out we marooned ourselves on a single island together and made it easier for the wolves to stalk us one-by-one.

4. Everyone’s buzzing now. Not loudly, but just loud enough that you can hear it if you know what to listen for. The aisles of the grocery store are ringing with it. Shelves that were once the beacon of American excess now sit empty, stripped of the hot commodities of this new, dawning era: canned foods and toilet paper, water bottles and hand sanitizer. They’re the ingredients to a recipe of panic being prepared in every home throughout the nation.


5. Wash your hands. Lather the soap and turn on the water, as hot as you can bear it. And then a few degrees hotter. Wash your hands so much your skin begins to dry and crack in the cold, until the soap cakes under your fingernails and you feel more dishrag than human. And then wash your hands again.

6. It’s not the virus, but the people I fear. Not just the sick but also the apparently healthy, the wolves in sheep’s clothing that make this virus so hard to handle. Even holed up in my room, I can’t escape them. I hear my neighbor cough through the wall and I want to put a thousand more walls between us. I’m afraid. Like the woman in New York who wore a mask to protect herself. Like the man who saw this mask as a threat itself and attacked.

7. By far more widespread and infectious a disease than corona is hypochondria. I lay in my bed dying of it. I keep testing my body for any sign of the enemy. I am suspicious of every sneeze and every tickle of my throat. Is this exhaustion from anxiety or the invisible battle waging inside of me? Am I cold because of the rain or a fever? There’s a bruise on my hand from checking my forehead so many times.

8. The problem is that 2% isn’t a scary enough number. It’s what you tell your barista when the idea of drinking your skinny vanilla latte with almond milk at six in the morning makes you nauseous. It’s a small indulgence. Not a pandemic. Not 11,000 already dead. Not the doctor in Italy who’s run out of respirators and is forced to weigh the value of one life over another. It’s just 2%.

9. It’s not the virus, but the lack of people that I fear. Seven weeks of senior year goodbyes compressed into five days, and yet we find new ways to expand the distance between minutes, to stretch out a day beyond its normal capacity. We try not to count our every last, nor to make promises about a future we are no longer certain of. Instead, we stay with each longer and laugh harder as if for once there is no other place in the world to be. And when we finally do say goodbye, we do not bump elbows. We embrace with wild abandon and cry onto each others’ shoulders because for whatever happens afterward, these five days are ours.

10. A Found Poem in My University President’s Message Re: COVID-19

You have been constantly on my heart. I to o want to understand This and I am sorry I d o n o t. But I sincerely hope this experience h a s finally moved you to see each other, to love when its hard. if you have courage, you C a n find the answers to some of your most pressing concerns in community. we a r e stronger together. I with you and you m e .

11. My mom calls me to remind me that working in quarantine is a privilege. Today she has had to fire 20% of her employees. By next week it could be 50. She will go without a salary this month and the next to try to buy them time, but there’s only so much she can do. Because even when the world stops, the economy never does. Retail workers join the front line with doctors and nurses, risking their lives for minimum wage. People who last week had steady jobs now collect unemployment checks and wonder how long the city’s promise to keep their water on will really last. It is a privilege to complain of boredom.

12. One of the foundational elements of every new culture is a specialized language. We’re still learning ours: self-quarantine, social distancing, community spread. The words still feel awkward and unfamiliar in my mouth. Perhaps, we just don’t know how to talk to each other like this. They say 93% of communication is nonverbal, so it’s no wonder a tweet can spark such outrage.

13. The streets are still clearing here. Some people haven’t quite gotten the message yet. They knock on the front doors of restaurants asking to be let in. But mostly, we stay indoors now, get used to breathing air through cracks in the windows, to sewing the distances between us with long phone calls. No one can say for how long. We try to focus instead on what we still have: time to see family, to slow down, to recollect. Somewhere outside our windows, the wolves are calling to us, but we cannot hear them now over the sound of our own voices, singing different songs, but someone still in unison.


Shea McCollum is a recent graduate of Pepperdine University with a degree in Creative Writing. Her work has previously been published in the UCLA Westwind and The Kudzu Review. In addition to writing, she enjoys revamping vintage clothes and kickboxing. 






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