Sick All the Time

If the pandemic ought to have given us anything, it should have been a more universal empathy toward the condition of illness.

Black-and-white photo of children blowing their noses
Jon Brenneis / Getty

Winter is over, and what a wretched one it was. There came a point in the season when everyone in our house was sick. I stood at the top of the stairs one cold morning, gazing down blearily at the pile of mail and magazines that had accumulated by the door, knowing there were dishes dumped in the sink to match and laundry heaped in the hampers as well. I thought of Henry Knighton, a medieval cleric who witnessed the Black Death’s scouring of Europe. I once read his firsthand account of the sheep and cattle that went wandering over fields where the harvest had rotted on the vine, crops and livestock returning to wilderness amid the great diminishing of human life. I now reigned over my own plagued realm, having lost this latest confrontation with nature.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, when signs of human retreat became evident in the natural world, people started to say—at first sincerely, and then facetiously—“Nature is healing.” The receding of human industry wasn’t so much a sign of nature’s health as it was a sign of human distress, but it was nevertheless right to recognize that nature was doing something on a scale that surpassed exact human understanding. We the living are all survivors of a plague, and we are in the world the virus created.

That includes the Winter (and for many, also the Fall) of Constant Illness. After years of careful hygiene and social measures taken to fend off COVID-19, people are now experiencing life more or less as usual again—which has meant that the typical wintertime viruses we evaded for so long have come roaring back. People fell ill with COVID but also with flu and RSV, leading some public-health researchers to warn of a “tripledemic” with the strength to sicken millions. Also common, and equally burdensome, at least among families with small children: strep, pink eye, croup, stomach bugs, and one unidentifiable head cold after another, leaving empty bottles of liquid Tylenol and trash cans full of used tissues behind. All over the country, local health resources advised people that if it seemed as though everyone they knew was sick, they weren’t imagining things—just living through a time of pestilence.

There was nothing to be done about it. On one cold night, I took spaghetti and meatballs to neighbors who, raising a 1-year-old and expecting another baby soon, had all been felled by an evil bug; on another evening, equally frigid, I placed our household’s third pizza order in a week, too sick to cook and only barely well enough to eat. The children were always in and out of the pediatrician’s office, always on and off amoxicillin, and hardly ever in school for more than a handful of consecutive days. When they were well, I was ill; when they were ill, I was looking after them. We socialized over FaceTime and text. It felt like the emotional wherewithal to bear the season was slowly draining out of my raw eyes and nose.

Perhaps the only surprise of the season was that after navigating the pandemic, society turned out to still be fundamentally inflexible with respect to illness. This is especially the case if both parents in a home with children work out of the house, or if a family is led by a single parent. There still remains, for example, a dearth of policies that would allow parents time off to care for sick children without sacrificing their own sick leave, which seemed in precious short supply this winter. And that’s if one can get any sick leave at all—as the Department of Labor currently advises (or ominously warns?), “there are no federal legal requirements for paid sick leave.” Companies subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act are required to offer employees unpaid sick leave, but that still presents individuals with a stark choice: Make the money you need to care for yourself and your family during periods of illness, or rest and recover and limit the spread of contagion by staying home.

As winter passes and (God willing) this long season of sickness fades into memory along with the public-health emergency that preceded it, we seem to be entering an era of the retrospective and the speculative: While some news agencies are looking back on the lockdown days of early COVID to try to understand what lessons our public-health policies taught us, others are bracing for the next pandemic, or gearing up for the political fallout of the debate over this one’s origins. All of these avenues of exploration provide potential room for discovery, especially with respect to our public-health architecture and the political and social management of another pandemic in the future. But they seem as yet insensitive to the very basic and animal fact of the pandemic and the winter it gave us this year: People get sick.

There is a profound helplessness to falling ill, even in cases of ultimately mild and transient illness—which nevertheless can take the form of long, grueling, raw struggling against mucus and body aches. There is even greater helplessness in caring for another in their time of sickness—especially a child, when you have been up to this point the source of every imaginable comfort. If the pandemic ought to have given us anything, it should have been a more universal empathy toward the condition of illness, of being susceptible to getting sick. It should have been a more urgent will to enact policies that would give people—all people—time to rest and recover when stricken with illness. It should have left us with the impression that the foundations of our society aren’t terribly different from those of Henry Knighton’s, and are subject to the same disruption by pathogens.

Now, as the light warms and the winter mornings take on the color of spring, I have sorted my mail, washed my dishes, folded my laundry. There was a time in the winter when I was out sick at work with nobody to report it to, so ill were my immediate superiors; that seems like a long time ago now, and I do want to wish it away. But the chill of this winter seems to be lingering long after the frost, because I was once unaware of how close our civilization is to trembling and breaking under the weight of plague.