Creating Connection In A Time Of Social Distancing: Your Coronavirus Stories

Cary residents Rong Cai and Yanshun Liu pray with their two sons February 22. It was the first Saturday the family had spent together since Cai returned from visiting her parents in Southern China and self-quarantined for 14 days upon arriving back in the U.S.
Credit Jared Weber / Carolina Connection

How is the coronavirus pandemic changing your life? North Carolinians share their stories of how this outbreak is affecting all facets of their calendar day, from canceled weddings to closed businesses to concerns about elderly relatives and neighbors. 

Some confess their deepest fears and uncertainties about the current COVID-19 situation, and others celebrate the ways they have seen their communities band together to support one another. Host Anita Rao, Kate Bowler and Richard Watkins talk to listeners from around the state about how they are weathering these changes, what they are doing to prepare and how they are still staying connected to family and friends.

Bowler is an associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School and the host and creator of the podcast “Everything Happens.” Watkins is the CEO of the Science Policy Action Network, an organization dedicated to connecting the scientific community to the general public.
 

''We're seeing people try to experience and understand their own fragility in a culture that really prefers to narrate itself as invincible.''

Kate Bowler was diagnosed with colon cancer four years ago and spent two years in treatment, and consequently has a vulnerable immune system. “It's opened me up to a whole world of people just like me who are living in precarity— that feeling that things can be given and taken away in a single moment,” she says. “And so we're seeing people try to experience and understand their own fragility in a culture that really prefers to narrate itself as invincible.”

Allen Averbrook, Pinehurst

Averbrook is a retired surgeon who also is immunocompromised. He sees some people not taking social distancing seriously and points out that puts him and others at risk.

“I think everyone has to realize that regardless of their health status, this is a risk if not to them, then to their neighbor. So from their best friends, to people they don't know, to their grandmother or grandfather— they're equally as responsible to protect them from becoming infected.”

Sandra Davidson, Durham

Davidson is a content strategist for the NC Arts Council. She had to postpone her wedding due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.

“We were supposed to get married at the end of April and were really devastated when we realized that the CDC’s recommendation [to postpone events of 50+ people for eight weeks] included our wedding during that time period. So we're in the process of contacting all of our vendors, and it's quite stressful,” she said. “And it's just layered on top of the stress that I know my partner is feeling as he is working in the ICU this month.”

Monserrat Coleman with her host family in Sichuan Province, China. Her Peace Corps program was evacuated in late January.
Credit Courtesy Monserrat Coleman

Monserrat Coleman, Carrboro

After just seven months of a 27-month-long program in China teaching English with the Peace Corps, Coleman was evacuated due to COVID-19 concerns. She’s now living with her parents in a one bedroom/one bathroom apartment in Carrboro until she saves enough money to move out.

“We got told via email from our country director: Hey, you're gonna have to be evacuated, because this has gotten too serious. And we're evacuating you to Thailand. From getting that email to leaving China, it was about 48 hours,” she says. “I started doing some freelancing Spanish translation jobs, which has helped a lot. And it was very nice, because I can do it from home, especially during this time when we should be social distancing, it’s a good way to earn money.”

“Social distancing is a general term,” Watkins adds. “And in a nutshell, it basically means for as much as possible, stay in your home. You know, don't leave and don't go and travel the places if you don't have to. And that's not just traveling across the country or internationally— for which for many of those cases, there are travel restrictions. But it also means just don't go to places if you don't have to.”

Bowler is practicing social isolation with a young child at home, “I think one of the first things we realized is that with the 6 year old, we needed structure. And then we also needed to have a tight agreement about if anybody is in our lives, are they also [practicing social distancing]?”

She adds, “And so trying to figure out all the parameters around social distancing is like a series of hard conversations with friends and loved ones. So we're making sure we can keep our world as small as possible with as much love as possible.”

Hezekiah Brown, Elizabeth City

As the host of local radio show “Around the Town” on WRVS, Brown has seen the best of community response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The community responds by virtue of the school lunch program. We had a great group of folks working together, and I stood back and just observed young people, old people, black people, white people, everybody working together, and really enjoying working together.”
 

Caroline Fisher faces uncertainty as the coronavirus outbreaks threatens small businesses.
Credit Courtesy of Caroline Fisher

Caroline Fisher, Wilmington

Small businesses are in limbo with the economic turmoil brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Fisher owns Swahili Coast, an accessories boutique in Wilmington.

“We have been doing everything that we can to be really transparent with our employees. Just yesterday, I sent out all of the details as far as filing for unemployment through the state of North Carolina, which you don't have to be fired to do. You can just have your hours cut, and there's no waiting period now. And it’s just a hard call, because we just don't have any answers right now for our employees.”

But her own future as a business owner is unclear. “I will say small business owners are in a bit of a crunch right now. We are also folks who are not eligible for unemployment,” she says. “So I do know that there are a number of folks who are small business owners who are self employed who are in the gig economy. These efforts to help individuals with unemployment really don't assist us.”

Yanshun Liu, Cary

Liu’s wife traveled to China earlier this year to visit family and had to quarantine when she arrived back in the states. It was a difficult time for their family, but they were able to hold on to the knowledge that she would only be isolated for two weeks.

“I was able to buy groceries for her and drop them at a door, and she just took them in by herself. And that was from the material side. But I think more importantly, it was the emotional side [that was difficult],” he says.

The quarantine was particularly hard on their young son, Liu adds. “Every morning I would drive my son to the house to stop by and wave to [his mom] through a window. It's so sad, but you can't touch each other. You know you cannot hug each other." 

Steven Goldstein, Asheville

Goldstein is a retiree in Asheville who spends his time on long hikes with his dog. His income consists of dividends and rent on an investment property. The economic fallout of the coronavirus outbreak greatly threatens his livelihood, and he sees no possibility of relief. 

''And I honestly don't have an answer for anyone who asks me: What do you plan to do about it?''

“Almost everything you hear on the news coming out of the federal government in terms of proposals for various bailouts has no benefit whatsoever for people who live off of interest and dividend income. My personal situation is that yes, I have been retired for going on 16 years and have an investment portfolio that's structured to keep me afloat ... And I honestly don't have an answer for anyone who asks me: What do you plan to do about it?”

The income tied to the rental property is in danger because the tenants are musicians who are dealing with closed venues and canceled gigs. “I have to recognize that since they earn their income from touring, and needless to say, there's no place for them to tour at this point,” he says. “My assumption is that their income will be precipitously cut as well and that may result in their either having to fault on the lease or ask for some sort of reduction, which again puts pressure on me.”

Bowler sees an opportunity to learn from the impending economic crisis.

“The prevailing ethos is all self help. It's all bootstraps. It's all you. You can do it, you can help. No, seriously, I hope you enjoy your time by yourself. And the problem is, it's always had this binary between winners and losers,” she notes. “And a time like this— where there is absolutely no good individualistic reason why some people suffer and some do not, I hope we're going to see a sort of a tide turn about the way that people explain the suffering of others. [I hope] that we hear more compassion in each other's voices, a deeper desire to understand the systemic cause behind people's problems rather than constantly rush to evaluate who deserves what.”
 

''...we took for granted, like the ability to say hello to somebody, the ability to shake hands and to hug one another...''

Watkins also sees the coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity for a global learning experience.

“To basically be faced with the realization that the things that we took for granted, like the ability to say hello to somebody, the ability to shake hands and to hug one another [are no longer possible]. It really hits home when you're sitting at home.” He adds, “You realize that those conversations [about what we do now] are not just taking place at your local grocery store, but globally. Every single person is having the same conversation. That is an experience and a realization that I don't think I was prepared to stumble across.”