Two weeks before his daughter’s eighth birthday, Zhang Lijian was lying in an ICU bed, trying to send his wife a WeChat message.
Due to Zhang Lijian’s high-status job as a professor at a prestigious university, he’d been assigned a bed. Many of the patients at the local hospital in Wuhu, China were only given floor space to lay down due to the ICU’s overcapacity.
Lijian’s wife asked whether they should get chocolate or red velvet cake for the surprise party they were throwing their daughter, Zhang Zijie. “They’re the same thing. One is just red,” Lijian texted back with a laughing gif. When his wife expressed concern that he wouldn’t be healthy in time for his daughter’s birthday, Lijian messaged her: “Don’t worry. I feel better already.”
Eighteen hours later, Lijian’s wife got a call while sleeping. After experiencing breathing issues, her husband had been put on a ventilator before going into critical condition. He had died an hour before the phone call, and his body had already been sent to a crematorium to avoid the risk of continued infection. She never said goodbye.
Three days after being suddenly released from school due to coronavirus concerns, my parents told me about Zhang Lijian, who was a friend of theirs from graduate school. At the time, I was already grappling with the current coronavirus situation in Nebraska. School had been canceled until the foreseeable future, and there were rumors of the rest of the year being entirely virtual. As I received more updates about COVID-19, I felt increasingly defeated and created a mental list of all my losses.
Big things: Dancing at my senior prom. Competing at the state speech tournament for the last time. Walking across the stage at graduation to receive the diploma I’ve spent 17 years working toward. But there were little things I felt I had lost as well: Driving downtown and getting late-night Ted & Wally’s. Planning a pre-college summer trip with my friends as a final goodbye. Experiencing the freedom of no responsibilities and full expectations for my future. Those had all been taken too.
My frustrations over my list spawned a strong urge to say ‘Screw it!’, ignore my parents and quarantine regulations, and enjoy what initially seemed to be an extended break.
Then, Zhang Zijie’s birthday rolled around. My parents woke me up early to video chat her mother so we could all sing “Happy Birthday”. Zijie’s mother stood on her left, clapping along as Zijie blew out the flame on the 8-shaped candle. The empty spot on Zijie’s right side, where her father should’ve stood, made me feel hollow.
While scrolling through Instagram the next morning, a post by one of my peers caught my eye. She and her friend held up a goldfish in a bag outside of PetSmart. In contrast with the sad look I’d seen on Zijie’s face, the ecstatic expression of the two girls as they blatantly disregarded quarantine regulations made me angry. Despite experiencing the same desire to drive out of my house and see my friends only days prior, I couldn’t understand their actions.
My two peers aren’t the only ones guilty of ignoring quarantine. Across the U.S., there has been a pattern of young individuals claiming that their age excludes them from the pandemic.
Admittedly, middle-aged and older individuals are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus and dying from it. Still, this mirage of ‘invincibility’ that many young people, myself included, have is misguided at best.
According to a Washington Post analysis of state data, as of April 8, nearly 800 Americans under the age of 50 have died from COVID-19, including nine teenagers. Just recently, more than 40 students from institutions including the University of Texas and Vanderbilt University tested positive for COVID-19 after ignoring regulations from local health officials to party on Florida beaches during spring break.
But beyond the numbers lies a more complicated issue that took weeks for me to understand. Despite warnings from the Center for Disease Control about how young individuals can be asymptomatic carriers, it wasn’t until I watched Zhang Zijie celebrate her eighth birthday without her father that I fully grasped the repercussions.
Our frustrations and the actions we take to defy an “unnecessary quarantine” have the potential to harm our more vulnerable family members. Although I may not be at risk of dying from COVID-19, the decisions I make will ultimately impact me by hurting my older loved ones. I didn’t get to choose what was taken from me before, but I do have a choice in impacting what—and who—I could lose in the future.
To seniors: It’s okay to feel cheated. Our losses are valid. But we have to make the best of what we’ve been given and understand that we play a pivotal role in a historic period. We can’t replace what was taken, but we can do our part in preventing others from experiencing a worse loss.
So when I hear my peers say: “I’m 17. I’ll be fine.”, or when I feel that familiar flood of frustration, I think about the 126,000 parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends who have died from COVID-19. I think about Zhang Zijie trying to understand why her father will never come home. I watch endless (and maybe pointless) “College Dorm Essentials!” videos on YouTube and plan for the future. I remind myself that there will be a future without the pandemic. Until then, I’ll play card games with my parents, Zoom call my best friends, and feel lucky to have these things that weren’t taken. I’ll appreciate right now.