Nina Burleigh Pandemic

Dealing With the Disease that Never Seems to Leave Town

Nina Burleigh takes you behind the scenes of her own life to offer one of so many millions of Covid-19 dramas that played out in these years — and, of course, it hasn’t ended yet.
[Ivan Radic / CC BY 2.0]

By Nina Burleigh | TomDispatch

On New Years’ Eve 2019, Americans celebrated the advent of the roaring ‘20s with fireworks and champagne, amid ominous news alerts from China. Surely that virus would stay on the other side of the planet. I cringe at how entitled we felt then. Covid-19 has now wiped out more than a million of us (by far the worst record on Earth when it comes to wealthy countries). Up to a third of all survivors suffer the sometimes disabling effects of long Covid, with implications for society that will outlast the pandemic — if it ever ends.

I’d like to believe we’ve learned a lesson about our species-wide vulnerability, our planetary connectedness. But in fact, we seem more atomized and arrogant than ever. The pandemic arrived just as technology was driving us collectively mad and pushing us further into our black mirrors.

Researching and writing a book about the science and politics of the pandemic, I lived with it up close and personal.  But my book’s last page wasn’t the conclusion for me — or anyone else. Here I offer my personal Covid tale, organized in three acts only because my storyteller instinct demands a beginning, middle, and end… when in truth, there is no end, not yet anyway.

Act 1:  The Ides of March

My “last normal thing” (as such activities would come to be called) before the first pandemic lockdown was to attend a birthday party in New York City in March 2020. Covid-19 was already causing moderate to severe panic among our crowd, but no one we knew was dying… yet. We didn’t know enough to wear masks. There were no tests yet. The hostess assured us all that there would be plenty of hand sanitizer around. Some invitees didn’t come, but a surprisingly large number of us showed up. A few already had coughs. Others would end up sick with fevers within weeks — by which time the idea of standing within breathing space of anyone but immediate family members already seemed unthinkable.

A few days after the last normal thing, our kids were sent home from college and high school. Survivalism kicked in hard. My husband, the kids, and I left the city the very next day for upstate New York, holding our breath in the elevator on the trip down to the car. We abandoned a neighborhood that, within weeks, would turn out to be among the most ravaged in the United States.

Up in the country, we dispatched one person to Walmart every few weeks to prepper-shop. We made sure to take off our shoes and strip down from our outerwear at the door because who knew if the virus could come in on your clothes? We washed down everything — cans, cardboard oatmeal cylinders, cereal boxes, packages of beef and chicken — in a kitchen-sink bath of bleach, detergent, and hot water. 

Word got around that there was no yeast on the local store shelves. That was alarming even though we’d never bothered to look for it before. So we ordered what seemed to be the last pound of Amazon’s stock, along with a 50-pound bag of flour. Then we had to figure out how to store it.  My husband learned to bake bread and proceeded to turn the weekly making of it into the equivalent of a religious ritual, a talisman.

There was panic and death down the mountain, but we lived like gods. We cooked elaborate meals with our stores of food. Every night, candlelight flickered on the groaning board.

We still had some money in the bank. We lost track of the days of the week. While so many were suffering, it was a strangely happy time for our family. We took extravagantly long hikes in the muddy forests. We marveled at the infinite green shades of the spring mosses, freshly revealed by the melting snow. We walked along trickling waters in mist, in birdsong, in a dream.

Then came April, the cruelest month. We viewed videos of forklifts moving bodies into refrigerated trucks in New York City. We made gin and tonics every afternoon and watched the sunset over the golden forsythia, while tracking the rising death-toll graphs on our phones.

Summer swept in and the night sky looked different. Was it our imagination or did the stars even seem brighter? Nature felt stronger with us at rest. I felt stronger, too. As it warmed up, I biked miles and miles and swam daily in the river, ponds, and lakes, or in people’s pools. I rewatched The Swimmer and then reread the John Cheever short story on which that film was based.

For a while I even kept a journal.

July 10, 2020: “Keeping the dog exercised is becoming more urgent — as I have less to do anyway. I ought to write a treatment for my book. Time stretches, moments of goal-free existence. So — how things will never go back to ‘normal’ — it will be all new after this and that’s good. Or bad, depending on how it goes.”

August 19, 2020: “Awful lack of work, the sense of being forgotten occasionally surges back… I write this as the sun dapples the wood floors, insects trill, a caterpillar metamorphoses in a cocoon on the counter downstairs… I have drifted…”

Fall came and, as I was seeking nothing, the Buddhist thing happened: within a period of weeks, I was offered three jobs — graduate-school teaching, producing a documentary, and writing a book on the pandemic, which would become my Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic the following year.

Act 2: Hot Vaxxxed Summer

I was blessed. The winter of 2020-21 was glorious. Upstate New York winters are usually a seesaw of ice and mud, but that season powdery deep snow fell and stayed. In the morning, I researched and wrote on the nightmare that seemed to be happening elsewhere. Every afternoon I cross-country skied.

While I was living something like a momentary dream, I was researching a pandemic the likes of which this country hadn’t seen since 1918. And like the death counts and infection rates, I can graph my own pandemic state of mind. It took a 180-degree downturn in mid-summer 2021.

One morning in late spring, I was driving to New York City for some carefully masked business meetings about my book, which was soon to be published, when the phone rang on the car screen. It was my mother’s number in Chicago.

“Hey, Mom!”

“I’m having a stroke,” she mumble-croaked.

From the right lane of the leafy Palisades parkway in New Jersey, Siri called 911, which could do nothing for a woman collapsed on a floor in Chicago. My sister and brother there did, however, reach the local EMTs, while I stayed on the phone, listening as she went silent. Finally, I heard a banging on her door and a man’s voice asking my 92-year-old mom, “How you doing, young lady?”

She had indeed suffered a stroke, the same thing that killed her mother. I flew home the next day, while my brother and sister agreed to let the surgeons operate — against our mother’s express wishes — because they said they could stop the damage.

She woke up intubated on a ventilator — the same machine that had been used, too often to dreadful effect, on tens of thousands of the Covid-afflicted. Her doctors didn’t know if she’d survive the removal of the breathing tubes, but we assured them that would be what she wanted, even if it meant death. They told us to say our goodbyes. 

I memorialized that day on the almost-last page of the journal I kept that year:

May 13, 2021: “Bright spangly Lake Mich. Today we go to turn off the machine that maintains our mother. Her eyes already look distant and strange, both seeking and informed, brown. Crabapple trees are blossoming.”

We waited outside the room while they took her off the machine. Instead of dying, she struggled to push herself up from her pillow. That night, in the dark, my mother touched my hair. “Beauty,” she whispered.

“Probably the last time my mom will pat me on the head,” I wrote in my journal, but as it turned out, the surgeons were right. Mom survived and even got most of her language back, though the woman who read us nursery rhymes and always had a book open in her lap can now barely read. Still, she can live on her own, a frail bird in a tiny cage.

That’s how the pandemic passed over mom and me. Friends of mine lost parents to Covid, without even being allowed to say goodbye in person. Mine lived on.

Facing her mortality, and by extension mine, coincided with the end of the first phase of my pandemic experience. The world kicked back in with its speed, competition, and status anxiety, the jostling and elbowing for power.  Everything the lockdowns and my own personal lockdown had held in check came roaring back. I was vaxxed and had a book to promote. I needed to make my mark again, but the more I wanted that, the less confident I got. Thwarted ambition, envy, and avarice returned. FOMO pinched again. I blew up a few relationships. Things only seemed to spiral downward.

I don’t personally know anyone who died of Covid. I don’t have anyone to mourn, even if, thanks at least in part to the pandemic, I descended into my own pit of despond. I mostly stopped taking notes on my observations and state of mind last fall. The journal entries faded away soon enough after they became records of rage and resentment. I guess I got tired of recording a view of my inner life stewing in something bitter. 

Act 3: Flight

In the last pandemic year, like so many of us, I’ve been in a kind of flight, both literal and figurative. I’ve compulsively boarded at least as many planes and visited at least as many remote destinations as I had in the previous many years combined. It was as if I wanted to challenge the virus in person. I turned down no assignment, no invitation to speak or visit anywhere — as long as it was far from wherever I was.

I flew to Chicago, of course, and was inside hospitals and rehabs with my mother. I flew west to Santa Fe and Taos. East 12 hours to Armenia and back through Paris. East again to Lesbos, Sappho’s island, with its infamous Camp Moria for refugees. Almost every month, there were flights to the Caribbean or Mexico or Florida or Norway or Italy. Miles of walks through airport halls, often thronged with other travelers.

I’ve been a glutton for the new place, for the IRL (in real life) experience, often enough publishing pieces of journalism about them. The question, however, was: How to sit still?

Before I take you, dear reader, farther down this hole, let me just say that I know exactly how privileged I am to be able to run away even as millions of people are disabled from long Covid and tens of millions of Americans struggle to keep up with rising prices and chaotic lives, while trying to hang onto their sanity.  And how lucky I’ve been not to get sick at all. (I credit four Moderna jabs. Thank you, science!)

Such frantic movement is undoubtedly my panacea for something. I did note that a popular Instagram therapist’s post suggested that a pandemic seemingly without end challenged the part of the brain that processes anxiety. Depressive people freeze, anxious people act, she explained. Which one are you?

I knew which one I was.

Truth be told, I prefer life as a fugitive now. I don’t even mind the long hours of waiting in airports for delayed flights, the slow trains, the boring highway drives, the hours when I can’t scroll the web. I sometimes prefer the liminal, the in-between place, to the destination.

I’ve been thinking about my journal entry from the first months of the pandemic: “It will be all new after this and that’s good. Or bad, depending on how it goes.”

How is it that I hadn’t anticipated a third option, that nothing would change? That we would learn almost nothing from all this. What if, in the end, the ongoing pandemic leaves us exactly where we were, twitchily scrolling the metaverse? With Donald Trump still lurking?

Remember when we called it “the pause”?  I had forgotten about that euphemism until I started writing this. It’s not used anymore. We just look back on a series of lockdowns that, for better or worse, finally unlocked. The machine is churning again, just with more glitches, more broken parts, more sickness and death, all of it moving faster and faster every day.

In May, our spew of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere reached a new record. And I helped. Greta, flight-shame me!

I hold a kernel of memory in my head of empty time and no plans to do anything with it, of being right where I was supposed to be and not going anywhere else. Maybe there’s an imprint somewhere inside all of us of a sky without jets, roads with no cars, and nobody looking for us. That pause showed us something we might never see again: a world where less could be more.  

Copyright 2022 Nina Burleigh 

Nina Burleigh, a TomDispatch regular, is a journalist of American politics and the author of six previous books. Her seventh, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic (an updated paperback version of which will appear in July from Seven Stories Press) is a real-life thriller that delves into the official malfeasance behind America’s pandemic chaos and the triumph of science in an era of conspiracy theories and contempt for experts.

22 comments

  1. Gin & tonics: The medicine that allowed Brits to survive the tropics. Quinine, juniper berry and alcohol, a broad spectrum prevention for malaria, ague and depression. Hydroxyquinalone is a patented version of quinine that does not have all of its benefits. As an aid against infections of many varieties, its main function is to transport zinc into the cells. Zn++ struggles to pierce the positively charged cell walls where it is needed to fuel the immune system. Quinine acts as an ionophore to surround Zn++ with a negative charge and sneak it into the cell.
    The author was medicating herself, perhaps unconciously, against Covid. The body has many ways to communicate its needs. The human immune system is very, very robust, else humans would not have survived for so long and in so many places. No other species inhabits all parts of the globe except as companions, food and hitchhikers.

  2. ”Dealing With the Disease that Never Seems to Leave Town”

    Absolute bullshit! There no such thing as Covid 19.. it never existed!

      1. @SH Could you be more specific?? Short for words or something?? Spit it out!

      2. Nina Burleigh seems an almost as extreme denialist as Tony.
        Nature orbits her upstate retreat. Santa Fe and Armenia are distant planets like Pluto for her exploration and mining. The powdery snow, the moss and the pristine waters were put there just for her. Even a baking husband and a rehabbed mama dropped down from Heaven on cue. Pulling over onto the apron of the leafy Palisades parkway in New Jersey to scratch her itches. Here hurtles Amazon Prime doing 70, and WHAM…

  3. A “privileged” woman’s human interest story in the time of Covid. The second home in the woods; baking bread; exercising the dog; traveling wide and far to give talks and promote her latest book. So?

    1. Alex Jones, is that you?
      Or is that Secretary Blinken (rhymes with Abe Lincoln)?

  4. zero evidence fake western vaccine effective—lockdwns masks were damaging per numerous European studies. nations that did not lockdown, the least vaccinated record the fewest Covid associated fatalities….and side effects for western vaccines more prevalent as German, French, Dane studies reveal…the most vaccinated nation, Israel, had more cases than prior to the vaccine….the actual pandemic was the hysterical response—that produce cognitive deficiencies in children, mental health crisis, economic dysfunction and huge profits for pharmaceuticals

  5. ANTI-VAXXER’S anti-logic

    OMG. The anti-vaxxers have infected these pages, too. There is a large contingent of alt med New Agers who align with the right wingers on this.

    Notice how arguments used often have parts we old leftists might sympathize with–Big Pharma, profits, etc. In effect, provocation to immediate emotional reaction; the Evil Other v. we the angelic all good. Plus it’s a form of ad hominem–if a person or group is bad, then nothing they say can be true. Anyway, how does the $$$ argument apply to countries with national healthcare? Resembles US climate change deniers who assert it’s all about grant money and Big Sci. As if there were big $ in opposing Big Oil. As if.

    Notice, too, how their arguments sound like those used in favor of alt sci, alt history, alt religion, etc. Sure, consensus accounts may inadequate and alternatives worth considering. I know; I have a huge collection of books on such topics. But they tend to present mounds of info supporting what they’re trying to prove while omitting everything that doesn’t.

    That last entry claiming “zero evidence fake vaccine effective” is flat out wrong. It’s not clear to what “lockdowns and masks damaging” is referring, but I can guess. I’ve had supposedly educated relatives send me stories about masks causing CO2 rise and not effective for viruses. Then why don’t surgeons all keel over in the OR? Masks aren’t fine enough to filter viruses per se, but they do stop the viruses carried by water (mucus) droplets which coughing people distribute. BTW, even if COVID 19 were “just a flu” (it isn’t–the genetics are known) the mask precautions mean the usual winter flu has had way less impact for the last two seasons. It would also help to understand something about how epidemiology is done and about the history of public health medicine.

    “The actual pandemic was the hysterical response.” WTF?! The word “hysterical” means at its root the overwrought emotions of women–nice application of demeaning sexism there. First, this claim should be stated as a falsifiable hypothesis. Verified by precise, long term studies of how that behavioral phenomenon works. Including comparative data from different cultures, income levels, access to healthcare, age, gender, religion, and other demographics on a global scale. BTW, I’ve used real scientific terminology here. If it’s foreign to the claimants, why should we assume they can assess evidence accurately?

    In science, it’s a constant that correlation is not causation! For example, the claim that “Israel had more cases after vaccines than before” is NOT proof without details. I’ve seen assertions that the vaccine caused the disease; not sure if that is meant here. Any conclusion would need to analyze what the infection rate was. Was the statistical curve on an upswing before the vaccines and thus lag time? What was the rate after vaccines had time to work? Were the statistical methodologies and analyses robust? Etc.

    Don’t assume from this argument I’m some medical authoritarian, or doctrinaire materialist, or that I reject alternative medicine. I do have science degrees (received late in life) and I know how to do valid statistics. However, I was a real person for 20+ years–a union activist blue collar worker. In addition, I’m a transgender raised on reservation land, an experienced two-spirit at home with shamanic realities. Thus I know how to apply different rules when in different realms.

  6. There is something deeply disturbing about this piece. The worst part was Burleigh discussing global warming while discussing her hyper air travel in the context of FOMO:

    “I’ve compulsively boarded at least as many planes and visited at least as many remote destinations as I had in the previous many years combined. It was as if I wanted to challenge the virus in person. ”

    This is one of those comments that could only be made in a society that is thoroughly severed from any sense of moral integrity. It’s like those Nazi comments that aren’t made in Germany about that holocaust, but are made here about our historic holocaust with abject cluelessness as to the entitlement and racism such comments rest upon.

    Even if I had the money, which I have never come close to having, I could NEVER “compulsively [board] . . . as many planes and [visit] at least as many remote destinations as I had in the previous many years combined . . . ” so I could challenge the virus in person.

    This was written in an article in The Guardian in 2019, “According to figures from German nonprofit Atmosfair, flying from London to New York and back generates about 986kg of CO2 per passenger. There are 56 countries where the average person emits less carbon dioxide in a whole year.”

    So, Burleigh put more CO2 into the atmosphere than she had in her entire previous life, which was already relatively stratospheric compared to most humans, compulsively, and so she could challenge the virus.

    It doesn’t make sense that Burleigh was challenging the virus, but it’s clear that when Burleigh is pissed off about lack of control in her life, and from feeling upsetting emotions she doesn’t want to feel, some money, some entitlement, and killing the planet more than several thousand other humans ever can, are good choices for her.

    This actually almost brings me to tears, it is so screwed up.

    1. Also, note how Burleigh addresses her knowledge that she is doing a lot of damage, “Greta, flight shame me!”

      That’s so clever, so trivializing. But, Burleigh tells us why it was important that she do that, or why she “guesses” she did it: she “got tired of recording a view of my inner life stewing in something bitter. ”

      There it is again. She had emotions she didn’t enjoy because life was hard and beyond her control. She didn’t want to feel ordinary and normal discomfort in an uncomfortable time that lasted longer than she wanted.

      This is my problem with Ellen Brown’s work here, and this dreadful piece and others. It’s that White, Euro-cultural supremacy and entitlement that is known but deflected, hopefully while appearing clever.

      The acknowledgement of defying all science was done while thanking modern science for her Moderna vaccinations. I guess science only matters if it’s what you want.

      Okay, I don’t guess anymore than Burleigh really guesses about her own motives. I’m quite certain science only matters if it’s what people like Burleigh want.

  7. I had a supremely cognitively dissonant covid experience a couple of weeks ago at an emergency veterinary clinic. I had never been there before, but my cat Lolly needed a doctor; he had collapsed suddenly and we couldn’t wait for our regular vet.

    That emergency clinic had the strangest vibe of any veterinary clinic I had ever been to. I wrote to a friend who would know what I meant and said, “It felt like the Exxon of veterinary clinics.”

    Exxon is a vicious, sophisticated, rich company that has an intense, identifiable atmosphere and character, either working there or working with their employees.

    Later I noticed that on the outside wall of the clinic near the main entrance were two signs of equal size, about three or more feet wide and at least half that high, side by side, permanently mounted on the wall.

    One sign said, “If your dog has any symptoms of coughing, sneezing, vomiting or diarrhea, do not bring your dog inside the clinic.”

    The other sign said, “Our mask policy is: your body, your health, your choice.”

    Lolly is good, by the way. Six hours and seven hundred dollars later, and he is rocking the world again with his many charms.

  8. The laptop left remain useful covidiots, perpetuating pseudoscience of establishment Science (of social engineering). Unprecedented, unproven protocols of lockdown more lethal than a novel, as in fictional, virus and disease; masks shown in multiple studies of the past, including by the WHO and CDC, to be ineffective and harmful serving as virtue signaling submission to ritual absurdity; ‘social isolation’ (think doublethink) suspending the body politic and basic rights like freedom of association to maintain medical martial law; PCR tests never designed for diagnosis routinely producing massive false positives, and panic, by design; deaths as well as cases inflated by corrupt procedures to count most everything mortal as covid-caused.

    The one thing the author gets right is the contribution of ventilators to death, due to covid of course, which probably is why her mother survived the stroke once she was pulled off the infernal machine. But even that glimmer of light is extinguished by article’s end from such related fraud as climate change and poster girl Greta Thunberg being invoked.

    “Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.” (Orwell)

    1. ” . . . masks shown in multiple studies of the past, including by the WHO and CDC, to be ineffective and harmful serving as virtue signaling submission . . . ”

      Aside from the fact that no study can show that masks are “virtue signaling,” not only do studies show that masks reduce transmission of covid, stats from other countries where masks are used routinely prove the efficacy of wearing masks.

      Here’s a headline from Stanford Medicine:
      “Surgical masks reduce COVID-19 spread, large-scale study shows . . . Researchers found that surgical masks impede the spread of COVID-19 and that just a few, low-cost interventions increase mask-wearing compliance.”

      I found lots of studies that show the same as the Stanford-Yale study, including this from the CDC, which you are claiming states otherwise:

      “The results of this study show that even modest increases in community use of masks can effectively reduce symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections (COVID-19).”

      You are pushing lies about masks, and using those lies to encourage the spread of a very harmful disease, and even attacking the character of people who do use masks to try to help themselves or to stop the disease.

      I wouldn’t want your karma.

  9. Check the history, and politics, to the reports. Multiple studies before covid, including from official sources like the CDC and WHO (OSHA, too, I think), consistently demonstrated the futility of masks for preventing microbial matter like so-called viruses (more mythology with virology) passing through the larger porous fiber of masks. Analogously, who’d want to rely on condoms for birth prevention with these odds? The consensus at the time was based on such self-evident data.

    Since covid, we’ve had not only abrupt change of official positions as with the CDC and WHO (and Fauci having done a complete about-face from originally dismissing the need for masks, once again consistent with his ethic of lying for what he deems our own good), but also those bought-and-paid for studies to manufacture compliance, alongside ‘factchecking’ revisionist debunking of ‘anti-maskers’ turning the tables to present the actual science, and common sense, as myth-making, or lies. Mask production remains inherently the same as before, except for windfall profits accruing to manufacturers, while environmental pollution from masks has risen drastically.

    The death rate from covid is 99.97-98%, and that’s going by the officially inflated reports of the scamdemic. Comparable to seasonal flu, which arguably is what this terror-driven plague largely has been, since the virus, SARS-CoV 2, never has been validly isolated, purified, and determined as cause of any disease, like COVID-19, while official records for flu and pneumonia have been likewise abruptly suspended.

    What’s offensive is regularly in the eye of the beholder, but if calling out the real mis-, dis-, mal-information perpetrated upon people by the powers that shouldn’t be is an attack upon some people’s characters, let ’em have it. How about all those primarily responsible for perpetrating such mythology as Manifest Destiny and the settler colonialism of the continent’s ‘virgin’ lands? Those who claim to bring us alternative, independent reports, really basic to free press, are dubious representatives in passing along propaganda. Their failure at investigative reporting, especially at this late date of massive covid corruption and criminality, also indicates blood on their hands.

    Also fyi:

    Last American Vagabond Mask Coverage – – –

    https://www.thelastamericanvagabond.com/great-mask-deception/

    https://www.thelastamericanvagabond.com/do-masks-cause-bacterial-pneumonia/

    https://www.thelastamericanvagabond.com/mask-science-clear-doubting-science-behind-wearing-mask-watch-this-video/

    https://www.thelastamericanvagabond.com/masks-are-making-you-sick-it-seems-that-is-simply-part-of-the-plan/

  10. Correction: The covid survival rate: 99.97-98%; death or IFR rate is 0.02-.03%.

  11. Wow. You cite one source for all your information. That’s really not impressive.

    But you can save your energy on this one, niko. I worked in a hospital for fifteen years with people who wore surgical masks all day everyday for their work. Masks never made anyone sick. During my short time in medicine there were likely hundreds of thousands of operating room personnel and clinical dental personnel who wore masks during all of their work with patients and were NOT made sick by their masks. The same thing happened for decades before I arrived, also. I know this for a fact.

    I don’t even need the CDC to tell me that masks prevent the spread of disease, or that people don’t ever get sick from wearing them if they wear them correctly, because I saw it up close and in person daily for many years. We were trained in mask use, and we were tested annually to make sure we knew our stuff.

    Now, I’m not going to waste anymore of my energy. Adios, niko.

  12. I wasn’t citing one source for my information, but providing you with one source to investigate further. But I may be wasting energy if you take established medicine as your authority, when that authority rests on a history of corruption, from educational training to applied practices, under monopolized control like Pharma.

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