By Molly Meisels
On Wednesday, March 4, as I was writing about the Wilf Campus COVID-19 closures for the YU Observer, I felt ill. I ignored the feverish chills and the chest pains forcing me to take some deep breaths. I’m fine, I repeated to myself, as I tried to avoid the anxious spaces of my mind.
I chatted with a YU administrator that same day to gather quotes for my article. At the end of the call, she asked how I was feeling. When I told her nonchalantly about my symptoms I heard a long pause on the other end of the line. She connected me with a NYC Department of Health official. Upon hearing my symptoms, he told me to self-quarantine in my bedroom and wait until I could be tested the following day, March 5. It happened so quickly. Within seconds, life was not the same. I followed procedure – I entered my cave-like bedroom, left only to use the restroom, wiped down all surfaces, and waited.
Once procedure had passed and all I had left to do was contemplate, I felt the crushing weight of my imminent isolation. My room, six feet by eight feet, lit only by synthetic light and otherwise doused in darkness, seemed more claustrophobic than usual. With my history of anxiety and depression, I was no stranger to the heaviness of confined spaces and darkness. But that had always been internal. Now, for the first time, my secluded surroundings matched my mental state. I could not leave this room. My mind, like my body, was trapped here for an indefinite period. I felt completely alone. Every chill, heavy breath, and cough was COVID-19. Then I’d deny that possibility of infection to myself. I’d laugh. You cannot have this virus.
I spent the next 24 hours bathing in recycled oxygen, solitude, greasy take-out food, and the unnerving Netflix show The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. My only reprieve was the kindness of friends and YU employees. I was reminded that I was not completely isolated through personalized playlists my friends curated for me, YU Housing bringing me dinner, and FaceTime chats with loved ones attempting to distract me.
The day after my quarantine began, I was taken to a testing facility in a van, with a mask separating me — a possible public health risk– from the world around me. The severity of our historical moment washed over me. I knew as I was sitting in the back of the white YU security van, breathing shallow breaths, that this was the beginning of an American public health crisis. I felt like a bubble of dystopian energy was consuming me.
Thankfully, my negative results came back 24 hours later. When I stepped outside of my apartment building, feeling the cold air in my lungs and the rush of springtime rain on my skin for the first time in days, I was free. But I acknowledged that my freedom was transient. I took as many breaths as I could muster, knowing the crisis would worsen.
COVID-19 escalated as a translucent, claustrophobic film settled more deeply over our lives, painting Purim with an uneasy spirit. Italy and Israel under lock-down. The NBA and NHL cutting their seasons short. The WHO declaring a pandemic. Classes online for over a month. Friends begin flying off. Fear is palpable. Masks on one person, then another, then another. Uneasiness with every cough or chill or interaction. Shuls shutting their doors.
On March 14 I was put back in quarantine due to my escalating illness. When I tested negative the first time, I thought I was unshackled. I thought I would not get infected. Not now. Not yet. Over Purim, I had interacted with those in my community and so the thoughts returned — Did I infect the woman at the drug store who gave me the hand sanitizer? Did I infect my guests at my Purim party? Did I infect the poor delivery people who gave me food during my isolation? Did I infect the people on the subway platform even though I was wearing a mask? As I held my grandmother’s hand, rejoicing with her on Purim (possibly her last), reminding her that she is loved, did I seal her fate? The woman who helped raise me. Will she die if I test positive for the virus?
There are only so many words that can portray our individual fears at this moment. The above are some of mine. We understand the severity of what we are living through. This event will shape our lives. In the future, we will all recall the time the world went still and disease consumed the vulnerable. We also understand that we need to fight this collectively. We know that our next moves – collective compassion or individual selfishness — will lead to life or death.
We are a community that is often and easily divided — arguing over LGBTQ+ rights, lack of transparency, elevator malfunctions, beit medrash access, and political polarization — but this fear has brought the YU community together. Those tending to be on opposite ends of issues now communicate with one another virtually, offering means of support during this unprecedented emergency. For the first time as a student at YU it does not matter if one is gay or straight, religious or secular, Republican or Democrat. For the first time, people are huddling as a team. At this moment I am proud to call myself a Yeshiva University student. This crisis will eventually end. My hope is that the results will not. My hope is that we can emerge from this with a newfound appreciation of each other — a recognition of our equal humanities.