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How Not to Feel Smug If You Haven’t Had COVID

I’ve been lucky the past two years — and it’s messing with my head

On January 21, 2022, we will mark the second anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. The depressing milestone arrives amid a new and immense wave of the disease: Every day, it seems, individual states and the country as a whole are shattering records for caseloads and hospitalizations. The two currently dominant mutations of the virus, Delta and Omicron, are exceedingly contagious when compared to the original strain.  

At this point, only sheer luck can account for my failure to test positive or develop symptoms in this pandemic, especially in the past few weeks, as many who have taken every precaution finally caught the bug. While I, too, make strategic choices to avoid getting sick — I canceled a flight home for the holidays — I’m also not living the lockdown life of spring 2020. Recently, I’ve been to the movie theater, eaten at restaurants and hung out in small groups. The virus must have had opportunities to infiltrate my body, but it hasn’t. That I’ve apparently been spared while everyone else is down for the count has begun to make me superstitious, wary of so much as talking about this, lest it guarantee my exposure. But I’ve also, truth be told, grown a little smug.

It is not, I should say, the smugness of the COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers who tout their god-given immune systems only to wind up in the ICU, or worse. I’ve had three doses of Moderna, wear my mask and am hypersensitive to any ache that could portend a fever. Yet the longer this crisis drags on, the more tempted I am to proclaim that I’m simply built different, resistant to the plague for unknown reasons. Even my partner believes she had the virus at the very outset of the community spread here in the U.S., but whatever it was that made her ill didn’t affect me. The other night I joked that I could be studied by scientists for a potential cure.

The ego which persuades us that we’re the protagonist of reality is vulnerable to such flattery — an inkling that we’re chosen or destined for rare success. However, that arrogance is also inverted scorn for the less fortunate. Because some people are vocal and brazen about flouting basic health guidance before they predictably contract COVID, and because this group is understood as our main obstacle to controlling the pandemic, anyone who gets the virus can be tarred as part of that problem, no matter how careful they were. 

Intellectually, I realize this is wrong, that a spike in infections has more to do with a rotting health-care system and indifferent government than the mistakes of individual actors. Meanwhile, I’m not a paragon of virtue. For all I know, I did have asymptomatic COVID a month or a year ago. There’s just no telling. But on the afternoons I run five miles without any shortness of breath, I feel close to invincible.     

In early January, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo’s suggestion that residents cut down on testing drew sharp criticism, with some recalling that Donald Trump proposed a similar tactic to artificially dampen case numbers when he was president. It’s a maddening abdication of responsibility at the highest levels, though almost understandable if you’re touched by the creeping hubris of those who have dodged COVID at every stage of its evolution. In my present circumstance, I have something uncomfortable in common with the hardened skeptics and conspiracists treating the deadly disease as a mild cold or flu — for although I still gauge it as a serious threat, the lack of intimate experience with it may cloud my judgment and entice me to take greater risks. Curiously, the safer I seem, the looser my grip on what’s actually happening.

Why confess all this? Maybe to discharge it as irrational, or release myself from the spell. Maybe to give a partial explanation of the stubborn socializing that has kept COVID in the air, including among the vaccinated. Mostly, though, I would hope to remind anyone in the same boat as me that luck has a way of running out. Complacency, we’ve seen, is no help whatsoever. Our institutions, already indifferent, are turning toward complete surrender. I can’t stop that, but I can fight to protect my loved ones and my own wellbeing. 

Hey, I’ve come this far.