UNC-Chapel Hill students reflect on a year in quarantine

By Caleb Schmidt

Remember when it was supposed to be two weeks? Easter? The end of summer? Oh, forget it, this is the new life now.

It has been a year since the United States has gone into quarantine in response to the novel coronavirus — a story that now feels like there is no end in sight, a year of social distancing, “Tiger King” binging and Zoom calling.  

Those first few weeks in quarantine played out like an apocalyptic movie. Grocery stores were ghost towns — good luck trying to find hand sanitizer or that ultra-soft four-ply toilet paper (or any toilet paper at all). Stadiums that should have been filled with cheering and jeering fans were now so empty and quiet you could hear a pin drop from the nosebleeds. Movie theaters that were supposed to be premiering “A Quiet Place Part II” and Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” in the upcoming weeks were now a wasteland of empty screens, sticky floors and stale popcorn.

A year ago nobody knew what to expect. Maybe you were like Will Davidson, who just returned home from Disney World a day before they closed their gates. Maybe you were like Excellence Perry, who had to fly back to the United States from Israel just three days after arriving due to government orders. Perhaps you were like Andrew Sheppard, who was relaxing at his home when he got the news of an “extended spring break” that slowly evolved into a year. Or you could be like Gray Hurley, who became aware of the severity of the pandemic as events like the NCAA tournament ended abruptly.

Stretched into summer

There was a sense of optimism that it would end soon.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to go to the beach,” Davidson told his grandma. “But then, of course, things were still locked down.”

There was some confusion.

“I was listening to a Joe Rogan podcast, and he had an infectious disease expert on,” Sheppard said. “He was saying millions of people could die, but we were being told that it would be over in two weeks.”

Of course, two weeks came and went, but quarantine stayed. Long-term plans were canceled. Internships, including prestigious ones like Hurley’s in Washington D.C., were canceled. He was supposed to be a press intern but stayed home in Fayetteville working 10 hours a day at Bell’s Seed Store.

“They say that your junior year internship is really big,” Hurley said. “I didn’t really get that.”

Overseas mission work fell through. Perry was planning on doing City Project, a college student summer mission trip, in South Africa. Sheppard was going to go to Bulgaria. Neither of them left the East Coast.

The summer saw isolation, a distrust of others and a growing cynicism as the country began to politicize the mask.

“I’m not going to doubt that wearing masks are effective,” Hurley said. “But, in my opinion, it’s sometimes used as an opportunity for people to lift themselves on a high horse and say, ‘Look at me. I’m a better person than you.’ It ends up being more about how people can feel really good about themselves than actually doing good in the community by protecting people.”

Tumultuous monotony

The fall brought a return to school… if you want to call sitting at a computer most of the day school. Students moved in only to move back out two weeks later. Sixteen weeks of online learning, quarantining and contract tracing can make anyone impatient, especially if you are cooped up with the same people for 112 monotonous days.

The holidays came and went. Thanksgiving was not the same. The tables were a little smaller. Christmas wasn’t as lavish. The trees were a little scrawnier than years past; just look at Rockefeller Plaza’s.

Rioters disrupted the democratic process in Washington over an unproven conspiracy theory. People asked, “What’s the president doing to help?” Well, he tweeted and got suspended from Twitter that day for continuing to encourage the riots.  

With vaccines now being distributed across the nation, people are ready to leave their houses, return to their classes or sit down in a theater to see a movie. Pandemic life is boring.  

“I feel like in pre-pandemic life it was easy to keep up with people,” Perry said. “Now, I feel more isolated. I have less social interaction, and I’m less likely to seek out social interaction too.”

For a whirlwind of a year, the pandemic brought about extreme mundanity.

“I spend a lot more time in front of a computer screen,” Sheppard said. “I get a couple more headaches. It’s pretty sedentary.”

Pandemic positives

The past year was difficult, no one will deny that. Lives were upended. Jobs were lost. Riots raided the news channels. But maybe on an individual level something good came out of this pandemic.

Davidson saw growth in his spiritual journey. He began to see consistency in his time reading the Bible. Sheppard spent his summer building houses.

Is individual good enough to justify the collective downfall? No.

However, as a whole, this past year saw some opportunities arise to come out of this pandemic stronger.

Friends and families realized how special little things like sitting in a restaurant or seeing a movie are. The pandemic highlighted flaws in the government’s catastrophe response that the nation is working to address. People rallied around names like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, educating themselves to prevent systemic racism.

The past year hasn’t been good, but it gave everyone opportunities to appreciate, improve and educate one another and grow a little stronger every day.

Edited by Brooke Spach and Megan Suggs