What I never noticed before I got Covid was the thriving black market in stories and speculation about the virus, the after-virus and the sheer unadulterated weirdness of the human body. The public sphere is, understandably, preoccupied with the disease at its most harrowing – “happy hypoxia”, ventilators, months of post-viral fatigue. I get that completely. If you’re going to make a social effort to understand a disease, it’s most helpful to start with: “It’s nothing like flu.” In the sphere of the private, meanwhile, we’re swapping weird, inconsequential symptoms, like a prehistoric culture trying to work out what a cold is. “Did you have snot? You’re not supposed to have snot, and yet I had much snot.” “No, but I had a pain in my eyebrow.” “Was it on the eyebrow or behind the eyebrow?”
Last time I overshared my health status, I had tested positive but Mr Z hadn’t, and shortly afterwards, he did too. I’d say it went on for about 10 days, and he had it worse than I did; he disputes this, and there is no way of saying who’s right unless Oprah Winfrey is willing to get involved (joke! Obviously Meghan is right). No one day was worse than a bad hangover, but you would never get a hangover for 10 days straight, so in aggregate it was worse. On the plus side, it wasn’t self-inflicted. I’m more or less certain Mr Z brought the virus home from the shop, and he was definitely getting something necessary, not a snacking chorizo and some banana milk. My friend T mulled this over. “I don’t think I’ve ever had any disease that’s worse than a bad hangover.” I ruminated on this for ages. What is worse than the worst hangover? Maybe childbirth?
It’s not a symptom, as such, but it is impossible to overstate how annoying my family was. My sister and stepmother were delighted by the turn of events, like they had been watching EastEnders for 17 years and finally something had happened. “Any Covid toe?”, they would text hopefully. “Michael Rosen lost the hearing in one ear, you know.” My brother messaged to say: “The time to go on about how it was no big deal is after it, rather than during,” which was the ultimate sibling checkmate. I couldn’t reply “It is no big deal,” since it was still “during”. I couldn’t reply “It is a big deal,” because it wasn’t. It reminded me of the time he beat me at hangman with the word “two”. I was so sure that he just didn’t realise “too” had two Os that I couldn’t see past it. He was four, and I was 14.
My mother, whom I had seen while I was probably infectious, became convinced that she also had Covid but was blissfully asymptomatic, which struck me as pretty unlikely, considering she just has to see someone with a cold from across a motorway to end up in hospital with pneumonia. I ordered her a test anyway. I explained in quite close detail how you had to register it before you took it, and in the peculiar way of families that you can hear what they’re thinking down a phone line, she thought: “Blah blah, how much more of this customer service nonsense do I have to listen to?” Duly, she didn’t register it properly and waited 10 more days for her negative result. “Cumbersome system,” she complained, and I agreed that yes, having to attach your name and address to a barcode before anyone could contact you was indeed a ludicrous thing, and I blamed Tory cronyism.
Back to the symptoms. Just as I was more or less recovered, I did something to my back. “Are you sure it’s not your kidneys?” (my sister). “This happened to Ellen DeGeneres!” (my stepmother). It was mad. I could just about exist if I was always walking, but as soon as I sat down, it could take me anything up to 37 minutes to get up again. I walked so much I broke my Fitbit. This is when I discovered the subculture of people who think Covid has mystic properties – it roams around your body, unearthing hidden weakness and reviving infections from decades ago. I spoke to someone whose symptoms were basically his 1995 labyrinthitis all over again; someone else said it was just like cystitis. It’s impossible to overstate how many people believe this, and have an entirely new conception of their corporeal self as basically an archive of ailments, waiting to be triggered by an unguessable password made of proteins. Science, it turns out, can supply a bunch of reasons for this, but I find the wisdom of crowds more intoxicating, un-peer-reviewable.
As suddenly as it had gone, my back was better, and everything was normal, and I had learned some awful home truths, such as how annoying everyone I live with finds me. “It’s so relaxing when you have a bit less energy,” my son said. “I love it when you’re stuck in a chair and I can walk away before you start messing with my hair,” said my daughter. But did I learn anything useful about corona, anything you might call a general principle, applicable beyond the four walls of myself? Not so much.
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