R-0 may be the most important scientific term you’ve never heard of when it comes to stopping the coronavirus pandemic. USA TODAY

If I hold my breath when I hug my parents, will that spare me the Greek tragedy of killing them? This mental toll will last long after the threat fades.


As coronavirus burns an exponential path of destruction across the American terrain, an insidious blanket of shadow damage is quietly unfurling in its name. It’s not just the death and scarred lungs. COVID-19 has turned every man, woman and child into a potential serial killer.

So far, I’ve been fortunate. But not a day goes by that I don’t wonder whether my streak of good luck is about to end, because the person in front of me in the grocery line is wearing a mask below his nose — expelling a cloud of radioactive COVID dust that I cannot escape, short of dropping $50 on the conveyor belt and trying to outrun the security guard.

With alcoholism, opioid addiction or smoking, we stand a fighting chance. But COVID-19 has turned the most necessary part of living — breathing — into a deadly event. If there’s anything that can make us hate our neighbors, it is the possibility that their very existence — every breath they exhale — could be lethal.

It’s bad enough that we have to fear contracting a deadly virus from a stranger at T.J.Maxx who reaches for the same decorative throw pillow. What’s worse is the brutal reality that the people we love and trust most in this world bring us the same risk. More risk, because these are the people with whom we have regular and close contact. Any sustained encounter with those we love — kisses, hugs, laughs, conversations — could bring fever, blood clots, fluid-filled lungs, and death.

COVID-19 danger is everywhere

It has been less than a year since this plague turned our lives upside down, but the nascent mutation COVID-19 has forced upon how we love has already begun. 

Last week, a friend came by to pick up a piece of cake. As I handed off my culinary effort from the doorway, she told me of her plans to host Thanksgiving dinner for her kids and their families. Despite the mask that covered most of her face, in her eyes I saw that one of America’s most joyous holidays brought only anxiety. As we talked, she confessed that she was terrified that one evening with her children could leave her in need of a hospital bed that is not available, as a COVID-19 surge has packed intensive care units across this country. 

For those of us prone to worry, the fallout has been especially rough. Watching people I care about take chances with their health, in ways that would have been considered innocuous at this time last year, has kicked my obsessive-compulsive disorder into high gear. My partner is a Brit who works at a hospital in London. The coronavirus has caused us to cancel six scheduled visits, but I see him twice a day on Skype. The one sure topic of conversation is the argument that follows my head exploding as I watch him unwittingly rub his hands over his face, after spending the day in a hospital that treats COVID-19 patients.

Earlier this month, he went 真人百家家乐官网网站home with a fever, after vomiting several times. I was certain he had COVID-19, and I spent the next 24 hours planning what quarantine laws I was going to break as I made my way to London to get to the hospital before he died. Turns out he had a stomach virus. But the face rubbing, the related fights and the angst continue.

Researchers: AIDS virus emerged in the early 1980s in America, people initially believed that they could catch it through casual contact with gay men. Every handshake or kiss on the cheek was a threat. 

It took several years to discover that transmission was primarily through sexual contact. Then, for 30 years, gay men lived with the sobering reality that the most personal form of self-expression, with those we love, was deadly. 

COVID and those with disabilities: died from AIDS-related causes worldwide, gay men rewired their souls to survive the emotional wreckage that comes with the knowledge that the most basic component of daily life can be fatal — that love can be lethal. Despite the recent development of drugs that dramatically reduce the risk of HIV transmission, the mental toll remains. We’re familiar with the sound of a heart caving in.  It messes with your mind, even when the threat is gone.

And so, as the world eagerly awaits a vaccine that promises to be rolled out over the next six months, the wrath of the coronavirus will not end with inoculation. The way we look at our own survival, and the dangers faced by those we love, will be stamped with COVID’s dirty fingerprint for years to come. 

Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1 

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