Debt, Depression and Desolation: Finding Rays of Light in a COVID Hotspot

Debt, Depression and Desolation: Finding Rays of Light in a COVID Hotspot

Last night, we heard screaming. Tucked away in our apartment during quarantine, we wondered what people were doing outside clapping and yelling. Upon looking out the window, we could hear our neighbours across the alley – they were sitting on window ledges, hollering and cheering. Shouts from blocks away could be heard echoing through the streets. Faces protruding from cracked-opened windows let out a whoop, and we hollered back. What sounded like rain pattering the rooftop was really the collection of clapping, near and far.

It was primitive. It was joyous. It was communal.

It was the side effect of the “stay-at-home” orders recently issued by the Washington State governor in response to the COVID outbreak.

Living in the COVID world has affected everyone’s lives differently. Weeks ago, my boyfriend came home from his last day of work. He was laid off at the beginning of the outbreak. Upset and tired, his first expression of grief was not about his newfound unemployment.

“Someone yelled ‘What are you looking at, Asian?’ to me on the street,” he sighed.

The empty streets: they’re an introvert’s paradise. Sidewalks are clear, social events are canceled, and we can stay indoors all week without excuse. Our city was the first in the US to receive a person with the virus, and the first in the US to see a COVID death. The responsibility of social isolation, a burden to many, has me cosy in my studio apartment eating ramen packets, catching up on reality TV and working from home.

In these times, I’m privileged and sheltered.

But my family is not. With two parents and a boyfriend/roommate recently laid off, the burden of anxiety has crept into my cosy shelter. The financial burden is looming in the distance, as I fear it will happen to me, too.

My boyfriend is Vietnamese-American. He’s noticed people distancing themselves dramatically from him while walking the aisles of the grocery store – and this was before the whole “stay-six-feet-away” thing. When the busses used to be full of crowds, he’d come home and tell me that no one sat next to him, even when it forced them to stand.

But this is no surprise – right? Any excuse to express racism, whether blatantly or subconsciously, is good enough for some people.

The virus itself is a petri dish for hatred.

I said I’m pleased by the city’s orders to stay inside, but I lied a little bit. Avoiding my regular bus commute and Skyping with my psychiatrist instead of trekking to his office alleviates more anxiety than I could have predicted. It’s not just my introversion that makes me content with this situation, but also my social anxiety.

And yet, this social isolation is only a temporary relief for my mental health. It has quickly become a problem. Not only is COVID a breeding ground for racism, but it is a breeding ground for depression, too. In my case, this is no surprise, as I’ve been working to get free from those trenches for a while. But even friends of mine without clinical depression have begun to feel its effects, too. The lack of exercise, work, vitamin D, and socialization can produce an existential tumor that leaves one fatigued, unmotivated, and lonely.

Amongst this sadness come rays of light. On her last day of work at the bakery, my mom received a $40 tip from one of her loyal customers.

Nearly 4 million people in the US applied for unemployment just last week, and the government is trying to fix it. A stimulus bill was recently passed. Basically, it issues a one-time check of $1,200 to certain people. For most of us, it doesn’t cover rent.

Another ray of light: we’re still allowed to go on walks. With the streets empty, I’ve experienced far fewer catcalls and far less anxiety when I venture outside. In that way, the emptiness is as fresh as the air (now that it’s free of city traffic and the pollution that used to come with it).

In response to the US stimulus bill, I see a few conservatives post angrily on Facebook. “Do you really want handouts from the government?!” they cry, with angry emojis littering the screen.

But, isn’t empathy and community what allowed us to evolve? As a social species, we rely on one another to get through life, even if it requires a sacrifice from ourselves.

My boyfriend and I began binge-watching Naked and Afraid. The only pair of teammates who did not make it through 21 days in the wild was the pair that was separated due to disease. One partner had to be taken to the hospital after drinking tainted water, while the other was left alone to fend for herself. Already in a state of starvation, she struggled to find and kill food while also maintaining a shelter in violent storms and keeping a fire going that was almost impossible to restart if it went out. She had to tap out early, not just due to the physical stress, but also the mental stress.

This is what allows communal species to survive: we work together, defend each other, and make sacrifices for the good of the group. Empathy is the evolutionary trait that allowed us to thrive.

So yeah, I’d take a handout if I needed it. And if I didn’t need it, I’d give it to someone who needed it more.

While we each get a onetime payment of $1,200, large corporations get $500 billion. While our landlords get a pause on mortgage payments, their tenants must still pay rent.

In Denmark, the government is covering up to 75% of employee wages.

In the US, we’re supporting each other with $40 tips and with $10 Venmo donations so our community members can afford hand sanitiser and food. I don’t know what Bezos is doing right now, but I know that the Amazon website was seemingly asking for donations to help pay it’s warehouse workers benefits.

Bezos can fuck right off.

I miss sitting in dimly lit bars. I miss the train rides to a friend’s house. I miss a weekend of window shopping and trying on pants that I’ll never buy. Instead, I cling to the virtual happy hours with coworkers over Zoom. I cling the fact that I’m saving so much money by staying indoors. I cling to the view of the city from my isolated rooftop.

The last ray of light amidst the darkness of capitalistic woes, depression and racism: I’m reminded that we’re all the same. People in Italy are playing instruments on their windows for their neighbors. Neighbors in Spain are exercising together from their balconies. And here in Seattle, people are screaming like chimpanzees at 8:00 on a Thursday night.

I FaceTimed my friend in Japan only to find that she is just as fearful of the effects of the virus as we are. I see my friends in Australia express fury at their government through social media, reflecting the sentiments we feel in the US.

When travel used to be a thing, I was always struck by the differences between “us” and “them”, because the differences were so minute. It’s the similarities that were striking. We’re all just chimps with a bit of empathy and a sense of community, fighting together against leeches and diseases, capitalism and COVID.

Temporarily free from racist remarks and catcalls, I find peace. In these moments, I find myself hoping that the streets will remain desolate and our connection to strangers in a windowsill across the ally will remain unbreakable.

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