“Remember swine flu?” we asked each other, like those were better days.
This was last Thursday, the day before restaurants, bars, movie theaters, parks, and other public spaces would be closed indefinitely. In group chat, a few friends and I somberly wondered when grocery stores and other essential retailers on Maui would close (god forbid), or when the statewide lockdown order would come. Our days becoming an endless news scroll and waiting for the next shit to hit the fan, a friend replied like an anti-Steve Rogers:
I can’t do this all day 😩
I casually suggested a Target run (the late 20s version of “hanging out”) if only to see the last-minute frenzy for ourselves. A side effect of the digital age: often what we see on our phones may be larger than they actually appear. Which isn’t to say we were making light of the pandemic, just that it was hard to grasp the impact from press conferences and social media. A proposed day-trip, then, was almost too curious to pass up, because it truly felt like this would be our last group hang for a while.
“I don’t remember the swine flu being this serious,” one said, all of us piled into a car.
“I remember the jokes,” said another. Somehow, he dug up the exact image from memory. They weren’t called memes then.
What did I remember? It was senior year of high school. I was worrying about which college I wanted to go to, the job that awaited me after, and whether I’d still be on Maui. (Oh, to be 17!) I remembered everything but the swine flu.
And that’s what made the Coronavirus pandemic so markedly different. You could feel the urgency, the panic.
We headed to Costco and saw the long lines running down the exterior. We couldn’t pull into the parking lot completely because there were too many people trolling for parking. We went to Target, to Walmart, and it was the same story of piled carts and plundered stocks of toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
We then diverted to the malls. My sister posted this vid at Pentagon City Mall. This was Queen Kaahumanu Shopping Center that same day.
Those who were there were only there because they had to be. Stores deemed essential for the time being, and customers (10 at a time) paying their bills while adhering to social distancing. The only “busy” places were phone retailers. This was a Thursday and kids were technically on Spring Break. The theaters had already closed ahead of the mayor’s address, and Fun Factory – a.k.a. my daughter’s favorite place in the world – was empty.
A month ago, the Coronavirus seemed as serious as an artillery threat from North Korea. Possible? Sure. But worth the stress? Hardly. Then it became a pandemic, and we watched the ripple from national news to local headlines. Fast forward to widespread pleas to wash your hands, event cancellations, social distancing, and temporary closures. My daughter’s school had sent students home with study packets and login instructions in case their Spring Break was extended. Their break has been extended twice through April 30.
Wandering near-empty public spaces, we tried to remember all the health scares that happened in our lifetime – Ebola, Swine flu, SARS, Mad Cow Disease – and re-remembering what little impact they had on island life. It certainly wasn’t on this scale. Then a friend laid it bare: “This is new, isn’t it?”
We are so used to false alarms in Hawaii that it’s become its own insular joke. Constant hurricane and tsunami watches that eventually peter out, encouraging no more than a trip to the store for supplies— for those of us who take the warnings seriously. Add idle threats from hermit kingdoms, or the previous Ebola outbreak (we had 1 screening case). We’re told to brace for storms that may never actually reach our shores.
We’re grateful to not have had an island-ending disaster, but the cautions and alertness are so integrated into island life that you become numb after the 34th hurricane watch. The only recent scare that comes to mind was the false missile alarm of 2018. And I kid you not, we just had a tsunami watch on Tuesday.
But this Coronavirus pandemic was indeed new. Washing hands, maintaining social distance, no gatherings of more than 10 people (there were 5 of us), and staying home whenever possible. Our day venture suddenly felt irresponsible. We drove past half-empty beach parks, local businesses shuttering, and restaurants desperate for any in-house patrons before 8PM.
We stopped for a bite at Fred’s Mexican Café – a place that would normally have hour wait times on a good day – and were seated right away. One last meal and frivolous expense before the storm. We found ourselves wondering aloud what the hell happened? How did COVID-19 turn from trending meme topic to blindsiding pandemic? It happened so terribly fast that I couldn’t recall what life was like 2 weeks ago.
Our appetite slowly dwindled as we browsed the menu.
“You know the early part in Endgame where they’re all sad…”
“Another Marvel reference and I swear to god,” I said.
As millennials, it wasn’t lost on us that we were currently being blamed for going on Spring Breaks that we’re not even on. (Though we did order margaritas so, touché?) We were fretting over jobs, health insurance, student loans, rent, and lastly, exposure to the virus. There’s definitely a comment on work-grind capitalism here.
Among us job-wise, 2 work at the hotels, 1 at a surf shop and another at a mass retailer. As for me, the writing job I was gearing up for has been unduly put “on hold.” Any self-respecting freelancer knows to dread the term, and I’ve since been panic-applying for any gig that will have me. I am simultaneously too tired to keep applying for remote work, yet too panicked not to.
We told ourselves we wanted to see the island-wide panic like it was some kind of attraction. Really, we were there to commiserate, to panic together. It felt good to do that in person rather than hide behind another round of memes and emojis and pretending we’re okay. It’s freeing sometimes, admitting that you’re scared.
A lot has changed in the days since we’ve been holed up in our homes. Testing is underway, airlines are winding down operations, hotels are closed through April, and stricter rules have dictated what’s essential across the county. It’s eerie to see barren beaches and borderline apocalyptic to no longer hear airplanes humming above. All of us in that car are no longer working and have no idea what to do with ourselves. It’s existential to feel non-essential.
We’re back to our phones. Our usual group chat of sarcasm and movie quotes has turned into a bulletin board of the latest updates. We share news articles we’ve already read 5 times over and spend our days party watching the Coronavirus case count. The FOMO has reached critical levels. We don’t want to miss a thing on our phones because none of us wants to be the last one to hear that the world had ended.
All of this is so completely unprecedented and I think we all need a moment – whether it’s an afternoon, an entire day, or a week – to acknowledge this. Every single one of us is collectively wondering how the bills will get paid, if we’ll still have our jobs, how our kids will stay on track with their education, etc.
If there’s a time to cut ourselves some slack— it’s now, and I mean that sincerely. Stop scolding yourself for not being omniscient or hyper-vigilant. Have a moment and for goodness sake JUST. BREATHE. You’ve been scrolling the news for 5 hours and holding it all in. It’s okay to detach for a bit. Take all the time you need. Everything’s uncertain right now and none of us have ever dealt with anything like this before. Breathe.
A few days ago, a friend fell into a spiral after the unemployment site crashed on her, again:
How the fuck are we gonna get thru this lol 😅
Together 🤙 🤙 🤙
Then came the what-if game.
What if we get the rona and end up like Kate Winslet in Contagion 😷
And a proud Marvel reference made its way into the group chat once more.
Then we’ll do that together too.