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The viral hour (and how to spend it)

Updated: May 5

Within an hour on Monday, I learned that the nation had surpassed 4,000 in its case count. That the stock market had both surged and plummeted. That at midnight, a dozen hours away, the city would shutter its shops and require citizens to shelter in place. Minutes earlier, the word critical seemed appropriate for the meeting I was about to have with my research advisors. Critical now was food and a safe place to stay.


By Tuesday, I’d stocked up and hunkered down. Young working professionals dispersed from the tech metropolis to their family homes, and the house I rent a room in was empty. I spent an hour watching the neighbor’s cat lick its paws through the window. I called my grandmother and told her about it. It was the most eventful hour of the day.


It’s hard not to read these paragraphs like post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s hard not to read everything like fiction in our post-truth world. And yet here we are in a surreal new reality. The year is 2020 and San Francisco is in quarantine, Wall Street is stalling by law, and the United States is incubating coronavirus outbreaks in thousands (millions?) of unwitting lungs.


The virus has fractured time. It’s widened the chasm between timescales in science – plodding methodically to establish treatments and test their safety, dosages, efficacy – and medicine – fast and nonetheless falling behind. When I entered the MD/PhD track, I looked forward to balancing the two as a way to seek out both long- and short-term impact. These days, with the future having run out yesterday, the pace of science is galling. Scientists seem to luxuriate in the same hours that vanish from hospitals.


And so I can’t help but feel guilty. The most productive use of my time at home is research – I may even get ahead with all this newfound time – and it feels like shooting skyward in wartime. My classmates who have graduated to residency are battling this head-on in the wards. They must do so with inadequate protective equipment, too few diagnostic tests, and no direct treatments proven to work. My mother, who trains nurses at a pediatric hospital, has continued going in every day. I can’t help but abandon productivity to think of them, which I acknowledge isn’t useful, but feels urgent.


How we spend our time in quarantine doesn’t say any more or less than how we spent it before, or how we’ll spend it after. But we have ample opportunity now to reflect on it. For me, it’s reinforced the relative importance of connecting with others. This time affords the chance to get back in touch with friends and family I hadn’t called in awhile. It’s also emphasized the importance of taking care of myself so that I’m able to be there for them. I'll have the time to run in the local wilderness, to get creative baking with nonperishables, and to post on this blog.


Helping the healthcare system is simpler now than ever – stay home so you can stay healthy. It will buy hospitals time to recruit staff and restock equipment. But remember that health isn’t just a matter of avoiding infection. It also depends on mental wellness and social supports (both shown to enhance the immune system). In seeking out how to navigate this over the past week, I’ve found direction in the resources below. Going forward, I’m planning to devote one of my extra hours each day to self-care, to social connection, to getting informed, or to volunteering. I’ll continue updating this list as the days wear on.



How to prevent infection:

  1. Wash your hands properly

  2. Handle food with sterile technique

  3. Practice social distancing


How to care for yourself:

  1. Manage your virus anxiety

  2. Run or hike a secluded trail

  3. Bake with nonperishables


How to connect with others:

  1. Join your neighbors on NextDoor

  2. Host a virtual happy hour on Zoom

  3. Reboot your AIM account


How to get informed:

  1. Learn the science of coronavirus

  2. Read a narrative account of infection

  3. Track global case counts


How to help:

  1. If healthy, give blood

  2. If employed, donate to charity

  3. If trained, analyze the data



© 2020 by Elizabeth H. Beam