This painting gave me COVID. Or, at least, I thought it did.

To be clear, of course, I know that you can’t contract a virus from gouache – even if you accidentally drink it out of the cup of water that you used to wash your brushes between colors. What actually happened was much less exciting. I’m the kind of person who does things all at once or not at all, so after a night of fervent painting that ended at 5 am, I woke up with a sore throat, a whopping headache, and immeasurable regret. What frustrated me only slightly less than my penchant for unhealthy sleep habits was the fact that I had contracted the virus (as I immediately assumed it was the virus) despite being extremely vigilant with precautions – excessively so, according to many. 

Waking up with a sore throat after spending weeks interacting with no one in person, diligently and frequently washing my hands and my phone, deliberately putting more than six feet of distance between myself and passerby, and wiping down anything I brought into my home with disinfectant wipes or throwing out the packaging altogether, I was reminded that avoiding the virus is often less about what you do and more about what those around you do.

I wear a mask everywhere I go, even in the halls of my residence. But my neighbors do not. Even with a mask on, I am still vulnerable to the virus that their uncovered mouths may have left hanging in stagnant air. Even if I don’t visit my friends, my neighbors are still making in-person dates with strangers from the internet, inviting their breath into our apartment building, spreading the virus that they could have contracted from them in the still air of the dining hall that everyone left on campus shares. I would never say that it doesn’t matter what I do. But it is the unfortunate truth that protecting the most vulnerable of our country, such as the elderly, people with comorbidities (many of whom are BIPOC), and the immunosuppressed (among which my roommate is included), is a task that we must take on as a community.

When I had initially conceived of this painting, I had wanted to portray a positive outlook on the community, inspired by the “We’re all in this together” rhetoric that I saw on Instagram posts and lawn signs around my neighborhood. It was clear, from the beginning, that we all needed to commit to a certain way of life in order for anyone’s precautions to actually work. As someone who has the privilege to socially distance in a private residence and regularly sanitize my person and belongings, I understood that it was my moral duty to commit to the regulations that would end the pandemic as quickly as possible. I believed that most people who had the same privilege, equal access to news, and equivalent level of education would also see the devastating death tolls and the damage to our economy and take the virus seriously, too. I created a painting that told a story about people coming together to succeed, to grant each other passage into a better world, to make the active choice to rise from adversity. Life, fertility, and wealth burst abundantly forth from that focused, collective power.

Clearly, when I started this painting, I had a more idyllic outlook on human beings. I ended up going to get tested for the virus in a parking lot filled with white tents, my bicycle standing out in a line of cars. In the drive-thru testing center’s app, I had signed in with “step-through” as my car’s model. While I awaited the verdict, I nursed my symptoms with orange juice and the Vicks Vapor Rub my mom sent me and thought about how dramatically the era of the virus had impacted the way I view human beings.

The people around me, who I must point out are students at one of the most celebrated and selective institutions in the world and who have more than a few chances to be the leaders of tomorrow, care much more about pursuing physical pleasures and minimizing personal time commitment than preventing innocent people from dying. When their friends left campus while they had the coveted privilege of staying instead of being unhoused or moving home, they decided to get more active on Tinder. Theirs is not an ignorant but a willful lack of care.

In the end, I tested negative for the virus. In a few weeks, I recovered from what turned out to be a severe bout of stomach flu, but as I finally put the finishing touches on my painting, my optimism had not recovered from the impact of facing the reality of the pandemic. Today, my painting to me looks less like a celebration of an achievable happy ending and more like an illustration in a book of fairy tales. Too many people, even with all the privilege in the world, are at their core too self-centered to make even the smallest effort towards the good of others. And because, in our inherently social and community-based world, we needed their allegiance to survive, they bring all of us down with them. I acknowledge my luck in not contracting the virus and the privileges in my life that have made it less likely that I contract it or suffer from its more extreme symptoms. I mourn the loss of those without those privileges, forced to live among those who make the choice not to care about whether they live or die.

Life in Quarantine: Witnessing Global Pandemic is an initiative sponsored by the Poetic Media Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford University.

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