Life in the Time of COVID

Something there is that doesn’t love a mask. But they’ve become an important part of our contemporary, surreal lives.

Just a few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine, and nobody would have predicted the world turning upside down as it has.

As of this moment, there have been more than 800,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in this country, and more than 2.5 million cases around the globe, with more than 43,000 deaths in this country and more than 170,000 globally.
Not that a pandemic hadn’t been predicted and warned about by medical experts, President Barak Obama and others.

But our attention, and our anxiety, had been focused on the threat of nuclear weapons buildup in North Korea and Iran, by a refugee crisis from the war in Syria, military conflicts in Yemen, and by violence and economic catastrophes in Latin America and South America, by growing religious and ethnic conflicts in Burma, Africa and elsewhere and by military campaigns in Ukraine and growing political turmoil here in the United States as the 2020 election approaches.

Not to mention a full-blown (sort of) impeachment trial. And oh, yes, the screaming reality of climate changes, with devastating fires in Australia and California

So when news broke in early January about a new virus that been sickening people who’d visited a wild-animal market in central China, it seemed like yet another story half a world away.

A little over a century ago, the world saw 21 million deaths — nearly 548,500 in this country alone — from a pandemic at a time when our medical understanding was a fraction of what it is today. Since the 1918 flu, our ability to access and disseminate information has also grown as colossally as the world has shrunk.

But that seemingly shrinking planet has enabled the novel virus to spread at astonishing speed.

"Despite our mastery of molecular biology, " Michael Specter wrote in a recent New Yorker article,"we live in an era in which someone can wake up with an infection in China—or France, Australia, or any other place with an airport—and fly to San Francisco in time for dinner, spreading the virus long before he suspects that there’s anything wrong. For most of human history, a virus like covid-19 might have killed many people in the community where it originated, but then stopped spreading."

We also live in a time when we know instantaneously what’s occurring around the world, but when social interaction — especially among young people — has suffered.

There's also a flood of information is at our fingertips, but much of that is misinformation or disinformation, with rumors easily spread, especially when genuine news-gathering organizations face an existential crisis.

Is there any wonder we're witnessing fear and suspicion spreading even as the virsus spreads? And masks, which have been familiar for a long time in Asia, take some getting used to closer to home.

What bizarre times we're living in, when throngs of people still, somehow, insist the pandemic is a hoax. And the weirdness takes different forms as we get used to a world of omnipresent masks, gloves, physical barriers to separate our otherwise, routine human interactions.
Smiles disappear when people are wearing masks, after all. That person behind that mask could be a friend or someone we know, who we may not recognize us behind ours but may worry we're a “potential virus carrier” (just as we might of them) even though they're healthy and only tring to protect us.
Or are we? Because so many are asymptomatic, we really don’t know. And have to carry that anxiety within us.

So we tend to turn away when we see the one another in public, and shun one another if there’s the slightest approach, even accidental.

In fact there’s so much about this invisible virus that we don’t know (like whether it's present right around us) that the not knowing heightens our anxiety.

That reality came home to me recently when I invited my daughter, who lives in New York, to come stay with us. Her immediate response — “Wouldn’t you be afraid?” — caused some soul-searching for us both. Which is, admittedly, the confusion of our time.

With the rise of demagogues around the globe, the potential for fear-mongering and scapegoating at a time of global economic distress is adds a frightening political dimension to our current crisis, with some in office misusing their power fomenting added societal and political tension.

In times of calamity, whether the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or natural disasters, there certainly tends to be an outpouring of goodwill to remind us -- like the cheering that takes place each evening in appreciation for hospital workers and first-responders. And that should certainly buoy our faith in the goodness of people.

Yet the last underlying crisis I'll mention (I promise) is the tremendous disparity in wealth in this century. That has tremendous implications in how COVID gets treated or not. And THAT cbackground awareness affects many of us deeply, even if we don’t realize the subliminal effects.
Even for those who believe things are going well during this time of relative isolation or confronting people in face masks and doing our shopping in carefully 6-feet-apart choreography, I’m convinced the broader context of constant death-toll headlines and reminders that, for example, blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately more likely to die from the virus, take a subconscious toll on our psyches.

Even before the pandemic, we've been a society under stress because of extreme political and societal disruptions in these polarized times So the "stranger” in this time of COVID seems a particular assault on our collective sensibility.

So what do we do?

Let’s take some deep breaths, stay home and remember to socially connect even as we physically distance from one another. We can stay tuned to what’s happening without overloading.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said FDR as the nation faced the Great Depression. It’s wise to remember that added stress can do physical damage to ourselves and is used constantly as a weapon by those in power to manipulate, scam and bully us.

We can certainly take action — making donations, making masks, and especially reaching out to those around us who are especially isolated and need our help.

Whatever we can do to retain and share our humanity in this time when we’re so tested is vitally important.

Stay healthy, physically and emotionally.


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Check out my books, Inner Landscapes and Good Will & Ice Cream