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Notes from Day 4 of Isolation: The Harm I Cause

I’m writing this in the cool night after my fever has broken. In these few moments of clarity I get — from the physical pain and the mental — I spiral into existential crisis.

I know that, in all reality, Covid-19 will soon pass me by and slide into the archives of wacky stories for me to tell when I get better. I know that in a week or so from now, I will be testing negative, taking finals, and grousing about how annoying it is to run between all my classes. I know that I am not the demographic to die to this. I am young, and approximately healthy, and with access to enough painkillers and vitamins to take out a horse.

I know I will be fine. It’s just that, before I slid the key into the lock of my room for what I didn’t realize until too late was the last free time in a while, before I had to question whether my nasty headache was from stress or lack of sleep or — surprise third option! — Covid, before the rapid test bled into two red lines and I sent my parents the “I think I have Covid” panic text with two minutes left on the timer, I thought I was immune.

Now, I am confronted with the fact that I am not only very mortal and susceptible to infectious disease, but also excruciatingly fragile. Six walls and a window that gets dark too early is enough to do me in. I’m a lab rat in a cage, but at least they get wheels to run on. I’m afraid of doors now. Isn’t that pathetic?

Many have written before on Harvard’s unsatisfactory spring 2022 Covid-19 isolation policy. I should know firsthand how unsatisfactory it is; I’ve dealt with every stage of it. Eighteen Chrome tabs open trying to figure out which Harvard websites are up-to-date with the new policy. The second email with additional guidance on how to isolate in place that the HUHS Contact Tracing Team promises me but never delivers. The day the Isolation Dining Pick-Up station in Kirkland House runs out of all bottled water except sparkling, so I, dehydrated and half-delirious, pour myself cups of hot water that taste faintly of coffee grounds.


Yet, what scares me most about Harvard’s isolation policy is me. As I see it, my potential to harm all the healthy, non-infected, unknowing people just happily walking around campus is massive. I venture outside my disease incubator of a room once a day to drop off a Covid test and pick up dinner from Kirkland. Every time, I want to scream at everyone I encounter: I’m a contagion! Get away from me! Put your masks on and run in the opposite direction! It’s insane that I am allowed to walk on the street amongst people who are none the wiser, stifling coughs in my double-layered masks while they turn and chat.

At the same time, I selfishly don’t want to brand myself as Covid-positive so that people veer away from me. Isolation is lonely enough. The emotional toll of being stuck in a box for days has opened my waterworks and won’t let them close. I feel it, that terrible lump of emotion and twitch of tears, whenever I get a scrap of human connection. The first time a friend called me and I picked up, I spent all 30 minutes of that call sobbing into the phone. I burst into tears at a club meeting over Google Meet, of all things.

I know my fear of infecting other people on the street, of turning them as weak and transient as I currently feel, is largely irrational. I would have to spend 15 or more minutes with anyone indoors for them to be considered a close contact at risk of contracting Covid-19 from me. But I am not a scientist with an innate understanding of my infectious period. I only know that it feels ethically wrong for me to be able to place other people in potential harm’s way, without their knowledge. It scares me how thin the barriers to known, intentional harm are. It scares me that Harvard is banking their isolation policy on the brittle moral weighings of people who are already much too fragile from Covid.

I miss outside. I miss Eliot dining hall, and lying on friends’ carpets, and unmasked laughter. I miss normalcy. If Harvard’s Covid years saw time freeze, isolation is the most hellish version of that. But come the end of my day five, I will follow the isolation policy to the best of my ability. If I’m still symptomatic, I’m locking myself in here again. This will harm me, no doubt. But crucially, I do not want to harm other people.

Christina M. Xiao ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is a joint concentrator in Computer Science and Government in Eliot House.