Life as a Journalist in the Time of the Coronavirus

By Michael Goldstein

Journalists are obligated to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But what happens when we are afflicted by the very subject we write about? Despite how some view us, journalists are human, subject to depression, distraction, and the looming illness itself.

COVID-19 is a worldwide pandemic. Its effects are felt in every household, including mine.

One challenge is maintaining professionalism as a journalist. My “swim lane” at Forbes.com is the $5 trillion travel business. Chronicling its precipitous decline during the pandemic has been painful. It is hard to find travel stories to write when destinations are shut down, cruise lines are docked, and the handful of planes still flying are empty.

In early March, my wife and I drove to Las Vegas, avoiding airport crowds and maintained social distance. But did I sit too close at the blackjack table? Did our server cough at Palms? Returning home, we stopped only for three hundred dollars in groceries at the Barstow Walmart. Back home we hunkered down, shunning human contact, as I wrote of watching Las Vegas melt down over fear of disease and economic collapse.

It was impossible to shut out free-floating anxiety that, like the novel coronavirus, seemingly lurked everywhere. The Internet was our porthole to a world of illness, fear, and death.

Depression made it hard to get out of bed or start writing before noon. Meanwhile, another anxiety was eating away at me. As a freelancer I was facing the end of my work. California’s new “misclassification” law, AB5, stipulates that journalists who write more than 35 stories in a year must become employees. In the real world, California freelancers have instead been unceremoniously dumped.

Limited in the work I could even do, I felt depressed and unmotivated. Then a friend told me about his daughter. She was locked in a Lima hostel, with the city under quarantine and its airport shut down. I sat down to write. The resulting story “Shelter in Place: American Travelers Stranded In Peru By COVID-19 Quarantine” may have helped light a fire under a US State Department reluctant to repatriate.

But on the home front, anxiety and fear of the unknown ruled our San Fernando Valley ranch house. Am I in a high-risk group because of my sex, or my age? Did I disinfect the mail, the groceries, that steaming plastic box of take-out?

Both our sons, one in graduate school, the other an undergraduate. were kicked out of their New Jersey colleges by liability-crazed administrators. They left classmates, friends and significant others to return to childhood bedrooms. Quarantined at home, they took online classes where Zoom passed for human contact.

In addition to two more mouths to feed, my wife and I had other issues. Would the boys with their multiple New Jersey “vectors” infect my wife, who had recently left the hospital? Or me?

When the boys first returned, we maintained social distance, going the recommended two weeks without a hug. At dinner, our sons sat on the far end of the dining table. We timed our entrances and exits to and from the kitchen, doing our best to keep food, plates and countertops disinfected.

Eleven days into his home quarantine, our younger son learned that his roommate’s girlfriend had come down with coronavirus. He insisted on taping himself into our guest room. When we sat down for a meal, one of us would put on plastic gloves and pass him food through a window. Cask of Amontillado jokes did not fly.

Fortunately, he showed no signs of the virus. After three days, the quarantine over, he released himself into the house. We finally shared family hugs.

But quarantine morphed into endless shelter at home. Could we survive the banging and scraping of four adults forced to interact 24/7?

One son likened our situation to randomly throwing a four-sided die. Rolling it meant coming up with a different disgruntled, bored, angry person each day and night. Hurt feelings, anger and misunderstandings abounded.

Minor tasks appeared monumental and full of risk. Can I go to the supermarket? Or put it off to avoid possible vectors of disease? But the longer you put off going to the supermarket, the more stressful it gets.

Attempts to get groceries delivered failed. Instead, we waited on Soviet-style lines circling the Costco parking lot, herded through the store’s shopping cart and plastic palette barricades. When I asked about Lysol spray, Clorox wipes or other precious anti-virus ammunition, a harried manager snapped, “We don’t have any disinfectant anything.”

The older son took over shopping duties. Glowering in mask and gloves, he tossed the bags on the doorstep while the rest of us frantically disinfected with our precious, dwindling pile of wipes.

For our family, every day was a battle against depression and distraction as we tried to live our own work lives. Each night was a fight over whose turn it was to plan and cook dinner. Cleanup put us right to bed.

In the morning, doing an interview during coronavirus lockdown was hard. Do I look OK? Do I sound depressed? Yet telling the stories of real people, like Americans stranded overseas or Las Vegas residents struggling to make sense of another disaster, helped me feel more focused and productive.

The urge to keep reporting motivated me to find a workaround to the threat AB5 posed to my freelance career. With my new LLC, I am now no longer just a journalist, but a corporation, one which can write as much as it likes.

The war against COVID-19 not won, but the curve has flattened. For the airlines that I cover, the crisis is not over, but a bottom has apparently been reached.

As Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

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