My Friend Died From This. How Can You Take This So Lightly?

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Illustration for article titled My Friend Died From This. How Can You Take This So Lightly?

Illustration: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo

Sick DaysSick DaysWelcome to Sick Days, a collection of stories from readers on how the current covid-19 health crisis is changing the way they work and the futures they can expect in these uncertain times.

Are you a frontline worker dealing with new stresses or irresponsible management? Is working (or not working) from home starting to take a psychological toll? How are you coping with reopening? Submit a story using this Google form or send me an email with the subject line “My Covid Story” and provide as much detail as you’re comfortable with.

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Authors’ identities have been verified, and submissions have been edited for length, grammar, and clarity.


Brian, field repair technician, Missouri

My wife lost her job not long before this all hit. The science lab she worked at a local university lost their grant, so her job ended when the money ran out. I’ve been with the company I’m with for 20 years now. It’s a Japanese copier company that is doing everything they can not to have to fire people, even though the calls per day have fallen through the floor.

At first it didn’t seem too bad, two weeks unpaid furlough. We had enough savings, and the house is paid off. After I got back from the second week off, I was informed that it is now eight weeks unpaid. Again, we’re doing better than most, and I try to donate what I can, but it’s getting rough.

My wife’s job search is dead in the water. All the universities are shut down. Our preschooler doesn’t understand why she can’t go see her friends. She overheard us talking about the virus and misheard us saying there’s pirates, so we got a chuckle out of that.

Emotionally I’m hanging in there, barely, but my in-laws are in their 80s, and my dad in Florida is in his 70s. Either one gets it—that’s it.

The last week before this furlough week, I was in eight different hospitals, two nursing homes, three jails and a state prison, many with active covid cases. There I was fixing machines in the nurses stations, emergency rooms, and twice in the covid ward. Then the few calls that weren’t hospitals we did get just made me angry.

I understand especially nowadays where so much stuff is scanned and e mailed, that the mfp [ed note: multi-function printer] needs to be up and running. I’ve no problem with that. I take precautions, and coat everything down with alcohol as well as using gloves and masks. But when some German luxury car dealer gets upset because they can’t print their brochures in the perfect shade of blue… I just wanna punch people. That’s not a priority right now, people.

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Alex, health unit coordinator, Pennsylvania

This pandemic has been really hard on me. When things started to kick off in March, I was told by my Charge Nurse that I needed to pack an overnight bag and be prepared to have our unit turn into a pseudo-ER for transplant patients if things got “out of hand.” I cried the night I put together a bag of clothing and toiletries, overwhelmed by the idea that I was going to have to be a frontline worker during a pandemic.

I never expected that when I took the job. I wanted to be useful, and it was a comfortable job to have after working in retail. Suddenly though, I was only working two days out of the week, two weeks in a row, as we tried to keep contact to a minimum in March. I was terrified I was going to run out of PTO and end up with no pay at all.

I am basically a secretary, taking care of paperwork, appointments, and coordinating other minor every day things. Suddenly though, I was listening to patients get more and more nervous as time went on. Transplant patients are all immunocompromised. How could we ask them to travel to us for treatment when we knew it was a risk? What would happen to those who couldn’t travel? How do you comfort these people? How can you promise everything will be okay when you’re scrubbing your hands raw and are almost too afraid to leave your apartment? The stress was ridiculous every day as I walked in, got my temperature checked, and put on a mask for the day.

Only a couple of weeks ago did things start going back to normal for us at work which was a small miracle after three months of our unit and the hospital at large being a ghost town. I should be thankful that Western PA had so few cases and thus kept me safe, but every time we have a covid-19 scare in my unit I’m terrified of what will happen to me and my coworkers. If one of us gets sick, the rest of us will too. How do we live with that?

All of March and April were a lesson in managing my misery and stress. Trying to keep in contact with my friends who were spread across the nation was hard, but manageable. We video chatted and played video games on mic and tried to pretend nothing was that different. But that changed when one of them ended up getting sick. Back in my hometown one of my closest friends worked two weeks straight in a retail setting and caught covid-19 while doing so. He was in the ICU a week later.

The beginning of May was the end of his life. He died after a trend of good news for a week. I fell apart. The news came to me right after I had clocked in at work at 8am and I just sobbed in the corner of an education room for 15 minutes before I could even get the words out to ask to go home at lunch time. My whole world has shifted. We’re both so young and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him yet. Or ever, really. Consequently, the last month and a half have been full of harrowing emotional highs and lows. Every moment of laughter is matched by a swift bout of sadness. Trying to speak about it to even my parents or my partner is hard and exhausting.

Most of my friends are similarly struggling with the sudden reminder of our mortality, and the things that once brought us relief (video game nights, music) are just terrible reminders of how he is gone now. How do you realign your whole life during such terrible grief and world wide panic?

I struggle with depression on a good day, and I have not had many good days for the last few months. Thankfully I’ve managed to keep pulling myself out of bed every day to go to work and get paid. I have a cat I need to feed, and bills I have to pay. Thankfully my partner’s work has been able to continue to pay them as they work from home so we haven’t had any income loss.

The fact that we couldn’t go to the movies or buy comics actually meant that our bank accounts looked a little fatter than usual, which is a blessing. We’ve been able to donate to various bail fund because of it, and have been able to pay off a few small debts thanks to the small bump of relief the stimulus check got us.

Right now, as so many states move to being open, I’m just struggling with the fear of going out in public and not seeing people wear masks or stay apart. It’s infuriating and depressing. My friend died from this, how can you take this so lightly? I don’t want others to have to experience the grief I am in order to understand how serious this is. But every day I worry they will and I wouldn’t wish this pain on my worst enemy.

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Anonymous, pharmacy technician, Georgia

I’ve been following the outbreak since early to mid January. I’d been trading tech stock on Robinhood with whatever spare cash I had from working at a retail pharmacy and figured covid would impact Asia at least as bad as SARS had. I didn’t really expect it to make it over to the US as quickly or as virulently as it did.

The masks were among the first things to go. By the end of January, we’d sold out twice, with a load of masks coming in after the first rush. All the buyers were East Asian expats, mostly looking to ship them back home for their families. By the time the first cases occurred in my fairly isolated city, it was late February.

We did our best to sanitize the counters and anything customers would touch regularly as best as we could, but we simply lack the manpower to keep everything clean and respond to increasingly frustrated and short-tempered customers, so sacrifices have to be made. For most of March and all of April, hours were changed to open later and close earlier, with a two hour period at the beginning of the day where no customers would be allowed, giving us time to deep clean, but this only lasted as long as the Georgia lockdown did, and we’re long past a shortsighted reopening. Since the beginning of June, cases have exploded locally.

Customer response varies wildly from wholehearted support and encouragement to scornful looks and outright hostility, trying to enforce any distancing is a gamble, and the number of people who cough openly or cluster together, especially on days where we receive shipments, is mind boggling.

I feel exhausted, I was planning to return to college in the fall to pick up my studies where I’d dropped them as a result of a struggle with depression, but this outbreak has made me want to cling to a job while I have one, in spite of the risks and poor compensation. It hurts seeing those affect by all this, the loss of jobs, the loss of family members, the anxiety, fear, and frustration all boiling over. I didn’t sign up for any of it, but the least I can do is to keep smiling and try and make the experience in my store as good as possible. I just hope America learns from this and that we never have to see this sort of disaster unfold ever again.

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Evan, restaurant server, Texas

I had a lot of feelings when we decided to open up. For one thing, my company couldn’t decide whether to open all their stores at once or do a rolling schedule of store openings. I work in Austin, at a beloved breakfast place. It started in a house and has expanded to eight stores. There was one across from my preschool and I ate there often with my mom when I was little. They announced Tuesday night that they would open some stores, but not the one I worked at, the original little house location. We would stay open for to-go business only through the weekend. I got the text from my manager and breathed a sigh of relief that I had gotten one more week of reprieve.

I have put more than 18 years into the restaurant industry. I went to college at [University of Texas] and had tons of scholarships and potential. My time there was a struggle, and due to health issues both physical and mental I left in my senior year. I’d been waiting tables starting the summer after high school and enjoyed it. I liked the pace, the action, the physicality of it. I loved working with a group of people who were also a bit lost, a bit off, a bit disappointed. I’d found my tribe.

On Wednesday I went in for my to-go shift. The company had gotten a [Paycheck Protection Program] loan and had brought back me and one other server. The Texas Workforce Commission had given me such a runaround on unemployment benefits that I’d decided I’d rather work if I could go back. And besides, I hated taking money and doing nothing. I was driving my girlfriend crazy, so when they told me they might reopen and they thought they had a place for me I jumped at it. I wore a mask all shift and kept my hands constantly gloved.

When restaurants in Texas first started re-opening, people tipped generously and seemed genuinely happy to not have to cook breakfast for their kids for a 50th day. I enjoyed giving them breakfast and worked hard to make sure it was fast, accurate, and served with a big, eye crinkled, face-masked smile.

That Wednesday after I’d felt relieved that we wouldn’t open for another week ownership changed their minds. We would open Friday. The management of my tiny restaurant would have to rehire their whole team, train them to work during a pandemic, and open for dine-in in less that 48 hours. I was furious; I didn’t see how safety and caution had been totally ignored. Sure the other stores were busy, but that was also my biggest worry. They tried to assuage my concerns: we would only be at 50% capacity; no parties larger than 6; people would have to wait in their cars; to-go would remain curbside only. I was still mad, but also one of the best waiters and they asked me to be the opener and help anchor the team.

That Friday was fine, not too crazy. People tipped huge, thanked us genuinely, and it felt like it might be okay. But then the weekend came. Pardon me if there’s a bit of “old man yells at cloud” in here, but the kids will be the death of us all. Teenagers in groups of 8 and 10 were all waiting for the one 6 top table. The young managers that we employed did not have the strength to tell them no. We had put out big signs that said we didn’t accept cash. My first several tables were angry that we weren’t accepting cash. These people didn’t wear masks, sanitize their hands or care. The pandemic was over for them it seemed.

After the weekend I again brought up my concerns and managers said they would do better. No more big groups, people would be given more specific instruction, etc. They would give every party a rundown of the new rules when they came in. I tried. The weekdays were fine. People tipped pretty well and were nice. It was manageable, even if the cramped little house was beginning to feel like a coffin. I’d been uncomfortable in crowds since childhood, but now I had to retreat to the walk-in to feel like I was breathing clean air.

One of my first tables that Sunday was four 21-year-olds. They told me I was lying when I told them state law wouldn’t let me give them a whole carafe of mimosas each. They were so hungover they didn’t finish the one I brought them to share. They talked shit, intentionally took their credit card slips, and generally acted like the most intensely selfish humans I’d ever met. The other servers all had similar experiences. I began to realize that the only people willing to wait for a table in a tiny restaurant were quickly becoming some of the worst kinds of people. They didn’t believe in the pandemic, they only saw it as an inconvenience to their privileged lives. I heard conversations about the protests beginning to emerge, the disgust that anyone would stand up for their lives. These people could not even begin to imagine the life of another.

I still love the restaurant business. I’ve made great friends and created dishes I’m immensely proud of. But it’s not worth it to bring mimosas to these people. I left my chef job to wait tables in January while I went to school for software engineering. I will miss my friends, I’ll miss inappropriate wait station conversations, I’ll miss food and free coffee and people who are damaged in different but similar ways. But I won’t miss serving people. I won’t miss people looking down on me. I won’t miss 60-hour weeks and 18-hour Christmas days, and now I won’t miss making a small risk to my life to make sure that someone else can bring you pancakes. I’m not giving up my passion, it’s been mostly smashed out of me over the last several years. The industry asks you to give all you have, no matter your reasons for being there. I won’t miss feeling like I should be doing something else, and then having the industry agree every day.

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If you would like to be included in a future edition of Sick Days, please use this Google form or send me an email with the subject line “My Covid Story.” Stay healthy and safe.

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