COVID in NYC: Spending My Twenties in Isolation, Fearing Racial Attack
Raisa’s mother, Maria Isabelle Santos, (second from the right) at a nurses appreciation week in 2020.

#COVIDReporting: For the past 18 months, Health Policy Watch global reporters have covered the COVID-19 pandemic. But they have not been immune from its impacts on their personal lives – and the virus has wreaked havoc with their lives. Over the next few weeks, we will bring you their stories.

NEW YORK – I turned 24 a few weeks before New York City was shut down. 

I turned 25 a few weeks after the first vaccines were being rolled out. 

They say that your twenties are the most important, the most fun part of your life. When New York was hit by the first wave of the pandemic and was forced to lockdown, a year of my life was put on pause. 

Acceptance dinners for grad school, traveling with my friends, all on hold. 

I cannot say that it’s resumed in the exact way since then. There’s a hyper-awareness in all of us that things cannot be ‘back to normal’, despite what everyone likes to believe.

My parents, both nurses, were directly on the front lines of the pandemic. They were exposed to the constant suffering and death in their respective hospitals and departments, without any reprieve.  

My grandma was the most social person pre-COVID-19, with birthday parties and events numbering almost a hundred per gathering. Now my family and I fret over her constantly, worrying if it’s even okay for her to be in crowded spaces or go back to hosting parties.

And I’ve become hyper-aware that it has become increasingly unsafe to walk through the city that has been my home since I was born. 

I don’t just carry my mask with me when I walk through the boroughs. I have to carry pepper spray, and a perpetual apprehension that sets throughout my body, that I may be attacked because of my race.

Asian American attacks have increased by nearly 150% over the course of the pandemic. It’s disconcerting to cover news globally, and yet be exposed to a flood of articles on attacks and shootings, one right after another, that take place in my own city.

And some articles don’t even match the face to the name, reporting our deaths and our hurt without any empathy. 

How can America go back to normal after all of this, patting itself on the back and assuring the public that it’s safe now for everyone?

It wasn’t that our ‘normal’ was stalled when the pandemic hit. COVID-19 changed our sense of normalcy. We’re not given time to process the past year. We’re just cogs in a machine, working constantly from home or in the hospital, expected to push ourselves right up on our feet the moment the tiniest resemblance of the old life, pre-COVID, slips in. 

I’ve reported a lot on hidden pandemics, because COVID-19 uncovered many. But the hidden pandemic of mental health is a neglected one that shouldn’t be swept under the rug any longer. 

If only America realized that we need our time to grieve, especially when the truth is, the pandemic is far from ending.

It’s worsened by the fact that American exceptionalism knows no bounds. Reporting on COVID-19 from the global perspective for the past year has made me all-too aware that this exceptionalism extends to vaccinations and social distancing and what even is happening in other countries. 

Do anti-vaxxers who refused COVID vaccines know that the rest of the world is suffering? That my relatives in the Philippines have to travel here to get vaccinated, that thousands of people come here to get their shots when their own countries don’t have as many vaccines? Americans believe in their right to refuse something they label a preposterous conspiracy. The rest of the world doesn’t have that luxury. 

Most privileged Americans live in a bubble of selfishness, rushing to get back to their version of normal. But it isn’t that easy. 

Raisa Santos, who reports from New York City.

Raisa is pursuing her Masters in Public Health at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. As a daughter of Filipino immigrants, she has a special interest in immigrant health and international policy. In her free time, she reads and blogs about books, and enjoys writing fiction. 


This is part of our #COVIDReporting series:

See also: COVID in Delhi: ‘I was More Afraid of Suffocating Than of Dying’

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