Illustration by Angelika Manhart
Corona Chronicles

2020: When We All Saw The Iceberg

By Zarina Akbary

In 2020, I no longer wondered how the crew of the Titanic ignored several warnings about the iceberg. Because they didn’t ignore it. Sometimes the human mind is incapable of seeing the iceberg in front of them until they hit it. But the thing about 2020 is that it wasn’t just one iceberg.

January. According to Twitter, World War III is starting. It is the first week of the new year. America assassinates a top Iranian general by bombing a Bagdad airport. Meanwhile, I go to lab. I ask my lab mate how his vacation was. He jokes that, given the number of bug bites he’d gotten, he might’ve contracted some exotic disease.

But did you hear about the new coronavirus, he asks. Apparently, there’s an outbreak in China.

I think so, I say. I saw some scientists post about it on Twitter. By the way, what’re your New Year’s resolutions?

February. A few weeks into my third rotation. There’s news that the NYU Shanghai campus shut down. I start a 30-day meditation challenge. By Valentine’s Day, there’s a shortage of masks. People tend to overreact. Trump is acquitted during his impeachment trial. My Qualifying Exam is going to start in April.

March. The Abu Dhabi campus closed. Classes are now online. I’m still making summer plans. We’re told not to come back to lab. Then we’re told not to leave our house. We’ve never checked the news so obsessively. Some people think it’s only going to last two weeks.

Prepare your mind, my dad says. This is going to last until at least September.

I can handle that, I reply. I’m a homebody. I was planning on studying for my Qualifying Exam anyways.

I’m relieved to be free of my commute.

April. I celebrate my 23rd birthday in lockdown. I spend the whole month focused on my exam. We get calls about people who’ve gotten sick, people who’ve died. There are essential workers. There are non-essential workers. Which is worse to be?

I go for walks around the neighborhood.

May. I pass my Exam. It’s Ramadan. I sleep through my fast during the day and stay up all night. A maternity ward is bombed in Afghanistan. I join a lab, but I don’t know when I’ll be going back.

June. There are riots. There are protests. From Jersey, I drive to lab. New York City is empty. I mourn. I grieve the death of an era. I feel bereft of the city I once knew. I am back in the lab, but my mind feels further from my project than ever.

I have reconnected with friends I haven’t talked to in years. I talk to a different person almost every day. I laugh for hours.

July. My best friend moved to Buffalo. Before, we’d try to talk every day. Now, she is busy. A lot of people are suddenly busy. I limit my time in lab, even more than the new restrictions. There’s no one else on my floor. I feel like the only person in the building. I cry sometimes, even though I know I’m lucky. Somehow, that makes me cry more.

I love family barbecues. I love long drives with my cousins, the music blasting.

The protesters in Portland are taken away, and we don’t know what happens to them.

August. Poor Lebanon. I stand in front of the TV and watch the footage with my father. I get a haircut for the first time in nine months. I’m a failure as a scientist. I’m a failure as a person. I’ve wasted my whole life. And now it’s too late.

September. My life feels full again. I still have video calls scheduled with friends every week, but have to make them shorter now to accommodate classes. And lab. And volunteering. And family. I’m so happy to feel full again that I’m not even overwhelmed.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg dies. Some extended family get sick. I’m starting to feel like my project is mine.

October. I’m overwhelmed by possibilities. I can’t believe I convinced myself that I’m a failure. It’s nauseating how much time I wasted with those thoughts. I need to make up for lost time. I need to exercise. To read. To dance. To learn carpentry. But I don’t have time anymore. What the hell was I doing all those months when I had nothing but time?

Trump gets COVID. Then he recovers. During the last days of October, the whole world holds its breath.

November. I decide to do a no-social-media challenge for the month. Instead of compulsively scrolling through Instagram for updates, I refresh fivethiryeight every 10 minutes. The tension breaks. My cohort in New York City celebrate. Twelve miles away, my neighbors keep their Trump signs up. The news of rockets and death in Afghanistan make my mom cry.

Without social media, time begins to stretch and bend in strange ways. A vaccine is announced. Someone told me that companies and scientists took their time, delayed the release until they were sure it was safe. It makes me wonder how fast we are actually capable of moving. Or maybe how long we’ve been moving this fast.

December. Has our life raft suddenly become our new ship? In the first week of December, there are about 10,000 COVID deaths per day worldwide. There are other non-COVID deaths. I can’t find the numbers for those. Hosanagar’s words loom large in my mind: Where will we set boundaries when technology’s limits aren’t setting them for us? There is no returning to the old sunken ship.

I pour a cup of tea and plan my experiment for tomorrow.


Zarina Akbary is a Biology PhD student at the NYU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and is currently investigating the structural and mechanical properties of bacteria.