Op-ed: Alone with the virus; a perspective on how a breakthrough case does a number on a student

A screenshot of one of two emails confirming a COVID-19 diagnosis for student, Meera Raman. Photo courtesy of Meera Raman.

By Meera Raman
Boston University

After having completed over a year of Zoom university at McGill, hunched over with only blue light filling my face as I completed my undergraduate degree, going back to a campus to start my graduate degree at Boston University was supposed to be a celebration; a return to normalcy and connection. I was itching to interact with my peers at Boston University with no lag between us. 

Still, at first, news on COVID-19’s Delta variant made me hesitant to fully go “back to normal.” But with BU’s student vaccine mandate, the city’s own policies and mandate and two hits of Pfizer coursing through my veins, I had a sense of security going for me. It was due time for me to feel like a regular 20-something again.

Then came the fatigue.

Two weeks after in-person classes and events began, I started feeling tired. I told myself, “I was just working too hard” or “I was going out too much.” After all, graduate school was stressful for everyone, right?

But this was not just grad student-tired. It was “I-am-going-to-pass-out-right-now” tired. 

Then came a stuffy nose.

 And, finally, that dreaded text.  

“Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I tested positive for Covid”

My heart instantly dropped out of my chest and onto the floor.

Following that text from a classmate, two COVID tests and an inability to smell my own obnoxiously cucumber-scented deodorant; I found I somehow contracted a breakthrough case of COVID-19.

The beginning of the semester had brought me so much joy. For a brief moment, as I drank with classmates and went over to a friend’s house to watch “Bachelor in Paradise,” the world I was immersed in felt like a post-COVID utopia.

Utopia being the keyword.

The news put me into a state of shock. I was grasping at straws, trying to understand my emotions. Mix that in with a searing headache and the intense fatigue I was feeling, let’s just say that it was not fun.

Frustration and worry competed in my head. I was scared about who I might have infected and was bitter knowing that, despite doing things I had been told were okay, I had managed to get the virus I avoided throughout the height of the pandemic. 

Not my classmates, not my roommates, only me. 

No one prepared me for the emotional toll of having COVID. It’s like the world is moving on without you as you suffer in isolation. The CDC will not warn about these emotional symptoms as ardently as those that are physical. 

My first major emotional symptom of getting the virus was embarrassment.

There is a lot of stigma – and it’s exacerbated by the fact that it is more obvious when you are out sick when everyone is back in person. 

For the first three days after receiving my positive result, I felt overwhelming shame. I quickly jumped from conclusion to conclusion about what people thought about me and my compliance with my face mask. 

Then came the second symptom – FOMO: fear of missing out.

Now that the country is (almost) back to operating in a normal way, plans are always being made. When you get sick with a cold, you are knocked out from plans for five days, tops. COVID isolates you for 10 days, and doesn’t let you lean on anyone. 

I was constantly thinking about how the friendships I had just begun to foster were going to spearhead onwards without me; watching from what felt like behind a window, seeing plans being made, sent me off the rails.

Then the third symptom came barreling through – anger.

Why me? Selfishly, I was upset that I was one of two people in my cohort who had tested positive. I kept asking – why me? The only answers I can think of is that I must’ve wronged someone pretty badly in my past life or it is karma for never tipping enough.

I started resenting those around me. 

I felt like the people who had been exposed alongside me only cared about their own COVID diagnosis. And once they figured out they were negative, they openly celebrated and seemingly forgot that I was in that exact position.

Not only did I feel a lack of empathy from others, my academic institution made major failures in accommodating me.

Out of my five classes, only one of my professors provided me with accommodations, kindly offering to have a one-on-one call with me to go over the lesson I missed in class. 

I felt as if I was left fending for myself with the other four, trying to catch up with work. 

You would think that thousands upon thousands of dollars a semester would get me an email response – but maybe I’m asking for too much.

Then, the next symptom reached a boiling point – sadness.

I did not expect to cry as much as I did.

I kept trying to remind myself that in the long run, this is only 10 days of my life, and I should be thankful that I am OK. Sometimes, that reassurance just did not help. Sometimes, it felt good just to feel irrational. 

The emotional toll of a COVID-19 diagnosis is real and it hits hard. When you are in the midst of your isolation, 10 short days feels like an eternity.

The little things helped. A text from someone checking in, getting movie recommendations, and finally drinking enough seltzer waters to create a 15-can pyramid. 

Other students on campus will have to face this as well in the event more cases arise. And they’re unprepared for not only the lack of accommodation from some professors but the emotional toll that 10 days of isolation can have on you.

My diagnosis, along with the thousands of others in America, may be a sign that there is no going back to “normal” just yet, that there won’t be an “all-clear” anytime soon. While vaccines will help curb the spread and most severe effects of COVID immensely, the path forward is unclear – and we need to be prepared for things to get better and worse at the same time.

Meera Raman is a graduate student, majoring in journalism at Boston University. A native of Toronto, Canada, you can follow her work on her twitter, @meeraramann

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