OP-ED: While people protested the coronavirus lockdown, I was struggling to breathe

Elissa Miolene
The Hartford Courant (TNS)
Deborah Creque waves an American flag and a Donald Trump flag as she and other protestors, from their cars and on foot, surround the State Capitol during "Operation Gridlock" in Lansing, Mich. on Wednesday, April 15, 2020 against some of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's new executive orders. (Daniel Mears/ The Detroit News/TNS)

As the streets of Hartford, Conn., filled with people, I lay in a hospital bed, forcing myself to breathe.

In, out. I told myself. In, out.

I tried to keep time with a monitor beeping at my side, and every so often, I called for a nurse’s help. Two hours had gone by without anyone checking on me, but the hallways were crammed with patients. People lay, masked and still, in the middle of the COVID-19 section of the emergency room at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. No one could hear me. Though I had been sick with COVID-19 for nearly a month, the virus had recently taken a turn, attacking my lungs and my body in an entirely new way.

In, out. I thought. In, out.

Still, I was better off than thousands who had come before me and the thousands who will come after. The virus was making its way through my system, but I was OK, and I was going home. But the mask on my face made it hard to breathe, and I felt constricted with a pulse oximeter on my finger, a needle in my hand and a blood pressure band on my arm.

In, out. I said. In, out.

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At the same time, in Connecticut — my home state — hundreds of people gathered in the capital city. American flags were billowing. Signs were flailing. Red hats were everywhere. I had no idea this was happening, but by the time I got home from the hospital, the photos were all over the internet.

“Your health is not more important than my liberties,” someone had scribbled on a car window. The pain in my chest — which had persisted and grown throughout the last eight days — was now compounded by something else.

I couldn’t believe the state of my country. I couldn’t believe what my fellow Americans were doing to one another and not only how easily but how savagely they wanted to tear each other down.

I know that this virus is terrifying in more ways than one, and I know that the outbreak has caused unparalleled economic loss. An unfathomable number of people have been left without a job, an income or an ability to pay rent. Each of those individuals is experiencing a devastating loss in their own way.

Still, the only thing more important than our livelihoods is our lives — and each and every one of us needs to do our part to ease the country into a new normal.

When I saw those photographs, I knew that those protesters, like countless others across the United States, were talking to me. They were talking to the nearly 1 million other Americans who have contracted COVID-19 over the past few months.

Were they also talking about the nearly 50,000 people whose lives were stolen by this virus in America alone so far? The sisters, mothers, grandmothers; the brothers, fathers, grandfathers; all dead because of COVID-19?

Yes. They were. And they are.

Is that because to the protesters, the health — and lives — of those hundreds of thousands of Americans is less important than their “liberties”?

Maybe the virus hasn’t infected you or someone you love just yet. But it will. By gathering in groups, the protesters are not just perpetuating a confused, mismatched dichotomy, they are perpetuating COVID-19. They are perpetuating death and loss. And they are extending the crippling of our economy.

It’s obvious that we need to go back to work. It’s obvious that this virus is shattering our economy. But it’s also obvious that people are dying and will continue to die, until our government, doctors, scientists and the general public learn to manage COVID-19. Those who are publicly protesting are putting themselves and their families at unbelievable risk, foreshadowing the fate of this country if states reopen too quickly.

For the sake of the 1 million Americans with COVID-19 — and for the sake of the tens of thousands who have already lost their lives — please, protesters. We’re all in this together.

As long as protests continue, more people will die. More people will be out of work.

If you find yourself in a hospital bed like I did, I can tell you this: You won’t be thinking about your liberties.

You’ll be thinking about your life — and how firmly you can hold onto it.

— Elissa Miolene grew up in Stamford, Conn., and lives in Manhattan. She is 27.