When the coronavirus outbreak started making headlines, my first instinct was to avoid all coverage of the epidemic. Trying to separate media hype from valid concern felt too daunting—and too familiar. Six years ago, while bartending in Brooklyn, I was told I might have been exposed to the Ebola virus. For the next few hours, I was suspended in a peculiar kind of panic. Was I unwittingly infecting everyone I came across, both loved ones and strangers? Or was I embarrassingly paranoid? Was I completely fine? Or about to die an agonizing death? As this new coronavirus infects more and more people, I fear that the same paralyzing uncertainty may afflict many of us.
In the fall of 2014, I was tending bar at a Brooklyn bowling alley called the Gutter. Across the Atlantic, the largest epidemic of Ebola in history was devastating West Africa, with a death toll reaching far into the thousands. The first few cases of Ebola in the U.S. had been confirmed in Texas: a doctor who had treated patients overseas, and two nurses who then treated him in Dallas.
One drizzly October afternoon, my manager texted me, telling me to call her ASAP. I did so, fearing I was about to be fired, perhaps for taking one too many Jameson shots behind the bar the night before. I certainly didn’t expect to hear “Uh, there was this guy who came into the bar last night who they now think has Ebola.” Dr. Craig Spencer had just returned home from Guinea, where he’d been treating Ebola patients. He’d thought he was fine, so had gone out drinking and bowling, but had then woken up with a fever. He was now being tested for Ebola.