I’m doing my best to act normal, but I’ve become incredibly aware of other people’s snuffling, coughing and wheezing. Am I vigilant – or paranoid?
Like the unnamed woman Drake sings about in his 2015 hit Hotline Bling, I’ve been wearing less – at least metaphorically – and going out more. Apparently she started to behave that way ever since Drake left the city. Before that, he laments, she “used to always stay at home, be a good girl”. I started to behave that way ever since Covid-19 left the city – except, of course, it didn’t.
The pandemic is very much with us, and on top of that, it’s cold and flu season. Of course, most New Yorkers are vaccinated and masked, and restrictions on our work and social lives have eased massively. I need to go to work, and I need to live my life. So I’m trying to take the train, meet friends, eat in restaurants and see shows. I should enjoy this moment while I can – but I can’t.
I can’t relax because of those pathogens still out and about, those tiny horrors looking for a new home in our bodies
I can’t relax because of those aforementioned pathogens still out and about, those tiny horrors looking for a new home in our bodies. I’m doing my best to act normal, but I’ve become incredibly aware of other people’s snuffling, wheezing and sighing. It feels like I have microphones in my ears that amplify every little sniff and cough. When someone clears their throat before they launch into a story, are they simply trying to seem more important, or are they diseased? And I fret about my health too, of course. Is that a harmless frog in my throat or a virus that has sickened so many and killed more than five million people since last year?
“The big picture is that it’s more complicated this year as we’re out there mixing with each other more than we were last year. It’s also something that we have to get used to; it’s not going to get any simpler over time.” That’s what Dr Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, told me. “We’re always going to have to try to figure out what’s going on because it could be one of many different pathogens that are circulating.”
The flu, Covid-19, and a cold share several symptoms, so how best to figure that out? There’s a helpful guide to differentiating between the three illnesses here. Nash reminded me that the more people, including children, get vaccinated against both the flu and Covid-19, the better off we will all be.
If you do develop symptoms, he recommends isolating and testing as soon as possible. “The hope is that a culture of trying to protect one another from the things that we might be carrying, especially when we have symptoms, is something that is growing in the US.” Nash wants people to stay home when they are sick but points out that not all have that choice. “Many people have to go to work or they won’t get paid, or they won’t be able to keep their job. There are many incentives that are not aligned with public health.” That’s the sad and profound truth of it, but back to my subterranean jitters when someone coughs on the subway: justified, or over the top?
I asked Dr Timothy Scarella, a psychiatrist with Beth Israel and Harvard Medical School, and he told me that his profession has the same question. “This is one of those things where we’ve really been learning about it with everybody else. We don’t have research studies and things about how to adjust the way we think about the threshold between typical worry and pathologic worry in the context of a pandemic.”
Scarella said that he hasn’t seen more cases of illness anxiety disorder, the condition formerly known as hypochondria, during the pandemic. He has, however, seen general anxiety shoot through the roof – anxiety about reopening, about unsafe practices in workplaces, about losing even more than we have lost in the past two years. He pointed out that this anxiety is to be expected because there are still risks, which makes me feel a little better about being on high alert.
We continue to live through a strange and scary time, relying on each other for protection as best we can. Toward the end of my call with Nash, the epidemiologist, I was seized with a sudden and fierce hatred of these pathogens – colds, flu, Covid-19. When I asked rather stupidly what their purpose is, Nash was unfazed. “I think they just want to have a good time and live a long life like we do.” Demons! This winter, and on into the future, it’s up to us to do everything we can to ruin their party.
Maeve Higgins is a Guardian US columnist and the author of the forthcoming book Tell Everyone on This Train I Love Them