The Virus Babies
The pandemic wreaked havoc with everything. Courts were shuttered. Flights cancelled. Borders sealed. Adoptions, both international and domestic, became mired in dysfunction. Adoptive parents got stuck abroad, and if you believe the stories, some couples are still enmeshed in far-flung places like Nigeria almost 18 months after the virus first appeared in North America. Just a few weeks of quarantine, officials told these potential parents. Then strand after strand of red tape unfurled and these people found they were adopting a new country, not a child.
In the U.S. virtual adoptions were a thing at first. A judge and a family and the kid all on Zoom. Papers signed with electronic signatures. There were even a few foreign adoptions kept percolating over the internet. Children on the other side of the world, breakfasting via cell phone or webcam with their prospective American parents — bleary-eyed hopefuls, nibbling toast in New York at midnight and sipping a stiff shot out of a coffee cup. Nothing good came of any of this. Everyone was pretending. No one could go anywhere once we realized the virus was going to spike again and again.
When the internet crashed the pretending was over. Nothing was ever going to be as it was before the virus. Even on days when the world wide web rose from the dead and people pretended life was back to normal, they found the phone lines jammed, or TV stations lumbering zombie-like through newscasts, delivering indecipherable pandemic statistics that sparked yelling matches between locked-down couples.
Schools and restaurants remained closed. The post office delivered mail only to hospitals and essential businesses. Streets were littered with trash after city budgets were pared to the bone — and even after an eventual infusion of cash, street cleaning and garbage pick-up was difficult at best. Cars sat immobilized, their batteries, like plans for the future, drained and forgotten.
Somewhere in the unraveling social workers found themselves making house calls, standing six feet from the door, talking to pregnant girls from dusty porches or narrow hallways, explaining that the plans to place their babies for adoption had gone sideways like everything else. Sometimes these young women were fortunate to have lost their housing and were now staying with aunts, or cousins, or reconciled parents in neighborhoods nicer than the ones they were evicted from. Some of these young women were grocery clerks, or take-out waitresses, or hospital custodians, or other revered essential workers — and were, for the first time in their lives, getting paid a living wage. Some were reveling in emergency safe housing in former boutique hotels where they waited out their quarantines after being exposed to the virus.
Sometimes it was the social worker’s idea — but mostly it was the girls who thought of keeping their babies due to a betterment in their circumstances. Their babies were suspect anyway. No one wanted to adopt them. Attitudes about the virus babies were far worse than when adoption first came into vogue at the turn of the last century. It was the mothers in that era who were thought to be defective genetically, beyond hope for anything above industrial training as laundresses or scullery maids. The babies were salvageable, it was thought back then, through an abundance of nurture. But the pandemic had flipped that view on its head. Babies were confirmed carriers of the virus, and no one was opting for a miniature pariah unless it was their own flesh and blood.
A band of big donors made family preservation their cause. Animal shelters had emptied out in the first weeks of the lockdown. Nursing homes and homes for the disabled also found themselves empty within a month — either because their residents left in body bags or because family members decided to bring them home. Children in orphanages and group homes, some who’d been returned by foster parents, exhausted from homeschooling, were an embarrassing afterthought. Infants marked for adoption were considered only at the eleventh hour. But finally, family preservation in all its permutations was touted from billboards on every corner and extolled through the speakers of the virus vans that patrolled every neighborhood. Adopt a kitten. Keep your baby. Help grandma. The virus unmasked our humanity.
Empty office buildings were remodeled into affordable apartments. There was paid maternity leave, free childcare, free birth control, healthcare and full employee benefits for everyone. The rich, initially, had thought their risk could be ameliorated with black market medication, purchases of personal ventilators, and on-call concierge respiratory therapists. But the medication didn’t work for everyone, and after months of panic over the ventilator supply, it turned out that being intubated damaged many patients’ lungs and hastened death.
Guaranteed income wormed its way into our waning capitalist so-called paradise in order to save us. The economy had been clubbed to death, and people had to eat unless you wanted them in the streets, or begging at supermarket doors. Society had learned its lesson during the first year of virus’s ravaging. The poor and the underinsured, well or not, were the ones who kept showing up for work. Those who were desperate for their paychecks kept spreading the illness.
And so, after 120 years of stolen children, sealed records, orphan trains, good intentions, bad intentions, unspeakable corruption, and innumerable broken hearts, adoption ceased.
The ripples of goodness spread outward, encircling other causes. With so much medical waste clogging landfills, disposable diapers were banned. Subsidized electric trucks made the rounds three times a week, picking up dirty diapers and delivering clean ones. Regular visits to the pediatrician and the dentist were rewarded with coupons for high-end restaurant take-out. Gym equipment was trucked to every home. Free semi-weekly vegetable delivery from community gardens became the norm. And everyone, absolutely everyone, learned how to wash their hands.