“I feel like I’ve got a little fever, and my head hurts, and my throat is a little sore.”
Those were the last words my wife and I wanted to hear sitting at our breakfast table on a recent morning. We exchanged frightened looks, though our initial reaction was a strange kind of denial. These kinds of things don’t happen to us. Maybe someone we know, but not us. We convinced ourselves it must be something else. That was just over a week ago.
Until now, our kids have been fortunate. They don’t usually get the flu or colds. Except for sinus and allergy issues for William, who is 14, they have been remarkably healthy. But now William was exhibiting three of the main symptoms of the coronavirus pandemic that has been vigorously ravaging the world and imprisoning us, along with billions of others, in their own homes.
What had already been extensive reading about COVID-19 now turned into specific, urgent searches. How do you tell if it is COVID-19? Should I take him in for a test? How much would it cost? Did we need to worry about his brother and sister?
Where before I was skimming through the countless stories; now I was digging in.
I’m an American expat who’s lived in Bangkok nearly 20 years. I create virtual reality content for companies around the world, and usually travel extensively teaching and speaking about VR. Now my life and all chances of income, like so many others, had been dealt a blow by the last thing I was anxious about entering the New Year.
Last year, Google informed me with a cute graphic that I had circumnavigated the globe 2.1 times. Now, like most of you, I’m limited to a space measured in square meters for who knows how long – weeks, or months?
Raising children in Bangkok has been wonderful but also trying. Worrying about a sick child in a country that provides less than reliable information is something that any parent here can relate to. Especially at times like these, which call for decisive action but instead are met with delayed reaction, and then another change on top of that. Information for an expat is often true one day and false the next.
In that or any context, a child taking ill during a global pandemic is frightening. Having it happen during suddenly dire financial circumstances is a toxic combination.
For me, it started with Facebook canceling its F8 conference late last month. The next day, the Game Developers Conference, also in San Francisco, was canceled. Then the dominos fell, with seven major jobs postponed or canceled in one week. My year was suddenly in tatters, as was my livelihood.
I’m 63 and relatively healthy, but I’ve had respiratory issues dating back to childhood. I was rightfully concerned because the virus was hitting people my age hard – terminally hard.
We – Will, my wife Bee, and children Bank, 16, and Elizabeth, 15 – had a family discussion to bring everyone up to date on the dangers. But like the North Pole, it was a real place but far away. We were overly confident it would not make its way into our home.
But here it was with all of its terrible reality. Our youngest probably has it. Would Will need to be put in a hospital where true isolation would happen? If so, there would be no visiting hours, no soothing looks. The sheer terror of that was sinking in and we had no experience to draw from, no books or even YouTube how-to videos. I pushed those thoughts away as best as I could and tried to shake the hand that was gripping my heart and my gut. I could not give in to abstract thoughts. I had to concentrate on what the next step was. Step by step, that was the only way to move ahead.
My wife and I shared the overwhelming urge to run him to the hospital for testing. But since the general consensus was that unless the fever went over 38C, or his breathing became labored with a dry cough, we should not get him tested. Thus began our waiting game.
That first day after Will announced that he felt sick seemed to go on forever as I agonized through mountains of websites and contradictory information and we figured out how to isolated a sick child in a busy household.
The first step was to get him into his room, which he shares with his older brother, Bank. Next, the unenviable task of informing Bank he had to move out of his room and figuring out where he would go.
Then it was a question of imposing new bathroom habits on six people. The third floor of our place is the domain of our three kids and my wife’s aunt, who helps with the house and children. Its bathroom gets a steady buzz of activity. There is a bathroom on the ground floor, but Will using that would potentially spread infection from top to bottom. No, everyone else had to be evicted from what was now his bathroom. Next, sanitize and clean, clean, clean. Though we think of ourselves as reasonably clean, the level required just shot up by what seemed like a factor of 10. Purely by happenstance, we had recently bought a cleaner with bleach and used it to disinfect bathroom and door knobs, light switches, and anything else that we could think of.
Meanwhile it was anxious hours between reading Will’s fever, which would spike and then go down. The sore throat and headache went unabated most of the day.
Night finally came, and the hope of rest was replaced with the fear of him getting worse during the night. Liz and Bank carried on without any symptoms, so thank goodness for small blessings.
It was 2am, then 3am, then 4am, and I found myself almost perversely drawn to Facebook and more coronavirus news. Like an addict waiting for a good news fix, it never came. I finally got to sleep, but fitfully, praying that in the morning, I would wake to some different reality where all my family was healthy, and I had enough work to provide for them.
Day two dawned and I put on my mask and headed up to wake William and see how he was doing. He slowly got out of his bed and told me that his throat still hurt, and he still had a headache, but, thankfully, his fever was down.
And so, a new and strange, unnatural normal that no one could or should be comfortable with came into being. Every day, we don our ever-present masks, make food, dispense meds, monitor, scrub, and repeat in a seemingly unending cycle.
The stress is on all of us. William held up in his pseudo-containment cell. He communicated with his friends via the internet, an occurrence little different than before. But we all increasingly feel stir crazy, as cabin fever slowly sets in.
That day carried on, and Will’s fever still yo-yoed while the sore throat and mild headache persisted. Paracetamol was a constant ally every four hours.
Meanwhile my own anger flashed. I feel like a helpless witness to the utter stupidity of people who don’t want to accept that this thing is real, and it’s not just the flu. I see the images of people crowded together at beaches and parks. I want to reach out and shake them to their senses. At the same time, I see the panic buying, the supermarkets running out of toilet paper like it has become the new gold.
Day three seemed to be better as Will awoke physically looking better, maybe a little brighter. The fever stays steady at normal and doesn’t go up, but the headache and sore throat persist. The hot honey and lime water were finally starting to work their magic on his achy throat.
But still, that nagging little voice warned me not to be too confident as the endless stories of relapses were flooding the net.
We waited, we watched, and we waited some more. Like the Twilight Zone or Groundhog Day without the laughs, I bear down and wait for this nightmare to end while I watch the U.S. and the rest of the world deal with their own nightmares.
Will is now asymptomatic after all his symptoms finally subsided. But, being overly cautious, he spent the remaining days in pseudo captivity till we hit the seven-day mark.
As of this week, we have slowly reassembled our house and lives into what I guess is our newest normal. Bee and I head out to stock up on groceries since we had avoided going out ourselves. The trip to Lotus was filled with an almost giddy enthusiasm as we too had been held hostage by COVID-19. Will seemed to get used to his own little world, as he has been staying in his room more than before.
Bee and I make plans for moving forward in a world far less certain of anything. I wonder if I’m better off here in Bangkok than I would be in the United States. The experience has left me feeling two emotions strongly. One, greater confidence that we can handle whatever comes. Secondly, a greater fear of our vulnerability following our close encounter.
Al Caudullo is an independent virtual-reality and 360-video filmmaker in Bangkok. Find his work online.