We are now four months into our pandemic lives, counting from the time that California pretty much shut down in mid-March. It has “opened up” again, at least in some ways, and some people have gone back to life as close to usual as they can make it. Emma and I have continued to lay low in our apartment, as numbers of new infections and the percent of positive virus tests continue to climb in San Diego County. The virus is not letting up here, in California, in the USA, and much of the world. And the United States seems to have given up doing anything about it.
One of the things that Emma and I talk about frequently is how well we are suited for the quarantine life. We sometimes miss seeing other people, but we are both fine with staying at home for long periods of time. After the big push of moving out of our house, which mostly happened during the shutdown, we are quite happy to hunker down and wait for Mongolia’s borders to open. We are still hopeful that we may be able to travel to Mongolia in 2020, though now 2021 seems more likely. The one thing I really miss, and Emma does too, is travel. I wrote back in January of our plans to travel around the US before leaving to parts unknown. Our plan solidified abruptly in mid-March to return to Mongolia, just as the world was beginning to be rocked by the novel coronavirus. Since then, we have been waiting for an opportunity to do that.
Today will be our last day of visiting our house. We are going back one more time to get our bicycles out of the garage, and to get the last of the gardening equipment that I’m going to give to Emma’s school. There are a few potted succulents I want to pass along to a friend. But it’s really not our house anymore. It’s taken a little longer than I thought because the buyer is out of state, but on Friday I should no longer be a homeowner. I’m looking forward to that.
Homeownership is a goal for many middle-class Americans. When I sold my parents’ house after my mother died, it seemed logical for me to use that money to buy a house of my own. I started house hunting shortly after we closed on the sale, and what became our house was the first one I looked at. I mainly fell in love with the back yard. It’s still my favorite part of the house, and I miss it. But I don’t think I was ever really suited to owning a house. I had also looked at condos, but at the time they had seemed like very slight upgrades to the apartment Emma and I were living in, and they didn’t have yards. I grew up with a large yard in suburban New Jersey, bordering on a small forest, and it was the bedrock of my childhood. I wanted Emma to have a yard, and while there was no forest behind our house, there was a hillside on which she had many adventures (somehow miraculously without encountering rattlesnakes). For that, my nine years as a suburban homeowner were worth it. But I will be happy to be free again. I have lived in apartments most of my adult life, and it seems natural for me to do so again.
Moving to an apartment during this pandemic was a source of stress for me, though. I chose our apartment online and rented it without ever seeing it in person, though a property manager gave me a virtual tour in Zoom. It is on the ground floor, at the end of the last building in the complex, along the edge of a tree-lined park. When we step outside, once we get beyond the entryway that we share with one other apartment, we are on a sidewalk that runs around the end of the building. Turn left, and you go up a few steps to the cul-de-sac parking area. Turn right, and you can walk back along the edge of the property. There are trees all around, and it feels as secluded as you can get in a suburban apartment complex. It’s expensive, and part of what I’m paying for are “amenities” we can’t use because of the pandemic—swimming pools, a gym, a racquetball court, a business center. There’s even a dog park with an agility course. All locked up tight until this virus is under control or the management decides it is, at least.
The apartment itself is the same vintage as the graduate student apartment I lived in for five years at UCSD, so I have some flashbacks. But it’s a lot nicer. The rent is about three times what I paid back in 2005 (and it’s more than my house’s mortgage payment was, which I try not to think about). But the kitchen is fancy, and there is a small clothes washer and dryer in the bathroom that was the part I was really happy about. I can’t launder everything in it (our blankets and the dog beds won’t fit), but not having to go to a laundromat regularly during this pandemic is huge. There is only one bedroom, which we share, but we are getting along very well, so it works for us.
And we could be living here a lot longer than I’d hoped. I originally signed a three-month lease, thinking we could go to Mongolia at the end of the summer. But that’s looking less and less likely, though I still hear persistent rumors that the borders may open in August or September. The June election came and went, with the ruling party consolidating its power. There was a last-minute announcement that the ban on international travel would continue through July 31, and there is speculation that they will just continue it month by month at least through the end of the year. Then the influenza season will hit, which will provide another reason to keep the borders closed. It’s become a question of how long the economy can last if the borders stay shut. The Mongolian government doesn’t give the impression of planning ahead; they’ve been extending the border closure a month or two weeks at a time since January, with the announcements always coming out at the last minute.
There are still Mongolians trapped abroad, as well as expats who would like to return to their lives and work in Mongolia. Mongolians don’t really seem prone to protest, but I’ve heard there’s a little more unrest as people long to be reunited with their loved ones, and Mongolians overseas are facing increasing hardship. One story of a Mongolian student committing suicide in Poland was especially poignant and hints at the suffering that Mongolian citizens abroad are experiencing. Expats who were on vacation or overseas on business and got locked out of the country are suffering, too, as they go from one Airbnb to the next, paying for overseas accommodations as well as their rent in Mongolia. Some people have not seen their families since January, as repatriation flights organized by the Mongolian government are sparse and expensive, and limited to Mongolian citizens. The repatriation effort is prioritizing the elderly, children, and people with health conditions and disabilities, as the government tries to bring back over 10,000 people one plane load at a time. Five or six repatriation flights were scheduled for July. At that rate, everyone should be home by the end of November and maybe they will start letting foreigners back in. At least, that is the hope.
Our pandemic summer is about waiting, hoping that there will be an opportunity to go back to Mongolia before too much time passes. We both miss summer travel, but it doesn’t really feel safe enough to go anywhere. We briefly thought about trying to go to South Korea to wait for Mongolia to open up. Many of my MIU colleagues are there, including the president of the university who was in Russia when Mongolia closed its borders in January. But quarantining in Korea for two weeks seems complicated, because we don’t know if we could have our dogs with us, because we don’t know if we could have our dogs with us. Being separated from them for two weeks isn’t impossible; we didn’t take them with us the first time we went to Mongolia. But they usually have a known person looking after them. I’m not sure how they would do in a Korean animal quarantine facility. Plus, it just adds to the logistical complications of what we are trying to do. If it were just me and Emma, it would be easy enough to go there. But it isn’t.
So we stay in our apartment, except for walking the dogs, taking an evening walk around our neighborhood, and running the occasional errand. It’s good to slow down a bit and have some time to ourselves. Emma draws most of the time. When she’s not drawing, she’s reading or chatting with friends online. She’s also been studying Latin on her own, continuing in the textbook they were using at her school. I’ve been trying to get our apartment more organized. I’ve also been doing a lot of things that I didn’t manage to get done because of the move. I’m also starting to study Mongolian again, just to re-learn what I’ve forgotten. And I’ve been compulsively reading the news about the Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic.
I read with fascination and longing about countries that have managed to get the virus more or less under control, where people have returned to (or never left) work and kids have returned to school. I wish we could be one of those countries. But in the absence of federal leadership and a coherent public health response, we seem to have given up on trying to get the pandemic under control. In keeping with our neoliberal government strategy, the administration has thrown its hands up in the air and left it to state governors to handle the situation, who have in turn left it to individuals to decide for themselves how they want to do things. Things seemed almost hopeful back in April that public health officials and scientists would prevail, that we would heed their advice and welcome their research. But the American backlash against science hasn’t allowed that, and people lack the basic understanding necessary to know how a virus spreads among a population and what they can do about it. So many Americans have ignored or even fought against expert advice, instead listening to whatever influencers help them make up their minds.
Of course, COVID-19 is caused by a brand-new virus, and scientists themselves are baffled by it. But that is no excuse for what has happened here in the US because it’s true in every single country around the world. Instead, what we have ended up with is a combination of utterly incompetent federal leadership, partisan political interpretations of epidemiological facts, and a public being told that everything is great or we’re totally screwed, depending on who they listen to. Some states have managed to do OK, especially in the northeast. But it seems like your chances of surviving this aren’t determined just by your immune system or you access to quality health care, but by where you live, who you come in contact with, and how they happen to feel about taking precautions to keep members of their community healthy.
Responding to a pandemic of this magnitude shouldn’t be about individual decision-making, and yet we are constantly told that it is. It’s “up to us” to reduce the spread. We’ve apparently given up on “flattening the curve,” though that used to be what people talked about a scant month or two ago. Sure, there are guidelines, but we are also told that we can safely ignore them and it will be OK. Navigating the current terrain feels like a matter of individual choice shaped by political orientation, with one side lashing out angrily at the other for wearing or not wearing masks, staying close together or physically apart, going to bars and restaurants or staying home. Many people in our apartment complex are having parties, hanging out with friends on their tiny patios and balconies, going jogging together, and generally not physical distancing. It’s hard not to be frustrated with them, but it’s also hard to blame them, given the mixed signals we are receiving from mayor, governor, and president. Reducing the spread of the virus seems so straight forward (wash your hands, keep your distance, wear a mask), but it also goes against the grain in a place like California, where individualism and self-gratification are part of the cultural fabric.
So Emma and I will have a summer at home. We still have a reservation up at Lake Tahoe for a week in August, but I’m probably going to cancel it. It would be nice to get outside into the forest, to hike in the mountains, to swim in the lake. But I’ve heard Tahoe is crowded (it usually is in the summer), and crowds feel completely unsafe. COVID-19 cases are spiking up there because of the tourism. It feels irresponsible to travel now, too. If we become infected, we will spread the virus to others, and carrying it elsewhere or bringing it back with us seems unconscionable. One of the best pieces of advice I read is just to assume that you have the virus and act accordingly. That way, everyone is protected. If we don’t get sick, I don’t think I’ll look back on my decisions this summer with regret. If we do get sick, I’ll at least feel like I did my best to protect us and the people we are in contact with. For me, it just makes sense.