28 May, Vienna, Virginia, USA

By Fuad Ahmad

I violated the lockdown today. Broke quarantine, ignored the toothless warnings issued by multiple state and city governments, and got into a rental car to drive my children 360 miles across four states to rendezvous with my ex-wife at a random Ohio rest stop halfway between us. This is what a custody exchange looks like in the era of Covid-19. We wore our masks, gloves, and doused everything we encountered with copious amounts of sanitizer each time we stepped out of the car, but the trip still felt risky. It’s not my intention to endanger public health, but this exchange was essential. Normally I see my kids every month, but since the lockdown began, forcing the cancellation of any travel, I went 80 days without holding my 4-year old and 7-year old sons in my arms, which is the longest stretch of time we’ve ever been apart. I cannot spend these next two years physically absent from their lives.   

It appears that I’m guilty of something akin to what Dominic Cummings did, the chief aide to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is currently being excoriated in the British press for violating the lockdown in April to relocate his family. The key difference between our cases is that Dominic Cummings tested positive for Covid-19, and his family was sick when he traveled, whereas both mine and my ex-wife’s households are healthy and have been under total isolation for months. But movement these days is still fraught with paranoia. Here in the United States, all the local “Shelter-in-Place” orders are largely unenforceable in a country where the federal government has been issuing contradictory guidance and messages for months. The only reason my ex-wife and I agreed to these trips is to sate the desperation in my children’s pleas to see me. We’ll continue doing these exchanges every other month as long as the lockdown persists, or until circumstances dictate something different. And yet, unlike in the UK, no one here will publish scathing rebukes of me, nor will my travel merit any censure, because far worse things are unfolding all around us. Cities are burning across the USA in race riots and anti-government protests, and a spirit of anarchy has filled the vacuum left where we once gave lip service to ideas like “personal accountability” and the “rule of law.” Me and my children schlepping across state lines are the least of this country’s current problems.  

But this story is still just beginning. Covid-19 is laying waste to our security and stability just as it is eroding the assumptions underlying everyone’s lives across the planet. The employment opportunities I’ve been looking for to relocate closer to my kids have vanished. My ex-wife’s job is suddenly beset with uncertainty. I’ve been flying to see my children once a month, which was always a somewhat absurd proposition, but has now become a wholly untenable practice. And so it goes for all of us, cut off from the sources of our strength and identity, forced apart from our communities, watching helplessly as the businesses and families around us descend into an endless sea of red ink and unpayable bills. There is nothing about my situation, or my family’s situation, or this country’s situation that is in the least bit sustainable. And yet our elected leaders are avoiding dealing with the reckoning at hand, and are still dodging the hard questions that have arisen everywhere about how we build what comes next, and how we fix what’s so clearly broken. 

As I drove through the Appalachians yesterday, through Virginia and Maryland and Pennsylvania, I was reminded of the sheer size of this country. I was on the road for 11 hours, through winding crevasses, under and over mountains, across rivers, and through breathtaking scenes of natural beauty. But this is just a tiny fraction of the USA, and on the highway, you can’t help but marvel at the fact that this country is large enough to encompass multiple realities that do not overlap at all. One reason why Covid-19 is wrecking this country is because we don’t have a singular consciousness that ties us all together, but instead are a loose amalgamation of communities who operate in entirely different worlds from each other. People have the space and freedom to believe whatever they want, and they behave accordingly. As our federal system collapses under the weight of its current incompetence, it becomes little more than a symbolic overarching structure devoid of any real impact on the local level. We then become little more than isolated individuals bearing little responsibility to each other.

What exactly does citizenship mean when the social contract is breaking? The “consent of the governed” erodes further with each passing day. It’s getting harder to see all the independent realities and cultures that exist in this country, and as our leaders foment division and we descend further into the mire of warring tribal mentalities, the task of tying these disparate threads together into a cohesive larger narrative becomes ever more difficult. The USA contains multitudes. But the center cannot hold. Madness is circulating amongst the populace in the form of conspiracy theories that have migrated from the fringes into the beating heart of Middle America. Violence is looming. I wish I knew what my place is in all this, or what I could do to try and fix it, but right now, I’m just trying to get my kids to safety.

Mile after mile after mile, I drove on, thinking that all I really know for certain is that I have to do right by the only people who really need me. Maybe if I get those relationships right, the larger ones we are all supposed to cultivate with each other will fall into place. One can dream. Or, one can simply continue plowing forward, churning towards the future, as the answers we seek recede like the horizon, over the next mountain, around the next bend, and beyond the next cresting hill.