Oh no, this can’t be happening right now, I thought to myself as I felt that nagging little tickle in my throat choking me up and the resistant flex in the rib cage. 

I was about to have a full-blown coughing fit.

In public.

During a pandemic.

With the most attributed symptom on full display.

I took a small sip of air in and it began. Behind my mask, my eyes squinted shut and the muffled barking sound went on for what felt like an eternity. I folded over my shopping cart and prayed it would end. 

Before I could even open my watery eyes, I could feel the red hot stares of the people around me. 

From behind their masks, I could see their side-eyed looks of disapproval, disgust, and panic. Not one single look of empathy or understanding among them. I could see the motions of whispering and pointed head nods in my direction. Every stare was questioning my presence, judging my reasoning for being in public, scanning my cart for some justifiable reason to have drawn me from the hazmat bubble I surely must’ve been living in. 

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Unfortunately for me, my seasonal allergies were taking an absolute beating at the same time as this global pandemic. Apparently pollen didn’t get the memo it needed to give us asthma sufferers a break this season. I wish they didn’t make me cough like Patient Zero in Outbreak, I really do, for many reasons. But, alas, they do.

I knew I should have worn a shirt that said “It’s not COVID” with a picture of my negative test results on it. Seems like it would’ve come in handy. 

The people in the store continued to stare like I was some inconsiderate, irresponsible citizen. How dare she? Doesn’t she know? Why is she here?

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First of all, believe me, I know! You should see my Google search history. Second, I basically bathed in sanitizer to come out to the store, sprayed disinfectant on the mask I was wearing,  and have been social distancing akin to a severe agoraphobic. Third, I’m here at the store for the same reason as you; both essentials and creature comforts. I needed medicine but also coffee, dry shampoo, and a summer scented candle (that I’m too stuffy to smell, really, but I’m sure it’s amazing).

I wanted to take the intercom microphone and defend myself, tell the entire store, “It’s just a cough!” It wouldn’t have made a difference though and I was not prepared to end up on someone’s camera phone video to be added to an out of context stir meltdown reel on the internet. 

I just quietly held in the smaller coughs, straining and possibly herniating myself, but a hernia or pulled muscle felt like it would have been better than more of their ostracizing glares.

On my way out, I heard someone else doing the same kind of silent suffering cough and you know what I did? I just kept it moving.

I didn’t stop to pass judgment or speak hexes at a volume just low enough to be heard but not loud enough to be confronted. I just hoped that their cough was just a cough like mine and would go away soon. I didn’t damn them for their seemingly careless venture to the store; I just hoped they would find whatever they were looking for to feel better. 

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I know it’s hard in these difficult times to take things at face value, which is increasingly complicated by the fact a person’s actual face is mostly covered. That being said, we still need to keep our common sense about us as people and remember that people can still get all the other variations of sickness and suffer from ailments—even during a pandemic.

Give a little more kindness and give less shade. Be a little more curious and not so accusatory. Try a little harder to understand because assuming is so effortless.

Nickey J Dunn

I'm a full-time wife, mom of three, employee, OCD Irish Aries. I'm originally from the Pacific Northwest, now living in Phoenix. I'm passionate about my family, writing, and writing about my family. Mental health, anti-bullying, and body-positive advocate.