What You’re Feeling Is Plague Dread

During a pandemic, terror and tedium can go hand in hand.

chaloner Woods / Getty

Fourteen days ago, my world began to shrink down to nearly nothing. That evening was the last time I left the office and rode the subway back to Brooklyn. Three days later, I walked to a restaurant with friends and then got my hair colored nearby, two luxuries that felt intolerably risky even the next day. Five days after that, I planned what I hoped would be my last trip to the grocery store—on my previous last trip, I had neglected to consider how much dish soap I’d need while cooking and eating meals at home for weeks on end. Now, I mostly sit on my couch with my laptop and phone, trying to keep up with what’s happening in the world. Sometimes I move to my kitchen table. My dog gets annoying as her dinnertime nears; otherwise, 7 p.m. would pass unnoticed. I no longer remember to eat.

The luckiest among us can keep ourselves safe—jobs online, kids home from school, social obligations deferred to an indeterminate future. Others have had their lives and livelihoods upended as service and retail jobs evaporate, sending them home abruptly and with little indication of how they can pay next month’s bills. Still others have kept their jobs in grocery stores and hospitals and for delivery apps, pressed into precarious duty as de facto first responders to a tragedy yet to fully materialize on American shores.

The total force of the coronavirus pandemic is still to come, but millions of American households have already set up their own crisis-response centers on the fly, trying to plan for a future more uncertain than it has been in living memory. For many, all that’s left to do is to sit at home and brace for an unimaginable impact.

Single days are now so jam-packed with news—often bad, sometimes just profoundly weird—that they feel like weeks. In only 48 hours, so much changed: Local governments ordered 6 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area to shelter in place, closing all nonessential businesses. New York City shut down the country’s largest school system, which had until then been kept open for students who rely on it for food. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut closed thousands of restaurants, bars, theaters, and gyms in tandem. Similar measures were implemented in Washington, Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, and beyond. The virus darkened lights on the Las Vegas Strip and ended the party on Bourbon Street. Much of America became housebound in the span of two days, many people without pay.

The coping mechanisms people are employing to deal with the sudden onslaught of acute, apparently interminable stress are often just as extreme. Panicked shoppers have swept supermarket shelves clean, and the young and old alike have reacted in defiance, flooding Florida beaches for spring break and refusing to cancel their cruises. The Nintendo Switch gaming console has sold out at many retailers as people look for in-home diversions. My father, a generally reasonable 73-year-old who would be at serious risk of COVID-19’s worst complications, has been so difficult to keep in the house that my mother has half—and only half—jokingly threatened to report his car as stolen if he goes anywhere but the grocery store.

I sit on my couch for hours, looking for more news or epidemiological research, constantly aware of my quickened, anxious heartbeat. Sometimes I stop to consider whether my lymph nodes feel swollen or my forehead feels warm. Is my throat scratchy, or am I just thirsty? Did I already take my allergy pill today? Is this what my allergies usually feel like? Am I flushed because I’m panicking? The virus can look like anything from a spring cold to a virulent stomach bug, which makes every tiny bodily change all the more alarming when you can’t do much but wait for something to go wrong. I call my mom and text my friends to make sure everyone is staying inside when they can; they are, mostly. We speculate about how safe it is to go for walks outside. I wonder whether the store my asthmatic little brother works in will close before he catches the coronavirus, and then I wonder how likely my elderly parents, with whom he lives, would be to get it too. From my living room window in Brooklyn, I can see a man in an orange sweatshirt who has been running in circles around the rooftop of a building a couple of blocks away for the last half an hour, like a sad polar bear at the zoo.

A few times a day, I get distracted enough to forget that everything has changed, much of it in ways unlikely to revert whenever the pandemic recedes. Then I remember and return to psychological vertigo, trying to tamp down a mixture of anxiety, terror, and disorientation so profound that I can barely remember what I’m supposed to be doing from one minute to the next. Plague dread never leaves for long.

Vaile Wright, the director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association, says that these kinds of behaviors might seem out of character right now, but they’re pretty standard responses to extreme stress or fear. “The rapidity of which things keep changing is hard to wrap your head around,” she told me. “When we engage in these types of behaviors, it’s an attempt to gain back control because in this situation, the uncertainty of it reminds us of all the things that are out of our control.” Attempting repeatedly to buy the right thing, learn the right thing, or say the right thing are all ways people try to create a feeling of safety for themselves and their loved ones. Refusing to deal with a problem completely—going out to a bar one last time or insisting on keeping your cruise reservations—is its own sort of control, allowing people to force a sense of normalcy onto a future without it, even as it puts them and those around them at risk.

Unfortunately, there’s a thin line between preparation and repeatedly cycling yourself through bouts of catastrophe panic. “When we’re constantly watching the news or constantly filtering through our social-media feeds, it’s because we’re hoping for suddenly a piece of information that makes us feel in control,” Wright said. “But there isn’t any. We just end up maintaining this unsustainable level of hyperarousal, and it just makes us worse over time.”

No one can be expected to react perfectly to a crisis, especially when it involves the sudden loss of income on top of fears of dying alone on a gurney, gasping for air, in a hospital hallway or mass triage tent. But as people’s makeshift crisis-response centers open up from couches and kitchen tables across America, there’s hope that once the panic fades, people will begin to look outside themselves for the best way forward—resisting isolation, even if it must be physically maintained for months.

Already, you can see that kind of community aid starting to shoot up from the cracks in deserted sidewalks. In New York, more than a thousand volunteers have assembled (virtually) to bring groceries to elderly people sheltering in their homes. A GoFundMe campaign for laid-off Seattle service workers has already raised $100,000, and other efforts like it abound. “It’s a bit about changing the conversation away from us as individuals and to us as a family or as a community, and approaching it in a we’re-all-in-this-together kind of way,” Wright said. “Then your actions become reflective of the common good as opposed to what’s good for you the individual.” It's not a cure for plague dread, but it’s a start.