I I am a doctor. Scientist. Explorer. I understand the internal workings and rationale for clinical trials, research analysis, and the development of public health guidelines.
I’m also black, a man of the same sex, and a man living with HIV trying to cope during the Covid-19 era, just like everyone else. This pandemic has affected me far more than I would ever like to admit, which makes me human above all.
So while many have been celebrating the CDC’s latest guidelines on the fully vaccinated opportunity to go without masks as a short-term victory, my feelings are more mixed.
The beginning of the pandemic seemed unreal to me. My father has just started in New York. I had taken unpaid leave to work with my mother and help her manage my father̵
It was mid-January 2020, and the noise in the United States of a new fatal virus was low. They quickly became stronger. By March, hospitals began to overflow with patients with Covid-19. The medical staff burned down and the systems were overloaded.
Then came the suspension of public spaces and events. Mask mandates. Travel restrictions. Requirements for physical distancing that have become subtle experiments on people’s tolerance of social isolation.
It struck closer to home when friends who felt unwell or tested positive for coronavirus began calling me for medical advice. Some were hospitalized; others struggled with their symptoms at home. A friend died in an early spring day just months after celebrating his 40th birthday. Daily posts on social media by friends and colleagues describe in detail how relatives have succumbed to the disease.
It feels like a foggy, long-lasting nightmare that I sometimes thought I would never wake up from. For several days it was difficult for me to get out of bed and function.
Fortunately, we started getting good news. Vaccines were quickly developed, tested and distributed in record time. I received mine as soon as I learned that I would be returning to visit patients. Now, as rates of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths are declining, restrictions are being lifted.
CDC guidelines released this week inform me that as a person who is fully vaccinated, I can “resume activities I did before the pandemic.” This means that I can often go without masks. The doctor and scientist in me jumped for joy after hearing these evidence-based recommendations. However, the human in me is not so enthusiastic.
Nothing is “normal” for me anymore. Although I feel a little safer after the vaccination, I’m still worried knowing that the element of narcissistic American culture that hijacked the story of the pandemic over the past year is still there in crowds. Too many Americans don’t care about anyone’s health except their own, and that scares me. I find that I long for scientists to develop vaccinations to protect me from their particular brand of self-centered recklessness and stupidity that can hurt myself or someone I love.
I was in Savannah, Georgia, last weekend. As I passed an older man and woman to go down the stairs to the Riverwalk area, the man coughed. I almost lost it because we were all without masks. I was surprised at how fiercely I pulled away from him and how grateful I was that my head was turned in the opposite direction as I moved down the stairs, placing a distance between me and him.
Although I am a fully vaccinated doctor, researcher and scientist, I am a human being who is afraid of this virus.
During the pandemic, we all had to become increasingly comfortable with uncertainty, especially about the future. This is our proverbial first rodeo meeting.
Covid-19 and the subsequent public health measures used to combat it have affected the mental health of many people – depression, isolation, anxiety, insomnia and more. Much has even been said about this generation of young people and the negative emotional impact it has had on children at school.
Covid-19 presents us – both children and adults – with a particularly insidious form of trauma for more than a year. It’s like pieces of glass digging under the skin in a sick daily ritual that we can’t give up. A microscopic organism that few people have heard of before 2020 has forced us to rely on Zoom calls, FaceTime, elbow strikes and nodding, when really all we long for are face-to-face conversations, handshakes and long hugs.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a state of constant mental and emotional stress resulting from injury or severe psychological shock, usually involving sleep disturbance and constant recollection of the experience, with dull responses from others and the outside world.” . “
I’m sure that applies to me.
You can say whatever you want to do without masks and get back to “normal” this summer. Although I know what science says – and I trust – you may have to give me a little more time to catch up.
The Covid-19 pandemic has left a scar on me that will take some time to heal, and I don’t know if I’m fully prepared to give up the mask completely and trust a country that has yet to win it.
David Malebranche is an Atlanta-based internal medicine physician specializing in sexual health and the prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.