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I’m A Historian Who Has Studied the Black Death. During My Coronavirus Quarantine, I Thought, ‘Will People Fear Us?’

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tags: Black Death, historian, coronavirus



Alizah Holstein is a writer, editor, and translator. She holds a Ph.D in Medieval Italian history and is writing a memoir about being a historian of Rome.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A friend messaged me, then left two bottles of Gatorade by our back door. The following morning, another friend texted: “Bringing over homemade chicken broth!” She, too, left it at the door, along with a watercolor. “Wishing you a quick recovery,” she scrawled in pencil on the back.

Two evenings earlier, I had returned from a writing residency in Lisbon, Portugal, and developed a fever and intense body aches within hours of arriving home. I received a COVID-19 test the following morning at a drive-through testing site near Rhode Island Hospital.

Soon after, my brother called. Could he bring us a pot of bolognese sauce for dinner anytime soon? My husband and I mulled over the offer. He is a helper, one of those people you can count on to be there when you need it. But he, like me, finds it hard to accept help from others.

“Let’s practice saying yes to help,” I suggested. After all, I was now quarantined on the third floor of our home — and just when my husband thought he had regained his parenting partner following my 10-day trip, he found himself once again in sole charge of our two boys, ages 9 and 11. We had no idea how long this was going to last.

I thought of my brother’s offer. “Let’s accept,” I said. My husband surprised me by agreeing.

I received my positive test result the next morning: two weeks in isolation for me, and a mandatory minimum two-week quarantine for the rest of my family. At the time, there were fewer than 20 confirmed cases in all of Rhode Island. From my window, I watched people walking their dogs and jogging; parents pushing strollers. How would our friends and neighbors react? Would they fear us?

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