Fuller: The Personal Toll of a Global Pandemic

The apocalypse is happening now, and it always has been.

by Nicholas Fuller | 7/24/20 2:25am

Given the current state of the world — an unprecedented global pandemic, the ongoing ecological disaster of climate change and the social justice crisis of systemic racism — it is not surprising that the more religiously inclined among us have sounded warning bells that the Apocalypse is near. A New York Times article from April provided a concise snapshot of how widespread this sentiment is today, as well as how historically rooted the notion of the “end times” is in many religious traditions. Culturally, many of us in the United States are captivated by this idea of an Apocalyptic event and its fiery aftermath. Movies famously depict such events: from the nightmarish depictions in “The Road” to the more light-hearted and hopeful scenes in “WALL-E” to the all-too familiar totalitarian state in “V for Vendetta.” Despite some thematic differences, all of these portrayals of the Apocalypse conceive of it as a singular future event which is shared by an entire community or even an entire planet. However, this focus on large scale societal calamities distracts from the reality of what an apocalypse actually is: a personal reckoning with the tragedies of life. Perhaps, if this were better understood, we as a society would be less willing to sacrifice the lives of those around us merely to maintain some semblance of normalcy. 

There is not one great (uppercase) Apocalypse, but rather there always have been and will be many more (lowercase) apocalypses throughout the individual histories of human experience. For as much as we like to discuss our collective cultural consciousness, there really is no such thing. I experience the world through my own unique and isolated subjectivity, and while I certainly contribute to and am affected by the larger systemic structures in which I find myself, I do not have the benefit of seeing through anyone’s eyes but my own. The end of the world, therefore, is necessarily and fundamentally the end of a particular person’s experience of the world.

Human beings have, for as long as we have existed, confronted the ends of our worlds. During my time working in the Intensive Care Unit of a Pittsburgh hospital, I witnessed the end of countless worlds. Yes, I am referring to the patients I watched turn pale and stiff, whose subjective experiences were truncated by disease. Their worlds literally ceased to exist. But there were also those who witnessed the aftermath of these apocalypses, the survivors of their loved ones. Therefore, when I talk of the apocalypses I have seen, I refer also to the family members who would drift slowly from the patient’s room out into the hallway, only beginning to wrestle with the unimaginable weight of grief bearing down upon them. In those moments it was clear: Their world had ended. Nothing would be the same without their mother, their sister, their brother, their son. 

When my own father passed away suddenly, my world ended. The sixteen years of childhood prior had been shattered; the pieces were strewn upon the ground. At that time, I remember literally imagining my future as a desert, a wasteland filled with deteriorating infrastructure and abandoned homes. This was my apocalypse, and years later, I am still struggling with the post-apocalyptic world in which I find myself. Surviving has been costly. I, more than once, put myself in dangerous situations out of depression and apathy. I distanced myself from many friends and much of my family. Only after a great deal of time, effort and a certain amount of luck, have I managed to pick up the pieces of my life and glue them back together in a meaningful and functional way.

This is the personal reality of an apocalypse that is so often neglected when it isn’t happening to you. It can be easy to forget that behind the numbers, even behind the names, there are infinitely unique human lives that are being lost, and many more indelibly ruptured. When we talk about the pandemic that has killed over 140,000 people in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Case Tracker, what we are really talking about are hundreds of thousands of apocalypses. What we are really talking about are worlds crashing down, families being broken through grief, lifetimes spent in and out of crushing depressions and endless addictive cycles of recovery and relapse. The apocalypse is happening now, and it always has been, you just have to ask the right people.

Therefore, we must act with urgency. Understanding the gravity of the situation should be incentive enough to mobilize. It is not enough to sit at home and donate $20 to charity every so often, nor attend one protest and decide that that is sufficient. These actions are helpful, but they are only stepping stones to larger change that is so desperately needed. Donating cloth masks to a local hospital is great, but what is really needed is to alter the system that makes hospitals unable to provide basic PPE to keep providers safe so that they can save the lives of their patients. 

When we conceive of an apocalypse as some future event which has yet to happen, it is easy to imagine that there is still time to reverse the damage being done. Such a view, however, misses the reality that for many, their lives have already been irrevocably damaged or lost entirely. We must make choices with the understanding that the apocalypse is here, right now. It is in the homes of our neighbors, in the cars that we drive past on the highway and in the grocery stores where we do our weekly shopping. We must support policies which align with public health, provide resources for mental health treatment and amplify marginalized voices. Any further resistance to resolving the current pandemic, systemic racism or any other issue needlessly foreclosing the lives of people must end if we are to prevent more suffering. 

Nicholas Fuller is a medical student at the Geisel School of Medicine. 

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