Writing Pandemics: A COVID Autoethnography

March 06 2021

Gowri Vijayakumar

As someone who has taught and studied the politics of AIDS for many years, I’ve often had to do the work of representation.  Though a diligent teacher of Sontag’s wariness of metaphors,[1] I’ve made obstinate use of them all.  Concepts of viralities, mutations, plagues, battlefields have helped me convey the magnitude of pandemics, scales of illness and death that are ordinarily difficult to comprehend.  I’ve filled presentation slides with images of viruses, graphs of disease counts climbing and plateauing, and withering critiques of the regimes of knowledge the graphs reproduce.

This was the set of analytical tools I took with me to a tiny rented studio on the Massachusetts coast in the middle of July. Its sliding doors looked out on a line of summer cottages that ended in a small patch of gray sea.  For two days, I wandered with my laptop from cross-legged on the bed to sprawling on the wooden chairs on the deck, and worked my way through edits on my book.

On the Massachusetts coast. Photo by author.

I didn’t know yet that, a few days later, I would find myself poring over the time I had spent there, as though I’d be able to reconstruct a microscopic memory of the moment of contagion. 

The apartment was, as the listing gushed, “spotlessly clean.”  A dish sponge had been cut in half to fit perfectly into the porcelain tray next to the kitchen sink.  There was a pile of towels stacked in the bathroom, a bottle of disinfectant spray sitting out on the table as a visual reminder of the times.  But when the temperature touched ninety as I sat on the beach, I pulled down my mask and breathed in the heavy, humid air.  I stopped at a liquor store for a bottle of wine.  I wondered later if, alone in a town of volleyball-wielding white teenagers and yachts with Trump banners fluttering from their bows, I’d lingered too long exchanging masked pleasantries with the Gujarati man at the counter.

What I do know for sure is that, two nights after I returned home, the results of my COVID test on the screen quietly blinked red—positive for SARS-CoV-2. 

******

What I had not predicted about a COVID diagnosis was the guilt.  I had spent months rearranging my life to protect myself from this virus.  I had lectured my relatives about being “more careful.”  I had passed judgment on people I thought were overly cautious, and I had passed judgment on people I thought were not cautious enough.  Now it was finally here.  If I die will you finish my book?  I texted a friend, adding an ironic crying emoji to blunt the emotion.  It was a kind of melodrama that I try not to betray myself to entertain.

There were, meanwhile, more immediate arrangements to consider.  I clapped a mask haphazardly over my mouth, went to the bedroom, and closed the door.  I stayed in that room, more or less, for the next fourteen days.  Three times a day, my partner brought in a meal neatly arranged on a tray.  At night, after our toddler was in bed, I crept out of the room, two masks piled onto my face, and washed my dishes in the kitchen.  As the doctor had advised, I sprayed every surface I touched with so much disinfectant that it felt permanently soaked into my skin.

Through the window. Photo by author.

Both of them tested negative for COVID on the third day of my quarantine.  We were relieved, and irritated.  If we all had COVID already, we could at least quarantine together.  The negative test meant that I could still put them at risk.  “Isolation means different things to different people,” my doctor explained over the phone, quoting from the CDC website.  “If you’re homeless, it might mean putting up a sheet around your bed at the shelter.  If you’re breastfeeding, it might mean breastfeeding with a mask on.”  Faced with this choice that was not a choice, this individualism gone dystopic, we decided I would stay in the room.

Quarantine breakfast prepared by Josh. Photo by author

The first few days, I had no symptoms.  I watched my body for signs, but it remained stubbornly impervious.  The only hint so far was an elevated temperature I only noticed when I measured it.  “I wish I knew the nausea,” Danez Smith writes, “its thick yell/ in the morning, the pregnant proof/ that in you, life swells.  i know/ i’m not a mother, but i know what it is/ to nurse a thing you want to kill.”[2] 

I was harboring something in my body that could prove fatal to others.  But my day-to-day was just a series of logistical uncertainties.  How to get to the bathroom?  Could I go outside at all? 

I am a sociologist, and I am also an introvert.  I learn by lurking.  I sat on the front porch with two masks on, watching people pass by. I wondered if they could see the virus on me, inside me.  I worried that they could, that they’d condemn me for my irresponsibility.  And I worried that they couldn’t, that they’d come too close, pull their masks down to say hello.

******

I have mostly learned about AIDS secondhand, after the crisis had already been forgotten (or distributed).[3] I was two when the first cases of AIDS were detected in India.  My parents told me stories about their friends in Alabama in the late 1980s who had died of it.  When I got to college, I helped run an HIV prevention peer education group.  We drove around Providence to schools and youth centers and facilitated sexual health workshops with teenagers who mostly rolled their eyes at our predictability.  One of the exercises we did was to give everyone a paper cup of water.  One of the cups held only vinegar.  We gave everyone a plastic eyedropper to exchange drops of water from one cup to another.  You received a little note that told you whether you should drop your water into the cup of just one partner, or two, or five.  At the end, we gave them all litmus tests to check whose water had turned acidic.  Even now when I think about epidemics, I think of all those paper strips turning red.[4]

We talked about HIV transmission, but mostly used it as an opening to conversations about consent and violence and relationships and communication.  At one school, where who knows why college students were teaching the sex ed classes, the teacher collected the condoms we used on bananas for demonstrations and threw them out in the dumpster in the school playground so no one would find out.  It was the era of George W. Bush.  Abstinence-only sex education curricula were taught in some Rhode Island schools.  Through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Bush committed $18 billion to combat AIDS globally as a matter of national security,[5] but AIDS continued to devastate Black communities within the US, largely with no relief.[6]  AIDS is today the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age globally,[7] and, in the US, it is intimately tied to circuits of sex and drug use at the intersection of racism, patriarchy, and homophobia.[8]  But already, by then, AIDS was considered a haunting presence.[9]  As I moved through graduate school, I was told even more often that the topic was ill-timed.  One professor warned me that AIDS wasn’t “hot” anymore.

Can there be too much writing on something so big?  I ignored the advice, but not a general sense of skepticism about the exceptional status AIDS was afforded.  When I did research in South Africa as a college student, people were already talking about how AIDS took up too many resources, too much attention, was treated as an exception, while the structural violence of neoliberal capitalism was overlooked.[10]  The activists I interviewed spoke of HIV prevention as biomedicalizing their lives, deradicalizing their politics, creating an opening for the corporatization of public health.  They pointed out the contradictions of HIV funding when the lives of those at risk of HIV were criminalized and routinely brutalized.

AIDS was everywhere; it was too much; it wasn’t the only thing; it operated on excess; it obscured the underlying conditions.  It took up too many analytical, symbolic, material resources.  And yet at the core of it were forms of abandonment that were, and continue to be, unfathomable.  The geographer Debanuj Dasgupta writes of the disjuncture between activist scholarship and lived experience as an HIV positive immigrant of color: “Publicly my body was mapped as that of an Immigration and Education Policy Expert, whereas privately I was intimately aware that any inkling of my health status would have me labeled as ‘diseased, public burden.’”[11] 

COVID is different from AIDS, but it resurrects this conjuncture of panic, guilt, and rage.[12]

******

Most people I told about my COVID diagnosis were in as much disbelief as I was.  “Do you know how you got it?” people kept asking, perhaps hoping I would reveal some secret that would enable them to avoid my fate.  “See,” one said triumphantly, “That’s why we haven’t been getting takeout since February.”  I got used to explaining each symptom, what it really felt like, how bad it really was or wasn’t.  For those for whom I wasn’t a guilty party, or a data source, I was a cautionary tale—a reminder that you could do everything “right,” and still catch it.[13] 

In the context of a failed state, COVID has become a feature of individual expertise.  Even Trump got COVID, the liberal narrative goes, because his personal decisions were reckless and stupid — not because the ruling class refused to interrupt profit.  Most academics consider ourselves far too smart to get COVID.  We know the precautions; we know the data; and we know where we stand in relation to social inequality.  But social scientific insight better equips us to understand structural violence than individual pain.  “You’re the first person I know to actually get it,” many of my academic friends said.  “It’s more of a working-class thing,” another explained.  “I don’t know anyone who has it, but the working-class people in my area are dying of it.” 

We usually placed ourselves outside of such earthly realities — if not out of condescension, out of an obedience to structural explanation.

Every day, I received a call from a contact tracer who had been assigned to my case.  She sounded young, like one of my students.  Like them, she laughed politely when I tried to amuse her with uncle jokes or an excess of personal information.  Her main goal was to find out if I still had symptoms, so she could calculate my date of release from quarantine and her office could remove me from its list of active cases.  But I furnished her with elaborate details—a quirky thermometer that revealed a temperature of 101 on one temple and 99.5 on the other, the ups and downs of my headache, the hours of tossing and turning at night, the catch in my breath.

From the hundreds of sociological interviews I’ve conducted, I knew her attention probably slipped, that her mind shifted to something else once I began a story she already knew the end to, a symptom she could fit into a pattern.  Still, for me, it was a way of imposing a shape on the random banality of being sick.  It was a way of acknowledging that the churn of crisis events was not just an abstraction, that its effects on me were real and seen, that someone official had noticed my presence.  I don’t know what I was looking for from this agent of public health surveillance—acknowledgment or apology.  Then after each call, I’d hear my partner on the other side of the door, repeating the answers to the same questions the interviewer had just asked me.

******

Audre Lorde writes that “the weave of [a woman’s] every day existence is the training ground for how she handles crisis.”[14]  Quarantine taught me that to think clearly, I need space to move.  I crafted paths around different parts of the room —

Cross-legged on the bed to eat lunch and watch TV. 

The wicker chair by the window for Zoom calls. 

The floor beside it for attempts at workouts. 

Leaning against the dresser for phone calls with the doctor.

Pacing by the door to read. 

Kneeling on the floor to type. 

But all I remember from some afternoons is the chipping paint on one of the windowsills, the rickety part of the window from which the outside air whistles through.  There is a loose section of a floorboard; the air bubble beneath it flattens as I step on it.  One crack near the wall in which some old dull glitter, from a bangle or an art project, has lodged itself and catches light.

Lockdown expands and contracts time.  Sucharita Sarkar writes of “slow COVID time.”[15]  I worked through Karan Johar’s oeuvre.  I painted my nails.  The patterns of the room solidified—the exact moment every day when the sun moved from a patch on the wall to a broken grid on the floor, the shifts in the smell of the air through the phases of the night.  

Every morning, my toddler knocked on the door to wake me up.  He is rambunctious, effervescent, with none of the gloomy prevarications of his academic parents. In a way, he has never really known a world without COVID.

As the days passed, he began to sit outside the door and scribble with crayons on a piece of paper and cram them under the crack in my door.  “Draw me standing on a cake!” he’d declare.  I would take the task seriously.  I gave it time I would normally struggle to find.  I’d crouch on the floor and sketch out his triumphant arms in the air as the icing on the cake sagged beneath him, then slide the finished product back to him.  We’d video chat on our phones as we watched each other react to the latest piece of art.  I was showing him that, even though it was dangerous to breathe the air I breathed, and even though I had few words left to interpret my reality, I was still real.  Even now when he makes a drawing he really likes, he pushes it under the bedroom door for me to find.

******

There’s an explosion of personal writing about COVID-19.  The editors of The Journal of Autoethnography warn, “A day in the life of COVID-19 also isn’t novel…we are all affected by it.”[16]  

Everyone with an Instagram account is an amateur memoirist;  every scholarly subfield has been repurposed “in the time of COVID.”  It’s a moment of patterned silences and overshares. 

Part of my sense of invisibility during quarantine emerged from the structure of academic labor, the false gift of unstructured time.[17]  Countless committees and consultations later, most universities have very little to say about what happens when their academic laborers actually get sick, especially when they are precariously employed.[18]  So even if I was lying on the bed coughing, I anchored myself in work.  When it was time to edit my syllabus, I did.  Would my CV reflect my days of tossing and turning, fighting chills?  Would my course evaluations reflect the fact that I had spent the weeks of preparing to teach monitoring my oxygen levels?  The conference at which I was scheduled to give a presentation passed by in a few feverish afternoons, and I had no way of knowing if anyone had noticed my absence.  Through the unequal distribution of disease, its mental health effects, and the care demands it generates, a generation of scholars has effectively gone silent.[19]

Meanwhile, the necessary hyperboles of activist scholarship rattled me.  People on my social media feeds conflated COVID and death as a way of highlighting the violent failures of the state.  Yet against my own political inclinations, I found myself comforted with ideas of COVID as an ordinary ailment that would pass.  The contradictions of my class and caste privilege were vividly visible: my slow time was built on others’ lack of it.[20]  I had health insurance, a doctor who listened to me, a paying job, safe housing, loved ones to drop off groceries and food.  I managed to answer emails with breezy certitude — “I should be back to normal in a couple of weeks.”  Outside my door, the death counts were rising, tied to the logics and structures of racial capitalism.[21]

And yet, somehow, the incalculability of the pandemic had rendered most of us numb to its emotional life.  My friends were unstoppable, launching new research projects, conducting interviews, writing historical essays, and studying epidemiological patterns. I, on the other hand, felt I was frozen in place – surrounded by an accelerating deluge of analysis.  The pandemic had given social scientists new urgency, new relevance, new dynamics for investigation.  Yet here I was: my expertise had failed, the virus had found me, and I had nothing to say. 

As a sociologist, I’ve been trained to find elaborate routes to my uniqueness— the gap in the literature, the novel perspective or site for research.  With COVID, these bids for sparkling new contributions faded into monotony.  There was nothing to say about living in my body that wasn’t already the topic of every debate, every symposium, every hastily organized webinar. 

I was living at the heart of a historical moment, a member of the aggregate. 

But quarantine reminded me that when sociologists fetishize the next frontier of analysis, we may foreclose mundane suffering in real time–the inventiveness, the tactics of survival, even the joy of the scribbled drawing passed under the door.  There must be a way to hold together a structural analysis of planetary catastrophe and the fear and fragility that lie at its heart.


Dr. Gowri Vijayakumar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University.  Her book, At Risk: Indian Sexual Politics and the Global AIDS Crisis, is forthcoming with Stanford University Press in July 2021. Follow her on twitter @GowriV


Notes

[1] Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989).

[2] Danez Smith, “Sometimes I Wish I Felt the Side Effects,” Poetry Foundation (blog), 2018,

[3] Jih-Fei Cheng, Alexandra Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani, AIDS and the Distribution of Crises (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

[4] Yes; I know now that this was very problematic.

[5] Alan Ingram, “Governmentality and Security in the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR),” Geoforum 41, no. 4 (2010): 607–16.

[6] Latrena Davidson, “African Americans and HIV/AIDS–The Epidemic Continues: An Intervention to Address the HIV/AIDS Pandemic in the Black Community,” Journal of Black Studies 42, no. 1 (2011): 83–105; Cathy Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[7] UNAIDS, “We’ve Got the Power: Women, Adolescent Girls, and the HIV Response” (Geneva: UNAIDS, 2020).

[8] Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Remaking a Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).

[9] Claire Decoteau, “The Specter of AIDS: Testimonial Activism in the Aftermath of the Epidemic,” Sociological Theory 26, no. 3 (2008): 230–57; Cheng, Juhasz, and Shahani, AIDS and the Distribution of Crises.

[10] Adia Benton, HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[11] Debanuj DasGupta, “Cartographies of Friendship, Desire, and Home; Notes on Surviving Neoliberal Security Regimes,” Disability Studies Quarterly 34, no. 4 (2014).

[12] Theodore Kerr, “How to Live with a Virus,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 7, no. 3 (2020): 109–16.

[13] Carolyn Kormann, “How Did I Catch the Coronavirus?,” The New Yorker, August 7, 2020.

[14] Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (New York: Penguin, 2020).

[15] Sucharita Sarkar, “Of Late Alarms, Long Queues, and Online Attendances: My Experiences of COVID Time,” Qualitative Inquiry, 2020.

[16] Andrew Herrmann and Tony Adams, “Living Through/With COVID-19: Using Autoethnography to Research the Pandemic,” UC Press Blog (blog), September 1, 2020.

[17] Nick Mitchell, “Summertime Selves (On Professionalization),” The New Inquiry, October 4, 2019 ; Tamara Kneese, “How a Dead Professor Is Teaching a University Art History Class,” Slate Magazine, January 27, 2021.

[18] Kaiser Health News, “COVID Crisis Endangers Adjunct Professors,” US News & World Report, July 21, 2020.

[19] Flaminio Squazzoni et al., “Only Second-Class Tickets for Women in the COVID-19 Race. A Study on Manuscript Submissions and Reviews in 2329 Elsevier Journals,” SSRN, October 16, 2020; Ea Høg Utoft, “‘All the Single Ladies’ as the Ideal Academic during Times of COVID-19?,” Gender, Work & Organization 27, no. 5 (2020): 778–87.

[20] Sarkar, “Of Late Alarms, Long Queues, and Online Attendances.”

[21] Whitney N. Laster Pirtle, “Racial Capitalism: A Fundamental Cause of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic Inequities in the United States,” Health Education & Behavior 47, no. 4 (2020): 504–8.

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