‘Don’t Worry’ Is an Act of Selfishness

Photo: Richard Drury/Getty Images

Please note the story you’re reading was published more than a day ago. COVID-19 news and recommendations change fast: Read the latest here to stay up-to-date. We’ve lifted our paywall on all essential news and updates about the coronavirus.

I live in rural California in a county where one of the worst things you can do is worry or care about anything. People here live for climbing things they could easily fall out of or down from, getting lost on long, unplanned hikes without water, and tubing on Class II rapids without helmets. While I don’t believe I worry or care too excessively, expressing any amount here is suspect and unfashionable.

I have not been enjoying waiting for COVID-19 to hit our area.

My boyfriend and I were supposed to host a big party last week, in honor of some friends of ours. During the week leading up to the party, as the cases of coronavirus worldwide continued to rise, we kept going back and forth from “fuck it, let’s do it” to “wait, this seems like a really stupid idea.”

On the night before the party, we were actually swinging toward yes, toward hosting 50 people from all over Northern California at a potluck (a potluck!) with alcohol, a DJ (a DJ!), and God-knows-what-else in our 1,100-square-foot home. Our friends were just walking in the door for a little pre-party meeting to see if and how we might make it all work, when my boyfriend’s dad, an unexcitable man of 73, called my boyfriend. They were on the phone just a minute or two. Then my boyfriend hung up and said, “My father thinks we shouldn’t have a party.” We exchanged a look that said: “Wow … if he’s freaked out, this is probably bad.”

Our guests of honor were as disappointed as we were at the idea of canceling but said that if we couldn’t be 100 percent on board, then we should. They used the language of sexual consent — and said that only if ours was “full and enthusiastic” would they feel comfortable allowing us to host.

That felt sort of impossible. I mean, if we had the party and the virus did not spread in my community, I would feel happy, lucky, relieved. But if it did, I would not be able to say I had done everything in my power to stop it. This decision wasn’t about being 100 percent stoked, to me. It was about considering the risks and then deciding if those risks were worth taking.

A conversation about risks would have been nice; it would have made me feel like I was actually part of a community. But though these friends seemed to know about the existence of COVID-19, they seemed less clear on the idea that it actually posed a risk. “I totally respect your opinion and totally get it if you decide not to have the party,” said the male part of the couple, a person I like very much. He added that he felt like the virus was blown out of proportion and that it was kind of the media’s job to make people nervous about things, to keep us in a “fear state.”

Whenever I hear the words “I respect your opinion,” I know the person does not, in fact, respect my opinion. What this person was essentially saying, despite the polite veneer — which, is, of course, always appreciated — was: “You believe anything any authority figure tells you, and you can’t tell the difference between an actual threat to human life and complete bullshit.”

I am scared. I have been reading about Italy, and how overwhelmed their hospitals are, and how doctors and nurses are choosing which people to save. (And just in case you think, oh, that’s Italy, I talked to a nurse who works at a hospital in Sacramento, who would prefer not to be named, and she said the system seemed “woefully unprepared” for what’s coming.) I am not freaking out, but I am staying home as much as I can, avoiding gatherings and crowds, as recommended by many, many people who know more about what’s going on than I do. I think staying at home as much as you can is a good idea — not because I made this idea up in my head but because it’s supported by what is actually going on in reality.

Reality is not a big thing around here. One woman I know thinks that 5G phone technology caused coronavirus. Another friend of mine, who cleans for a living, said they tried to demonstrate to a co-worker the best way to disinfect a surface. “I don’t want to get caught up in the panic,” said the co-worker. “Whoever is going to die from this thing is going to die from it.”

There’s a pretty big event I was scheduled to go to this Friday night, with 200 people in an enclosed space, eating from a buffet table, drinking, sitting at tables, and talking. Some experts say the virus can travel six feet, person to person, and all of them say it can travel three feet. This is an event where people are usually a foot or two away from each other at best.

I am the only person I know who wasn’t planning on going. “I doubt there’ll be anyone there who has coronavirus,” one would-be attendee said to me. I’m not quite sure what he was basing this on. Why wouldn’t there be someone there who has coronavirus? We know that there were 50-plus presumptive cases from just one event with only 175 people attending. Why would this similarly sized event be any different?

Another popular opinion in Nevada County, and sadly elsewhere: “I mean, I feel like, it’s just like the flu, how many people get the flu all the time?” Nods all around! Guess again. Actually, don’t bother, because, imagine, I have an interesting fact right here: In people under 50, death rates are 6 to 10 times higher for COVID-19 than from the flu. And if that conflicts with your feelings, or if you think that National Geographic is lying to you because they are “the man,” then maybe consider that the problem with COVID-19 is that many, many people are getting it at once, and this floods hospitals with patients, who die because they can’t get the care they need. Here is something to feel about: The virus doesn’t care how you feel.

Another friend said they’d be nervous if they were old and feeble, but since they are not, they were not nervous. Not only did people agree with this, they thought it was funny. Now, I laugh at all kinds of sick things all the time, but this line of thinking has actual consequences. No, I am not terribly worried about dying myself (thought I’d prefer not to get sick). What I am worried about is being a vector for other people who are compromised, like my friend who just had very small twins, or the large percentage of this county that’s elderly, or my friend whose husband has cystic fibrosis. I say this to people, and they look at me like I just said, “Have you ever had lemons on pizza? It’s so good.” No, wait. There is less of a reaction. I don’t know if people don’t know this, or do and don’t care, or if they’re just more like “I wish she would stop talking.”

I am sure I am not alone in feeling like my heart breaks several times a day about sick people dying without health care and medicine, about the environment, about refugees from violence and climate catastrophe and the way those people are treated, just for trying to survive. The only respite from this world, other than trying to fight it, is the people who surround us. It is hard to find those people disappointing or to feel like you’re annoying them by expressing views commensurate with the state of “living in a community.”

God, living in this town makes me feel like a scold, when I am not feeling insane. I’m not here to judge someone for leaving the house or going to work because they have to. But the theory that this isn’t serious, the idea that other people are succumbing to a panic you’re way too cool to get wrapped up in, that’s not interesting, or thoughtful, or contrarian. It’s just cruel. I realize this culture forces people to be cruel, but it’s still cruel.

‘Don’t Worry’ Is an Act of Selfishness