I Can't Breath mural
Posted on Reddit page, June 20, 2020

Breathing through Pandemic Days: Getting from Me to We

Each day since isolation provides new information, unexpected devastation, an opportunity for transformation beyond the individual…once we understand the meaning of “pandemic.

March 10: I facilitate RIO’s first Peer Editing Workshop for faculty applying for an NEH Fellowship. I walk into that meeting, holding tightly to a wipe, offering the box to scholars. One colleague remarks, “that won’t work, it doesn’t have alcohol.” I respond, “I’m using it as a barrier, so I don’t have to touch the doors.” I was cautious.

March 11: My East Coast octogenarian relatives say “There’s nothing we can do”; “I’m going to live my life”; “I’m healthy,” as they continue to food shop and go to the beauty parlor. My mother runs around NYC unable to find hand sanitizer. I worry for the elderly.

Through to mid-March: My public defender husband goes to work. Even as CU Boulder goes virtual, Denver County Judges require in-person representation leaving lawyers, clients, inmates, Sheriff’s Officers, staff, judges, cleaners—the public—all vulnerable to exposure. I worry for my husband and those in custody.

March 16: I send letters to our governor, CO’s Chief Justice, Denver County Court, clerks, administrative staff, and the Denver Post:

I am deeply concerned that you have not closed the courts—even temporarily—and mandated that they Go Virtual...The health and safety of some of the most vulnerable, as well as those who strive to ensure justice is served, are at great risk…If the courts can temporarily shut down, and if mechanisms to ensure justice can be put into place immediately using existing models, we can be part of ending the pandemic's rise. Should prison, jail, transitioning populations be infected, tax payer dollars and countless other lives will be at risk. Please help to secure the health of the most vulnerable, and take immediate action to prevent needless spread of this virus. Please help the State of Colorado ensure both health and justice.

March 19: My husband gets the call: He had been exposed during lunch at the Court house. He puts on his mask (which had been around his neck while he ate dinner), stands up, and enters the master bedroom which has its own private bathroom. He won’t rejoin us until 14 days later. I become conscious of my breathing: I am alone.

End of March: During that excruciatingly long March, I throw myself into my work. PPE and pulse oximeters are sold out. Friends show mild to moderate symptoms. Breathing becomes more difficult until Passover when my husband emerges healthy.

April: Like most Jews during Passover, we reflect on suffering and enslavement, appreciating what we have compared with others. Now that my husband is okay, my breathing is again automatic. What will our new normal be? May we watch TV for entertainment rather than only COVID-19-related news? I gratefully join the Center for Humanities and the Arts’ Monday Movie NightsWe are together in isolation.


To write a “pandemic post,” to capture “thoughts, observations, concerns, fears, hopes, and musings about life under the current pandemic conditions we are all experiencing in Boulder, Colorado, the US, and the globe,” first we must understand the meaning of “pandemic.” According to Merriam-Webster, it is “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population”; “pan” is rooted in “all,” as in all-inclusive.

May 25: George Floyd could not breathe. He is killed. My difficulty-breathing-from-angst, and the term “pandemic,” take on additional meanings. After all, a pandemic, by definition, is not about me. Injustice is a disease that affects everyone, and we are differently affected.

Juneteenth: Reflecting on the killing of George Floyd and others, I ask myself how will we get through these inequitable days? I learn more; try to listen more; strive to act more. How do we talk and learn about the history of different people’s suffering, including their causes? What does one breath mean if all do not have equal access to air?

Coda: A Prelude that Inspires a Hopeful Post Script

At the end of February, with great prescience, Jennifer Ho submitted a grant proposal for a Summer Institute for 2021, “Racial Literacies: How to Talk and Teach About Race and Racism in the U.S.” As we wait and hope, I realize the power of Hope to transform feelings, even amidst pandemics. Continuing the work, with virtuous leaders informed by science, history and justice, there can be hope that together we will alter the realities underlying these pandemic inequities and inequitable pandemics.

Donna K. Axel
Proposal Editor & Writing Coach, Donna Axel - University of Colorado Boulder
Research & Innovation Office (RIO)Proposal Writing Support