It seemed like it was only theoretical. We heard about other countries on the other side of the globe closing down businesses and requiring citizens to stay home. There were rumblings of the remote possibility of a temporary shutdown in places around the country, but it didn’t seem possible. Then cities cancelled major events. Then teachers were told to pack up necessary supplies and start planning for remote teaching for several weeks at worst. Then everything just stopped.
For nearly two months, the vast majority of us stayed home. We worked from home when possible, tried to keep our children on track with their academics, and learned new skills. We missed important events like funerals, weddings, and graduations. Some of us got sick or watched family members die. Others used the time to learn everything they could about the virus so they could protect their vulnerable family members and themselves.
Some of us coped better than others. I have friends who read a lot of books. I have students who wrote about learning new things and getting closer to family members. We started home improvement projects that we had put off for years. But the positives never quite outweighed the negatives. I know people who lost jobs or were furloughed. In our house we struggled with teaching and learning and a disrupted routine. Isolation amplified the mental health issues of some and even introverts like me eventually remembered how much we like people, at least some people in small doses.
The truth is, this has all been hard. It is hard to be away from loved ones. It is hard to not have physical touch. It is hard to feel like those you love and respect are letting you down by refusing to take precautions or fighting public health measures designed to keep everyone healthy. There are no easy answers and Americans want easy answers. Nuance is not our strength and that is what we need a lot of right now.
States may be “reopening,” but COVID-19 didn’t go away. We know a lot more about it and doctors have learned better ways to treat it. Some of the news is encouraging and some of the news is even more frightening than when we started. We have lost nearly 100,000 lives in three months from a disease no one knew anything about six months ago. We also know that a complete shutdown (and we were never completely shut down as a country, especially if we look at other democracies around the world) cannot last forever.
So where does that leave us? Where does that leave the people eager for “normal”? Where does that leave the people who have legitimate reasons to be frightened of what this virus could do to them or their loved ones? Where does that leave those of us who want to do the right thing by our neighbor while also finding a way to live with a global pandemic out of our control?
I don’t know. None of us do. But if we are going to do this with minimal harm, we must do this with baby steps. Small, calculated baby steps.
Have grace for those who are truly trying. We are all going to make missteps along the way, regardless of how many precautions we take. This is hard because we are being asked to do something that Americans haven’t been asked to do since World War II: truly sacrifice for others. We are not practiced at making decisions in the best interests of others and if we’re being honest, it is a reality that has made us increasingly weaker as a country. It just took a global pandemic to helps some of us finally see just how weak this lack of empathy has made us.
Be willing to adapt
Knowledge is power, but only if we actually use knowledge. Some of the resistance by those who have fought back against mask wearing and extreme social distancing came because early information said it wasn’t necessary. But the early information wasn’t intended to be harmfully misleading; instead the information was dependent on minimal data. As we have learned more, doctors, nurses, scientists, and regular citizens have had to adjust. Adaptability requires a desire to learn and a discerning eye to understand when you are being misled. We also need to be ready to change our routine in an instant. As more people go out, there are very real chances for wide community spread. The faster we shut it down in specific areas, the less likely we are to see significant spikes in new regions.
Avoid conspiracy theories
Humans are intellectually prone to conspiracy theories because when something doesn’t make sense to us, we seek information that will help us make sense of things. We are also prone to information that confirms what we already believe about the world around us. Bots and conspiracy theorists feed on both of those elements of human psychology. Yes, there have been huge breakthroughs throughout history because of discoveries that flew in the face of conventional knowledge. After all, centuries ago people would have thought you were a witch if you suggested that the best way to prevent certain illness was to inject some of those germs into your body in the form of a vaccination.
But we need to be careful, especially in an age when it is so easy to spread inaccurate information across the globe. When we are dealing with something as serious as a global pandemic that is killing people around the world, it isn’t just annoying; it is physically dangerous and emotionally harmful to spread conspiracies that will lead people away from accurate information that could save lives.
Find a way to gather while taking precautions
My sister-in-law told me that she and her friends have put together a small “pod” of people who they are trusting to act responsibly. They have made a pact with each other and if someone breaks that pact, they are temporarily out. We have had one of our single friends, who hasn’t mingled with anyone else over the past two months until this past week, over to our house several times to help keep the loneliness at bay. Nothing here is foolproof and there are no easy answers, but do what you are comfortable with while keeping the gatherings very small with additional precautions. (NPR just printed an article of suggestions for what is “safe” and what is not.) One of my sisters even said that some of her friends are having small group “home” church gatherings to watch online church services together. For those of us who miss worship but question the wisdom of going back into a crowded church building, no matter the measures leadership is taking, this might be a good way to worship with others while slowly emerging from our safe cocoons.
Emerge, but do so with caution
One of the easiest ways to demonstrate that you are taking health measures seriously is to wear a mask. It isn’t just a good health measure; it also signals to those who are more vulnerable that you are putting their health and well-being ahead of your comfort. Make sure you consistently wash and sanitize your hands and if you might be sick, avoid going into public. (This is something that many of us, myself included, should probably be more aware of even without the threat of COVID-19.)
If a certain unnecessary behavior can lead to potential community spread, don’t risk it. Don’t go places that you don’t need to go to or into large crowds that you don’t need to mingle with. We are entering the summer months and we are one of thousands of families trying to decide what to do about our summer vacation plans. As of right now, we are still planning on our camping trip to remote Colorado locations, but we will do so with our own health cautions. If you have made the decision to travel out of state or mingle in larger groups, one option upon return is to show respect for those around you by quarantining yourself for at least a week before venturing out again, especially if you cross state lines. Consider how many people you want on your list of those you have spent time with over the last two weeks if you should come down with COVID-19. Personally, I would like to keep that number low.
Freedom isn’t free, and that isn’t just true when discussing war and liberty. As a mom and a teacher, I have put rules and regulations into place when my children or students have demonstrated an inability to act responsibly and to the detriment of others. We’ve learned a lot about just how difficult it is to both stay in our homes and ask others to do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do. It is honestly emotionally and intellectually painful to watch people flout their shirking of regulations put into place to keep them and others safe. Clearly, some of us still have a lot to learn about looking out for the common good.
We are going to be in the messy in-between for a long time and it is in our best interest to work together to figure out how to move forward while looking out for each other.
So put on your mask, keep your distance, and slowly dip your toes into the water.
It’s the only way we’re all going to be able to jump into the renovated pool when we get to the other side.