The COVID Disaster Out West Triggered My Pandemic PTSD, And I’ve Lost Trust In The Experts
I haven’t slept right since Christmas. I’ve been waking up at odd hours of the night, having nightmares and feeling scared and vulnerable. It feels like March and April again, even though the situation in New York City is nothing like it was. In the five boroughs, our hospitalization rate is just 25 percent what it was in April, even as we ride out this wave. Our governor says it won’t get much worse and the end is in sight.
It isn’t New York’s situation that worries me; I think we’ll make it out okay this time. It’s what I’m seeing and hearing in the country’s second-largest city. It’s eerily similar to what we New Yorkers experienced 9-10 months ago, and different from what we saw in Florida, Texas, Arizona or South Dakota, it seems to be going on longer.
This morning, I was devastated to watch CNN reporter Sara Sinder struggle to get through her live shot from Los Angeles. After weeks of covering the COVID-19 surge in the city, seeing the seemingly unending amount of death and grief, it all come to a head for her. It was remarkable, but also familiar. There were moments last spring where I just couldn’t take it anymore and would break down myself. It was so much, and I felt so useless and ineffective, it felt like there wasn’t isn’t anything I could do even if I wanted to; just watch and pray.
California went back into a state of lockdown over a month ago. By now in the other states, the outbreaks had reached a peak, but the situation in Los Angeles just seems to be getting worse and worse. Perhaps its because of the holidays, or because its a larger metropolitan area. (We don’t know when exactly New York’s outbreak started, but it was at least a month before mid-March, when lockdown happened, and two months before the mid-April hospitalization peak), but what’s clear is that Los Angeles is enduring the type of traumatizing epidemic that New York, Sao Paolo, Madrid, Brussels, Milan and Wuhan have experienced. The news of hospitals running out of beds, funeral homes stacking bodies in chapels and ambulance sirens blaring nonstop throughout the city brings me back to April all over again.
As a New Yorker, I was able to channel my experiences in grief and trauma from 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy to help formulate an emotional and physical response to the outbreak. I had been through citywide tragedies before, I knew what to feel, who to listen to, what to do. For Los Angeles, however, this is something they are not used to. Cities, due to their sheer size, do not get the benefit of being treated like small communities. There is no expectation of the intimate, family-type feel that you expect to see in small towns. But cities are like large families, even if most of our “relatives” are strangers. We share collective experiences, we hear the same things, experience the same weather, ride the same buses, drive on the same roads, and when we see other cities in pain, it feels familiar. I feel about Los Angeles the way I felt for Paris and Brussels in 2015 when terrorists attacked those cities. It’s a way I think about cities that were devastated in history, like San Francisco in 1906 or Tokyo in 1945. You never truly see your city the same again. There’s a scar that doesn’t heal, but over time it become part of your city’s identity, often in a good way. Los Angeles will be forever altered by this experience, but there’s an opportunity to channel it into something positive, and develop a new skin to protect you, and learn lessons to prepare you, from the next disaster.
With COVID-19 though, there is another layer to this. California tried. They legitimately tried. Sure, people will point out the anti-maskers and anti-lockdown protestors in Orange County and elsewhere in the state, but we’ve all had to deal with those folks, and it was always predictable that adherence would slack as time went on. California was praised for its early response, especially up against New York, but my concern in the Spring, which has borne out, was that they were only delaying the inevitable. New York had the ability to write off our outbreak as a result of not catching it early enough, or not reacting fast enough. For Californians, I have to imagine there’s some sense of defeat, or of failure. That they had tried for so long, and sacrificed so much, to keep COVID-19 contained, and it all was for naught. It came anyway, and its killing so many people.
There was little to no chance of getting population-wide buy in for indefinite social distancing and isolation. Besides the fact that human beings are social creatures who crave social contact, and need it to keep their mind and body stimulated, as more time goes on, and the virus became more and more of an accepted presence, people’s risk calculations change. I feel it with in my own mind. I stayed in my house for 53 days from March into May, and that 53 days felt like a good trade off to avoid getting COVID-19 at the height of the wave in New York. But as the months carried on, and I knew more and more people who got sick and recovered, it became less of an obvious choice. Was it worth not seeing my partner or my godson for two months in order to prevent getting COVID-19? Sure. What about four, six or nine months? Well, that’s where the dynamics change.
While COVID-19 fatigue was something experts suggested they knew would be a problem, it is not something they, nor politicians, apparently planned for. Now, Angelenos are being told to try wearing masks even around the house. The advice just gets more and more unrealistic.
Sometimes it feels as if public health officials have long accepted that they can’t control the pandemic, and instead they have spent this phase of the crisis trying to figure out how to get the public to blame each other for the failures. Rather than saying that our opportunity to quash the pandemic came in the Spring, and because we were unable to do it, it is unlikely we will control it without medical means now, we are stuck spinning our wheels – and grieving.