Notes from the pandemic: Washington writers respond to coronavirus

Anastacia-Reneé, Claudia Castro Luna, Kristen Millares Young and others on life at the national forefront of a global health crisis.

Empty market

Pike Place Market is mostly empty on March 12, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In the wake of a global pandemic, Crosscut asked writers from Seattle to reflect on the COVID-19 public health crisis and its impact on daily life. We have included contributions from Angela Garbes, Caroline Catlin, Claudia Castro Luna, Kristen Millares Young, Lauren Allen and Anastacia-Reneé.



ON FAMILY AND SOCIAL DISTANCING by Angela Garbes

The first COVID-19 death in the United States happened in Kirkland, where my parents live. It is a jewel-bright gift to be close to them: They are huge, joyful presences in my young daughters’ lives.

Parenting reorients your life so swiftly and dramatically that it can feel like a decimation. I don’t mourn my carefree youth, though; now it’s mere instinct to worry just a little too much about everything. In the early days of the epidemic, as Kirkland and the region became the national epicenter of what is now a global pandemic, my brain began performing the mental calculus that is now the thrumming background of all my thoughts: evaluating risk, exposure and isolation, trying to balance it with sanity, community and love.

A pandemic, it turns out, also reorients life. 

My parents had a sleepover with their granddaughters planned for last Saturday. Two days before, via text message, I told them that I was nervous about sending the kids; I didn’t want my children to get them sick. My mother’s reply was immediate: We will give up what is best for us for our kids and grandkids.

The next day, on what has now become our daily FaceTime call, I tearfully explained that not only would the girls not be sleeping over, no one in our family would be coming to see them any time soon.

“Oh, who cares?” my mom asked, suddenly looking very small on her couch. “We already talked about it. If we get the virus, at least we will have been with the girls.”

“I care!” I screamed.

It seemed ludicrous that I should have to explain to my parents the long-term value of their lives. As I started lecturing them on impulse control and delayed gratification, a feeling of vertigo hit: These are the same lessons I am teaching my 2- and 5-year-old each day. The same lessons my mother and father taught me. I hadn’t realized that being a mother would make me even more of a daughter, perhaps a better one. I’d like us to keep going for as long as we can.


ON PANDEMICS AND ABLEISM by Caroline Catlin

In October, I finished my final round of chemotherapy and breathed a sigh of relief. Throughout my treatment for brain cancer, I had avoided becoming neutropenic, a commonly experienced condition during chemo that increases risk for dangerous infection. I was grateful to be able to relax my precautions and feel more secure in my health.

That is, until COVID-19 landed in Seattle.

My cancer is considered treatable, yet incurable, meaning that my visits to the hospital remain frequent in order to monitor any progression of my disease. I also experience chronic pain and illness symptoms that keep me immersed in a medical world now facing not only the crisis of the virus, but also a dangerous shortage of the supplies they need to treat and protect people like me. I have friends in the trenches of cancer treatment, others experience life-threatening chronic illnesses, and many of us are medically vulnerable, at risk and immunocompromised.

In these panicked times, the masses have attempted to stay calm by proclaiming that the most at risk are the elderly, immunocompromised and those of us with illnesses or disabilities that leave us susceptible to infection. Each time I encounter these self-assurances, I feel a flush of anger at the cruel ableism embedded within. Celebrating and prioritizing the survival of those less medically vulnerable leaves at-risk people feeling ashamed and uncared for.

Hoarding alcohol wipes, masks, hand sanitizer and immune-boosting products that others need to treat their conditions and stay safe from COVID-19 sends an explicit message to our disabled and medically vulnerable communities: You would rather feel overly prepared than ensure that those who need supplies most are able to access them.

My cancer is stable, and I am not at as high a risk as others in my community. But I understand how dehumanizing it feels to be the embodied idea of comfort for those anxious about the spread of COVID-19.

Empty shelves at grocery story

Empty toilet paper shelves at Safeway in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, March 16, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Empty toilet paper shelves at Safeway in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, March 16, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)


ON CORONAVIRUS AND LIBRARIES by Claudia Castro Luna

March 7. As long-planned events came down like dominoes, I repeated a mantra: “Books will save us. Books will save us.” I reminded myself again and again that our libraries, with their rich collections and service to all kinds of communities, would offer solace during the hard times barreling our way.

March 10. I was 14 years old when I arrived in the U.S. and first visited a local public library. In El Salvador we had none. I value the literary richness libraries provide, but most of all I love them for the civic life they nurture. Libraries are sanctuaries of peace and places of connection. Their buildings provide shelter for homeless men, women and children who take refuge inside their walls from the strain of life on the streets.

March 13. The Seattle Public Library announced the temporary closure of all branches to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The announcement leaves me utterly speechless and confused. Now I understand the precariousness of our situation under this global health emergency.

March 14. Closing day. I arrived at the Central Branch at 10:30 a.m. to find this: Lots of families with small children selecting piles of picture books. Single men, many who appeared homeless, facing computers, listening to music. A man napping in a chair with a shoe on one foot and a fraction of a shoe on the other. People buying hot drinks at the indoor café. The barista handing out the drinks and wearing blue plastic gloves. Helpful librarians making reading suggestions. A woman applying makeup and curling her hair in the downstairs bathroom. I saw need. I saw hoarding. I saw peaceful gathering. I saw smiles and joy.

March 15. In less than a week the unthinkable happened. Our public libraries, bedrock to our city, our civic backbone, temporarily gone.

March 16. Books will still save us. As I write, they are waiting patiently for our return. They will hold on to their wisdom, stories, poems, pictures. They will wait patiently for us, no matter who we are, how we love, where we shelter or where we come from, and that gives me hope.


ON LAUNCHING A DEBUT NOVEL DURING A PANDEMIC by Kristen Millares Young

Under the best circumstance, writing is risky. But to launch a book in a pandemic — there’s a challenge. I’ve been cross-training for this moment since 2007, when on rare hours away from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I began researching my novel Subduction, a lyric retelling of the troubled history of encounter in the Americas.

We can weather collapse. My family has rolled with unforeseen obstacles for generations, fleeing Spanish famine for Cuba. Soon exiled, they landed in Florida, strip mall of my youth, lowland that harbors my elders. I skedaddled west, and here I mean to stay.

It’s hard. My abuela is dying, and I can’t go see her. This is what we call burying the lede. Fearful of erratic federal decisions, I cannot risk quarantine across the country from my sons. For a week in January, I slept by her bed to keep her safe from the abyss. But now I could bring sickness to my mother as she tends to abuela, whose body once bore her as a baby in whom lay my life’s promise, a cluster of eggs that dropped, one by one, into the wellspring of time.

Time. It eludes our authority. I spent the past year planning a book tour that began with Subduction’s publication in April. Now I’m rescheduling 35 events and writing essays on deadline while homeschooling my children, who by government decree won’t return to class until April 24. Personally, I doubt that date.

The deferral of my deepest dream is a comparative privilege. Many cannot stockpile food without a paycheck. Please support local foodbanks. Check on your kinfolk and your vulnerable and elderly friends.

My neighbors are pooling resources to provide care. I’ll rise before dawn to write as my abuela did, raising me while my mother held down a big job. No es fácil. But together, we must persist and enact our collective future. Look to your own history to find the forward momentum. Pa’lante.

Empty library

Seattle Public Library's Central Branch in downtown Seattle. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Seattle Public Library's Central Branch in downtown Seattle. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)


ON HOW AN AMERICAN AND A RUSSIAN RESPOND TO COVID-19 by Lauren Allen

“I think I want a gun,” Sergey yawned.

I tensed. “Don’t say that. You know I hate guns.”

“Everything is going to shit.”

“I’m trying to sleep.”

I turned on my side, worried about my husband. Was he becoming paranoid from being home alone all day? Microsoft, like many Seattle businesses, had closed its offices. Alone, Sergey worked and worried.

Each day, I biked home from teaching to find that Sergey had hoarded something else: rice, soup, water purification tablets. The gun desire still unsettled me. Why were our reactions so different?

I was born in 1985 in America. I took for granted that I could tattletale to the police and they could solve any problem. My parents put money in the bank for me. The money was still there over a decade later. My favorite ice cream was cinnamon fireball.

Sergey was born in 1984 in Russia. In 1991, the USSR collapsed. His single mother struggled to keep him and his sister clothed and fed in a place where inflation meant the money that could buy bread one day would be better used as toilet paper the next. Cops were powerless at best and thugs at worst. Schoolmates wanted to be contract killers when they grew up. His favorite flavor of ice cream was vanilla. Capitalism eventually brought other flavors to stores, but they were too expensive.

One week later, we are back in bed, but everything has changed. My school, like all those in Washington, will be closed for at least a month. I worry about my students, especially those who depended on the nurse’s office for their health care and on free school lunches. If their parents get too sick to work, what will happen to them?

Russians lived through years of chaos. But they had public housing, public health care and a culture of doomsday planning. Will Seattle’s future be worse than Sergey’s past?

“I still don’t want a gun,” I say, snuggling into Sergey’s shoulder. “But I’ll go to the grocery store tomorrow. I want to stock up.”


ON CORONAVIRUS AND AGEISM by Anastacia-Reneé

In a climate of uncertainty and panic, I’ve spent the past few days reflecting about this time last year. I vividly recall celebrating the 100-year-old life of my great aunt, Nadine. If I envision the totality of 100 years of historically significant events, valuable information, witness, testimony and eco-upheaval as a library, it would fill rooms upon rooms; many of its artifacts would constitute a National Archive.  

My DNA spiral is an amalgamation of wisdom, resistance, determination and patience. I was a curious child recording information while Aunt Nadine and my grandmother exchanged cures, cautionary tales and newspaper headlines. I have always recognized the power of people around me who were quite older than me. Elders, wise ones, treasures, matriarchs. Since the onset of media and community talk about the pandemic, I’ve heard these very important community members referred to as old people — that is, as dispensable. I never thought I would hear anyone repeatedly echo the sentiment and phrase, “Luckily, I don’t have anything to worry about, it’s just old people dying.”

Those we have disparaged are not only family members, but educators, activists, change makers, the through ribbon connecting all of our current lives. They are a great source of historical knowledge and oracles of factual, first-person accounts. Unfortunately, the pandemic has given our Seattle community a shared and magnified case of ageism. It is my sincerest hope that in the ways Seattleites are making strong efforts to ramp up washing their hands and incorporating more social distancing techniques, let’s make the same community effort not to devalue the importance of the lives or deaths of our elders. 

About the Authors & Contributors