By Sonny Sehra
In neuroscience, there is a famous cognitive bias called optimism bias. Essentially, humans have a psychological tendency to believe we won’t suffer from a misfortunate event–the impressionable “It won’t happen to me!” mentality.
An example of this in action would be a cigarette smoker rationalizing the risks of smoking by referring to an elderly relative who also smoked and managed to live to old age despite their habit.
In my case, it was watching the statistics of COVID-19 cases swell on my TV screen but subconsciously believing that, somehow, I wouldn’t get sick. I adhered to the health guidelines, kept up to date with the news, socially distanced, wore my mask outdoors and excessively washed my hands. But to my dismay, I became a “NEW CASES IN ONTARIO TODAY” statistic.
On Nov. 18th, a ripple of shock was sent throughout my household. My aunt, who we were all in physical contact with the day before, tested positive for COVID-19. I vividly remember waking up that morning and heading downstairs, as usual, confronted by the confusing sight of my mom in a mask, wiping every last inch of the kitchen with Lysol disinfectants.
Despite the fact that less than 24 hours ago I came into contact with an individual with a confirmed case of COVID-19, my optimism bias intensified. I began rationalizing the situation by believing we’d be lucky enough not to contract it. I hoped for the best.
We got tested that day and had to wait a couple of days for the results to arrive. I was certain we’d be safe…until my family members began exhibiting the symptoms.
My dad was first to show; he was hacking his lungs out and developed a fever. Then my mother and brother started coughing ceaselessly not long after. Both of them developed fevers that night, too. Then they all started to experience lethargy and secluded themselves in separate rooms–my dad slept in the living room that entire week.
I naively told myself this was a case of the placebo effect. After all, I felt perfectly fine myself. Unlike my family members, I was asymptomatic. Either this was a placebo or I had a case of pure luck.
To my dismay, I became a ‘NEW CASES IN ONTARIO TODAY’ statistic
I went to sleep early that night in my basement instead of my room, which I share with my brother. I was feeling more tired than usual, but I told myself it was because I woke up early in the morning. I dozed off peacefully that night.
I randomly jolted awake–as if awoken from a nightmare–at 3 a.m., shivering to the point where my hands were having tremors. I told myself it was because the basement was cold and went upstairs, turning up the heat while the entire house was asleep.
It worked to no avail. My chills were intensifying, my body felt weak and now I was coughing. Shaking, I woke up my dad who comforted me and helped me fall back asleep after giving me Tylenols. Instead of the basement, I slept on the couch in the kitchen, so I could be closer to my dad in the living room.
That was the moment I knew this wasn’t a placebo, and no bias could help me. I accepted my fate. Our tests came back on Nov. 20 and 21 proving what we already knew at this point. My household of six, including my baby brother with a congenital respiratory condition and 88-year-old grandma, all tested positive for COVID-19.
The virus spread sequentially through the rest of my extended family like falling dominoes. My aunts, uncles, cousins and relatives all contracted it in due time.
All of my cousins and brothers lost their sense of taste and smell. It was the most eccentric feeling; I was incapable of picking up even the slightest whiff of the strongest spices. My food lacked any taste whatsoever. At one point, I began to panic and fearfully believed that it’d be permanent; that I’d never be able to smell or taste again.
On Dec. 7, I ran downstairs and threw up in the bathroom at 7 a.m., bellowing in pain. I couldn’t get up and my stomach hurt anytime I tried to move. My dad thought my appendix was damaged and I was rushed to the hospital, yelping, wearing nothing but socks and pajamas.
Since I had COVID-19, I was put in a private room and was utterly lonely. I was in the hospital for seven hours (drifting in and out of sleep) with the kindest nurse. They gave me various IVs. Apparently, the medicine my doctor gave me for my nasty cough was obstructing and clogging my bowels. It took me a few days to recover from that but I was sent home that night, wearing a hospital gown and given new clothes.
COVID-19 upended my life. It prevented me from enjoying my first semester of university and put my entire family at risk. But it altered our dynamic–it made my family bond in a way that we didn’t before, making us all closer as we constantly checked on each other and took care of one another.
Another silver lining was that my recovery gave me loads of time for introspection. I got to read books I never got around to, I had time to write.
My optimism bias went from “it won’t happen to me” to “it happened to me but we’ll make it through okay” and, despite the scary hospitalizations and the vulnerability of my family members, we made it through okay indeed. Miraculously, we all safely recovered, including my grandma and little brother.