Outbreak 2020

A distressing dance with the present moment, exploring the timeline of realization, fear, and despair that came with the long-term arrival of Covid-19…

by: Elaine Zentner


My first recollections of the coronavirus are vague, almost dreamlike. They are like threads of conversations on the news. First, a patient from Washington state is confirmed sick. Then I hear three airports, SFO, LAX, and JFK are screening passengers from China. There isn’t much reaction on my part, not even mild alarm. After all, this problem is remote, distant, apart from me and my life. It only exists on the morning news and the thought of it is out of my head by lunch. 

End of January 

The coronavirus news stories are more frequent, but not unnervingly so. There is speculation that the virus originated in Wuhan, China. Being so far away, I believe there is nothing to worry about. Besides, there weren’t any dire warnings or alarms being proclaimed from the White House.


The virus inches closer to home. Three people have died in California. This is my home state. These are my people. The reports on the news are sticking with me longer — nettling at the back of my mind. I think how sad it must be for the families, their loved ones being struck down by an unknown adversary. 

End of February

My husband and I are on a mini-vacation to Big Basin, CA. We are celebrating his birthday with cheesecake and champagne in a cabin in the redwoods. It’s magical and the virus never enters our consciousness once. On the way home we discuss the upcoming bash for his mother’s 90th birthday. It is planned for March 21st.

Beginning of March

The coronavirus is in the news daily. It is all people are talking about. Authorities say that the elderly and people with certain pre-existing upper respiratory conditions are most at risk. When speaking with my mother-in-law she says some people think that it might be too dangerous to have a birthday party where almost all of the guests will be senior citizens. She sounds more sad than scared.

March 18th

We cancel my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday party.

March 19th

California issues a statewide stay-at-home order. All non-essential businesses are closing: schools, offices, department stores, restaurants and bars, doctor’s offices, courthouses. 

March 20th

I went to the grocery store, my last day in public for many months. I hear the quarantine will likely last through April, about five weeks. I don’t think that should be a problem. Then, officials say, it might be over. The virus finds the world in the midst of a killing spree. Every night on the news we see the reports of the growing numbers of people who have fallen ill to this disease, now being called Covid-19. We watch as the death count rises.

March 23rd

I make a “Pandemic List.” The list is simple, consisting of all the little things around the house I’d been putting off. It starts as basic spring cleaning: wash the windows, repaint the front bathroom, have the carpets cleaned. I find out I can’t hire a carpet cleaner as they are on the non-essential list.

I start small, cleaning out our homes office closet, sorting through old photos that never made it into an album, starting a bag of clothes to take to Goodwill once we can go out again.

This is where my labors ends. Then I play internet games for three hours.

End of March

I make coffee and drink it in front of my computer while I play computer games all morning. I rarely turn on the television. If I do, I can’t pull away from it.

The preponderance of news stories make it clear the virus is getting worse. The numbers of infections and deaths are rising at an unprecedented rate. I talk to a friend on the phone and almost shout at her that those numbers represent people that had been alive only days prior, that they had loved someone and had been loved.

April 18th

My silent scream is beginning.

End of April

My scream is taking on a full voice. I think that if I just vocalize it for a minute it will relieve the pressure in my head, the tension. It starts as a low moan, almost a lullaby that morphs into an aching cry before it births a wail so raw and mournful it could be an out-of-control dirge. Louder and louder, tears streaming down my cheeks, unable to stop the sound unfolds. I’m crying for the dead. Crying for the living. Crying for my freedom. Crying. Crying. Crying.

My husband packs a light picnic, grabs the dog, and hustles me into the car. We take masks. We go to a park where people are social distancing — a 2020 term for staying apart in public. The park smells of the first days of spring. There are new-born ducklings in the pond. Flowers are starting to bloom. The dog runs around the roses, rolls on her back in the grass, dances in front of me. She too has been house-bound too long. I talk to people like my heart will burst if I don’t say hello, excited, yet fearful. I feel the grass beneath my hands as I sit near a rose bush. Yet the more I experience this small freedom, the more anxious I become.


A few places are opening again, but they are not for me. I have been out of the house four times since our visit to the park. I find that I enjoy being out in big open spaces with plenty of leafy, green trees, and few people. At some point I quit watching the news. When my husband turns it on, I either leave the room or I make us watch sitcoms or old Westerns. I have days when I feel paralyzed and I can’t do anything. A lot of days.

There are other days, too. Good days. There are video calls with friends and family. A friend and I have decided we can see each other once a week in person because we are the only one each other sees. We ignore the fact that my husband works at a job deemed essential and is in contact with people all the time. I’ve taken up a new hobby, drawing and painting, playing in living color. Some days I take the dog for drives. She stands with her feet on the door window while I play classic rock loud and sing. Other days my husband loads us up and off we go, driving until we find a place no one knows about, where we can picnic and hike away from people.

End of June

Most places are open again. They have been for a week or so. New cases are on the rise and there are mixed feelings about social distancing and wearing masks. It’s been over six months and we all want to get back to the business of living. I am making small compromises. I go see my daughter. I visit with my son. My best friend comes over for some wine.

These days possess a dreamlike quality, a living fantasy and it is the virus that becomes obscure, odd, as I taste the fresh-air richness of life.


Elaine Zentner was a journalist for a Buddist newspaper for seven years covering events around Northern California. She was a fiction editor and later co-editor-in-chief for the award winning literary magazine American River Review. Her work can be found in The Fables Online Magazine, Dime show Review, Short Fiction Break, and Piker Press. She currently resides in Sacramento, CA.

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