Childless and Vaccinated, I Feel Left Out Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Even in normal times, society looks with embarrassment upon people who don’t have kids. During the coronavirus period that attitude only intensified

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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The recent lockdown in Tel Aviv.
The recent lockdown in Tel Aviv.Credit: Meged Gozani
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Yesterday I got my second coronavirus shot. Like millions of others who have completed the vaccination procedure, the pandemic has ended for me – at least at this stage. I got through the year without falling ill with COVID-19. I didn’t experience loss of taste and smell, nor dry coughs or breathing difficulties. As far as I know, I wasn’t infected and didn’t infect others. People in my close milieu also didn’t get sick. For me, the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who were infected by the virus were something remote, something you hear about in the news – almost like a natural disaster that happens in another country. Many people I knew died last year, but not one of them died from the coronavirus. The person most dear to me who died of the disease was probably the Palestinian politician Saeb Erekat.

This week I spoke with a friend who told me that she had entered her seventh quarantine since the start of the crisis. Almost shamefully, I confessed to her that I wasn’t in quarantine even once. She found that hard to believe and said that if that’s really true, I should be interviewed on TV and radio. But it is the truth: I didn’t get a message from the Shin Bet security service or a phone call from the Health Ministry. No one with whom I was in close quarters called to tell me they were sick, and I also didn’t call anyone else with such news. I never did a test, because there was no reason.

It’s not that I took extra-extreme cautionary measures. I went out of the house every day and I even traveled on buses and trains, wearing a face mask. Based on the way I experienced the events, I almost find it difficult to understand how you get infected with the virus. Actually, though, the answer is quite clear. Most of my friends experienced the pandemic similar to the way I did. In contrast, all the people I know who had to go into isolation are parents of children in the school system. Their experience was substantively different from mine.

Nearly a year ago, just a few weeks after the first outbreak of COVID-19 in Israel, after the initial confusion, the picture became clear: This crisis revolves largely around the school system. Of course, businesses also shut down, and the lockdown regulations applied to the whole population. Even so, the main part of the story was the schools and preschools. An entire nation anticipated news about a new “capsule” policy every day, or about the reopening of middle schools. Thus, even though this disease barely affects children, children again became the focus of the discussion. The reason for this would seem to be that in Israel everything, but absolutely everything, in the end comes back to children.

Every day social media gave voice to the outcry of parents exhausted by the lockdowns. I truly felt for them – their difficulties looked unbearable. At the same time, I noticed a paradoxical phenomenon: A few people in my circles, who for years had advocated non-parenthood and had been against the idea of bringing children into the world, decided this year of all times that they want to be parents. On the face of it, that made no sense. The coronavirus crisis ostensibly proved that raising children is a dangerous act in a fragile world. But within the Israeli cultural context, it looks as though the intense experiences of parenthood during the pandemic wielded a sort of magnetic power, like heroic tales of hazing during combat training. Hard and wearying as they were, these experiences at least gave meaning to the period.

A Tel Aviv beach during the last lockdown.Credit: Meged Gozani

The childless were spared the daily grind of finding things to do for children with frayed nerves. But the price was that they were excluded from the enveloping collective experience of “raising children in times of coronavirus.” The greatest catastrophe of recent generations passed us by, but that didn’t make us feel good. The world around fell away, life cycles stopped and what remained was absolutely meaningless. Even in normal times, childless people are cut off from a large part of the conversations at work, like a vegan who finds himself at a meat meal. Society looks at us with embarrassment mixed with pity, and wonders what to do with us. Now that effect has been tremendously augmented. We’ve never felt more disconnected.

“Anomie” is a sociological term that denotes the breakdown of the social bonds and patterns that regulate people’s lives. The sociologist Emile Durkheim maintained that when values and structures change or are rapidly eroded, many people are left feeling alienated. The structures that gave significance to existence unravel and their lives remain without meaning. People need social frameworks and demands, even those that cause them difficulty. Their absence is liable to lead them to nullity and to fatal confusion. Because society defines one’s existence, the disintegration of social structures could even cause what Durkheim terms “anomic suicide” – someone who takes their own life even if no disaster has befallen them personally. Individuals who remain without a social function simply annuls themselves, activated by the deep societal currents. Quite a few of my friends came close to that condition this past year.

Corona closure

Now, after getting the second dose, I have been waiting for side effects. In some way, I anticipated experiencing the coronavirus itself, at least in a weakened form, in order to achieve a closure of sorts that would signify the end of this period. I canceled all my meetings, and became vigilantly attuned to every tremor or shiver of my skin. But the hours have passed and no side effect has appeared. I have no fever, no chills, even my arm doesn’t hurt. The coronavirus has persistently refused to attach itself to me.

“This time nothing happened to us. Nothing awful and nothing courageous. Nothing that’s funny and nothing that’s crummy.” So wrote Nahum Gutman in his mini-story “When Nothing Happened,” from his classic children’s book “Lobengulu King of Zulu.” The narrator is lying in ambush to snag a tiger, but the animal is a no-show. He sits and listens to the chirping of the crickets, the arrival of the drops of dew, the breathing of the earth.

That’s what I have felt, too. Sometimes, at night, the coronavirus appeared in my dreams. It was felt as an undefined deep current, and woke me from my slumber. And then I would sit up in bed, peering into the dark. But the coronavirus had already faded away.

COVID-19 didn’t call, didn’t knock on my door and didn’t send a letter, either. It’s important to say: I’m not claiming I suffered. Suffering, as noted, is dependent on a structure of meaning. If I had to compare my life in the past year to a novel by Albert Camus, I would choose not “The Plague,” but precisely “The Stranger.”

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