In January, as I left Chicago for a semester of study in London, the last thing I was worried about was that a global pandemic would see me evacuated from London and then self-quarantined at home by March.
The day when my friend and I realized we were going to be evacuated from Europe, we were sitting in a bar in Athens on the last day of our spring break, eating falafel and observing the bustle of business-as-usual in the streets in front of us. For an hour or so, the street vendors, outdoor restaurants and crowds of tourists milling around the outdoor markets represented only vibrancy and excitement. Then, all at once, we received alerts that President Trump was implementing travel bans and the University of Notre Dame was suspending all travel-abroad programs, including ours. After panic-googling “rates of COVID-19 virus in Greece” while sitting in a crowded bar, it’s hard not to perceive crowds as petri dishes of dangerous germs.
We left Greece as the sun was setting behind the Acropolis, and we left London the next day as the cherry blossoms were beginning to bloom. Looking back, it’s eerie how nothing seemed disrupted in the everyday life of Athenians or Londoners when we left. I woke up in my room across the street from Waterloo Station the day I was to leave London, and people were filtering in and out of the Underground as if flying through tunnels in a crowded tin can while hanging on to dirty grab bars wasn’t at all concerning to anyone. It didn’t feel like a pandemic until I arrived at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.
As soon as I stepped off the Jetway and into the terminal, I audibly gasped. The escalators were turned off, and masses of people were standing shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye could see. It looked like a disaster movie. I was terrified.
As people slowly inched forward, though, it became clear that airport personnel were doing their best to corral us into organized lines. I stood in those lines for five hours, packed tightly against travelers who had all just returned to the United States from Europe.
After five hours of waiting, I went through customs and received individual CDC screening, during which my temperature was checked and possible COVID-19 symptoms were monitored.
Although it seemed that packing humans – many of whom had been exposed to COVID-19 during their travels – into an airport for five hours was the result of a bureaucratic misstep somewhere, I was impressed by the airport staff and my fellow travelers. Police officers handed out Cheez-Its and water, and line neighbors chatted about their travels and cooed at cranky babies. Everyone seemed to understand that there was no point in being unpleasant when the situation was unpleasant enough.
And, hopefully, this is what we as a community can learn from COVID-19. I am not in any way suggesting that any “lessons” can justify the large-scale and imminent danger that this virus poses for so many people. I acknowledge that the discomfort I experienced while traveling is nothing in comparison to the threat this pandemic poses to more vulnerable populations. I’m simply impressed by the amount of civility and goodwill we are capable of when we realize that being unkind certainly won’t make any of this easier.
I encourage everyone to continue in communal efforts against the spread of COVID-19 by engaging in social distancing and self-quarantining if at all possible. It will take a widespread recognition of the danger that coronavirus poses for vulnerable communities such as the elderly, the immunocompromised and those living without adequate health care in order to slow the spread of the virus.
And, for those of us who are lucky enough to have a home to self-quarantine within, the two weeks of quarantine and social distancing don’t even have to be that bad! Learn how to knit. Cuddle your dogs and cats. Blow kisses to your loved ones. Support your local small businesses. FaceTime your parents and grandparents. We can achieve some personal growth and be together even when we are apart.