I was the first member of my community to test positive for COVID-19. Here's what happened next
It was brutal — and nobody got sick, writes Montrealer Kathryn Jezer-Morton
I live in the Montreal's Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood, but I might as well live anywhere. I belong to a big extended community of families, friends, colleagues and vague acquaintances that used to do all the usual fun things that humans do — picnics, birthdays, afternoons at the park, nights out hearing music, backyard hangouts that go on until after the kids should be in bed. We all miss the before times. We are all the same.
We've been cautious since March. I hardly saw anyone for months. But toward late September, during the lingering last hot breaths of summer 2020, as we looked ahead to a winter that confines us even at the best of times, we became too relaxed.
I know this because before the 28-day October lockdown began, I went inside my friends' houses, which I hadn't done in months. I saw their familiar coffee mugs all tucked up in their cupboards, and reached with my hand to open cutlery drawers (I remembered which drawers they were) for spoons to stir my coffee.
I also know this because in early October, I found out I had tested positive for COVID-19 — the first positive case in my extended group of friends. An immediate, absolute comeuppance for the fun we suspected all along we shouldn't be having.
The circumstances of my positive diagnosis were immediately scrutinized, and it was not a good look for me. A week prior, I had taken a test on a whim. My mother is unwell, and I worry about having to make an emergency trip to see her. One afternoon, around 3 o'clock, I began to worry, idly, about whether or not I had COVID. You know the feeling — we all do. But this time, instead of shaking it off, I decided to bike over to the nearest testing centre.
I had no symptoms, no known exposure — just the same hum of anxiety that lives inside all of us now, constantly. I waited in line for 15 minutes, got swabbed, biked home. I felt relieved at having done something rather than just stew in my free-floating grief. There was a vanishingly small chance that I would test positive, and so I went about my business.
What happens when crisis reverberates through your tightly-and-loosely affiliated group, emanating outward from your body?
This is the part of my story that did not fly with some members of my community. Many people felt strongly that I should have isolated until I had my test results. This is, after all, what we are all supposed to do. Why didn't I isolate? What kind of carelessness was this?
I had just come out of a two-week quarantine, after having visited my mother across the border. Did I really think that was necessary again, with no symptoms or known exposure? I allowed myself to believe a rumour that "no news is good news," that after 48 hours of no results, I could assume I was negative.
So as the days passed and I didn't get the results back, I made 145 litres of tomato sauce in my friend's backyard, blasting opera on the speakers while drinking wine and having the most fun I'd had in six months. I fixed another friend a sandwich in my kitchen one sunny afternoon, when he stopped by on his way to his sons' baseball game. I invited a third to babysit my kids one evening while my husband and I went to eat dinner on a restaurant terrace, along with two other friends. Turns out, I did all of this while COVID+.
A full week after my test, I got a phone call from an unknown local number: Positive. The world stopped; I disassociated momentarily.
What happens when crisis reverberates through your tightly-and-loosely affiliated group, emanating outward from your body? In my case, I never got sick, and neither did any of my friends, but after a couple of days that almost seemed like an afterthought. I couldn't believe that people get sick in addition to enduring contact tracing. Contact tracing itself is terrifying. I truly cannot imagine what it would have felt like to drop the bomb of a positive COVID test while also experiencing symptoms.
This is a deadly virus, an unpredictable, mysterious thing that defies all of our hard-headed pattern-oriented logics. We all fear for our elderly loved ones, and we all remind each other that "we're all doing our best" even while judging people whose best is clearly not very good. But all of this is an abstraction, a lukewarm conversation at the tail end of a Zoom happy hour, until someone draws the short straw and comes up positive.
Here's what happens when you start making the calls to everyone you've seen in the last two weeks. Some people show compassion, even an ability to read minds: "I know you think I'm angry at you, but I need you to know that I'm not, and I need you to believe me." You tear up with relief when someone says this to you, moving your phone away from your face so you don't wet the screen.
These will be conversations that you will never forget, because these people are choosing to be kind to you even though you have put them in danger. They are taking responsibility for their actions while forgiving you for yours. These moments of grace are the only true currency in this COVID-bankrupted world.
Other friends will offer to do your shopping and actually do it — they will take careful notes over the phone of what cheese your kids like. They will go to a second store because the first store didn't have what you asked for.
Other people you will call experience a fear of being scapegoated by association with you, and they will immediately go into hiding. They wish you had never told them your news. It could cost them, with their own friends and families. They wish you had never opened the box to begin with. It's too late now, anyway.
That fear becomes more understandable after the scapegoating starts for you.
Scapegoating is a fact of life during a crisis. It feels better when there's someone to blame for a situation that is out of control. When one person can be blamed for the risk that we all collectively took and now desperately regret, conversations are more satisfying. There is nothing more delicious among a stressed group of friends than a common enemy. Blaming one person absolves everyone else.
I could feel it the way you can feel someone standing right behind you — everyone was talking about me. Friends, acquaintances, the whole hodgepodge social galaxy through which I move was parsing my choices, tracking my movements, and comparing notes. This makes sense — it's essential to assess your own risk. I began to feel paranoid.
I began to receive tense messages from acquaintances, asking for details. Did my story match the other stories circulating? Why the discrepancies? Could I account for them? At this point, three days after my positive diagnosis, I was glued to my phone. I was trying to keep my sons happy in isolation, recording slow-motion videos of them crashing their Lego trucks together, while simultaneously composing frantic replies via Instagram DMs to people I barely knew. I was called names over the phone, accused of being selfish and stupid.
Looking back, I feel that we all got incredibly lucky. None of my contacts tested positive, or developed symptoms. In the end, maybe it was a bit of a test run. Even, at the risk of sounding callow, a social experiment. I would venture to say that as experiments go, the results were mixed.
On one hand, I will never forget the kindness that a few people were able to show me. I believe that communities can tend to each other during crises — we have no choice, if we want to get through this intact. These friends have shown me by example how I want to behave the next time someone I know tests positive.
On the other hand, I was made a scapegoat by people whose children have played with my children, whose neighbourliness I had taken for granted at one time. It was much more painful than I would have expected. I felt that the quality of my character was up for public debate — because it was. People assumed the worst from me. It caused me pain, and maybe I deserve it. But scapegoating serves no utility in a society that believes in science, even if it is deserved, because it doesn't solve any problems.
A few weeks later, suspicious that I might have had a false positive, I took a COVID antibodies test. It came back negative — meaning it's quite possible I never had COVID-19. I am wary of spreading distrust in test results. I think results must be assumed to be accurate if we are to keep each other safe. I will never know for sure if I had COVID. But I did find out my community's response. When this pandemic is over, we will have learned a lot about each other.
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