This is real. The chaos and uncertainty you are wrestling with — that you feel as unease and fatigue — is real. The pandemic is really happening, and that is the most important thing for you to remember. When you feel overwhelmed or disoriented, consciously remind yourself that the coronavirus pandemic is real.
The Story So Far
Late in 2019 a virus made the leap from animal to man, precipitating an outbreak in China. Because of a delayed response to that outbreak by the Chinese government, the virus was able to leap to other countries, precipitating a pandemic. Because of a delayed response to that pandemic by the American government, the virus was able to overrun the United States.
Following varying degrees of mitigation over several months, the federal government and the governors of America’s states and territories are now relaxing restrictions in service of economic recovery. Despite this easing of restrictions, however, the virus persists, and nothing about the biological threat posed by the pandemic has changed.
COVID-19 and Risk
You probably know that the coronavirus is particularly lethal for the elderly, blessedly mild for most children, and that as many as one in three infected individuals have no symptoms.
Assuming that you have not been infected with COVID-19 yourself, and whatever your age and physical health, you may find yourself thinking it would be better to ‘get it over with’ and contract the coronavirus, because survival does seem to produce at least short-term immunity. Not only would recovery mean you could socialize and do normal things like get your hair cut or go to a restaurant, but your employment prospects would also improve — and particularly so if the government issues identity documents which certify prior infection.
While many people are counted as recovered in official statistics, however, that merely means they tested negative for active COVID-19 in two tests administered a minimum of twenty-four hours apart. What recovery does not mean is that those individuals are necessarily healthy or have returned to their previous level of fitness. Indeed, many people who contact COVID-19, including people in their 30’s, continue to have adverse health consequences for a month or more after having met the bureaucratic standard of recovery.
Because data from the current pandemic is the only COVID-19 data that exists, we are still learning about the various ways that this disease can damage the human body. For example, in the past month alone it was determined that a rare but potentially fatal complication for children — variously called MIS-C (multi-system inflammatory syndrome) or PIMS (pediatric inflammatory multi-system syndrome), which shares commonalities with Kawasaki’s disease and toxic shock — was hidden among the tidal wave of patients being seen at hospitals around the world. What we cannot possibly know, however, is whether there will be any long-term negative health effects, as has been the case with other viral infections.
Ten or thirty years from now, will there be thousands or millions of recovered COVID-19 patients who need new heart valves, or who are at higher risk of blood clots and stroke because of vascular damage that we cannot detect? Gambling your life on COVID-19 is not just gambling in the short term, but gambling that you will not be adversely affected in the future. And as of today, no one can guarantee that you won’t, even if you have an asymptomatic case or otherwise seem to fully recover.
Personal Responsibility and Permission
In relaxing measures that were put in place during March, April and May of 2020, federal and state officials are signaling that they have done what they intend to do to protect the health of American citizens, and are now turning to other governmental concerns, including particularly the interconnected federal and state economies.
The implications of this change may seem frightening, but for the most part federal and state officials have not instituted mandatory policies which increase your personal healthcare risk. While you are now being told what you can do, you are not being told that you must do specific things which increase your risk of contracting COVID-19.
What this bureaucratic transition signals is that you must now accept personal responsibility for reducing your own exposure to the coronavirus pandemic. In many locations some restrictions will remain in place for months to come, but as a general rule you are now as responsible for avoiding COVID-19 as you are for avoiding a car accident or bolt of lighting.
During this transition the most important thing you can do is to take conscious responsibility for your own welfare. And a key part of that is giving yourself permission to determine the restrictions and mitigation protocols you intend to follow regardless of government edicts, social constraints or even employment requirements.
This is your life, and now that officials are stepping back you have the right to decide how you are going to live your life while COVID-19 remains a threat. Apart from dependents you are responsible for you do not have the right to tell anyone else how to live their lives, but no one has the right to tell you how to live yours.
Priorities and Privilege
The balancing act you are now taking personal responsibility for is no different than the balancing act that federal and state officials took responsibility for during March, April and May of 2020. In exchange for protecting healthcare infrastructure, and by extension the health of individual citizens, the economy was idled and a great deal of debt was assumed. As federal and state officials turn their attention back to fiscal matters, leaving you solely responsible for your health, you will also have to factor your personal finances into your own healthcare equation.
Depending on any dependents you are responsible for, and any financial reserves at your disposal, the choices you have to make may be exceedingly difficult. What we can say, however, is that whatever your situation is today, you can take proactive steps to put yourself in the best possible position going forward, and that includes continuing to prioritize your health whenever possible. Even if you have to work in circumstances that put you at increased risk, you can still decrease that risk, and you should endeavor to do so.
A False Choice
As with the appeal of contracting COVID-19 and ‘getting it over with’, it may seem your life would be easier if you prioritized money over health, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
If you do become sick, even moderate illness will inevitably lead to a loss of work, to say nothing of potential medical expenses. A more protracted illness could lead to outright job loss, and a severe case could include long-term inpatient and outpatient care, wiping out your annual earnings and any assets you may have.
Money does matter, but in a pandemic with no end in sight so does discipline. Even if you must put work or business ahead of your own health — particularly because you are responsible for the welfare of others — you must consider the ramifications if you get sick.
In fact, even from a purely economic perspective in which your only concern is money, avoiding COVID-19 may still be the smartest decision you can make.
What You Need to Know
While there is an enormous publicly available stockpile of global, national and state data about the pandemic, and more being gathered and reported every day, none of that information — not a single statistic — is critical or even relevant to the decisions you need to make to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Instead, you already know everything you need to know:
* The COVID-19 virus exists in the United States and will persist until a vaccine is found.
* While the virus is particularly lethal to the elderly and people with preexisting conditions, it can make anyone very sick.
* However young or healthy you are, you must also take into account the health of people with whom you are in close contact.
* To limit virus transmission you should wear a mask and/or face shield, maintain six feet of separation with others, and frequently wash your hands.
That’s it — that’s everything you need to know. A new (novel) virus is present in the environment, and you must defend yourself against that virus. While you can certainly peruse or even obsess over COVID-19 statistics, nothing you learn from that data will affect your decision making. To the greatest extent possible you should prioritize health first, and even if various metrics improve in your area you should remain vigilant.
On the other hand, if you do want to turn your attention to other pursuits you will not be at increased risk from doing so, and you might be happier.
Your Pandemic Time Horizon
While you will certainly have plenty of short-term decisions to make, as you always do, and some of them may be difficult, the minimum time horizon you should use in planning your response to the COVID-19 pandemic is one year.
Starting today, how do you plan to make it through the next twelve months without getting sick? How much money and other resources do you need to meet your financial obligations? How can you cut your costs in order to ease work or business requirements? How can you make money if your current job goes away in the future?
Whatever plan you come up with, revise it as time passes — say, every month or two — so you always have a one-year plan in mind.
The Benefits of Planning Ahead
Acknowledging reality means you will be better prepared for new developments, particularly if the pandemic worsens. Where others will have to readjust their thinking and behavior — and some may be unable to do so — you will already be doing what you can to keep from getting sick.
In fact, you should assume that there will be second and even third waves of infection around the country between now and a year from now. In that context, people who believe the worst is over will not only be at greater risk of infection, but greater risk of psychological stress from having to adjust to such setbacks.
Communicating your standards of conduct, and sticking to them regardless of any fleeting relief in your city or state, may cause friction with others in the short term, but over time — and probably fairly soon — you will teach the people around you what you expect of them and what they can expect of you. If they care about you they will accept your decisions, and if not you should feel free to treat anyone who refuses to do so as a threat to your health. Decide what you think is right and do not make allowances or exceptions for others.
Putting Things Down
Whenever you set out on a long journey — and existing for twelve months during a global pandemic is a long journey — it pays to be prepared, but also to travel light. It is important to have the things you need, but also important not to burden yourself with things that make it harder to achieve your objective.
In terms of physical stress, you should complement your mitigation practices with good sleep habits, good eating habits, and regular exercise. (If those things are important in the best of times, they are even more important now.) You should also be careful about taking on new physical obligations, because fatigue may cause you to let your guard down about the pandemic.
Just as it makes obvious sense not to carry around heavy objects that wear you down, however, it also makes sense to set aside mental stressors as well. Being dogged by fears or doubts when you need to focus or relax is inherently counterproductive, so you should also do what you can to maintain your psychological strength.
In that context, one practice you should consider is what many people call ‘journaling’. Like anything else, journaling — or keeping a diary, or just logging your thoughts when the mood hits — can turn into a lifestyle, religion or fetish, including agonizing over the best pens and paper if you write longhand, or the best apps/fonts if you use software, but I don’t care about any of that, and neither should you. What you should care about is that writing can be an important stress release.
When your mind senses danger it issues a lot of urgent thoughts. Some of those thoughts are on-topic and helpful, some are not so helpful, and some are completely loony, but unless you have training and real-world experience thinking under stress you will probably have trouble figuring out which is which. Unfortunately, because your mind is dully aware that those thoughts may be life-critical, it will keep propelling them to the level of consciousness, which will crowd out other thoughts. That will keep you from being able to relax and have other thoughts or not thoughts at all, which may in turn leave you feeling perpetually hysterical.
One of the best ways to relieve your own mind of its primal obligation to keep such thoughts alive is to put them down like the unwieldy weights they are…on paper. Writing about concerns or fears is not only beneficial because it creates a record you can refer to, but as you write your mind also becomes aware that those thoughts are safely stored away. As a result, your mind will feel less obligated to keep reminding you to think about those thoughts, because it knows where to find them if it needs them.
Staying in Touch
The fact that the coronavirus cannot be seen is one of the most disorienting aspects of the pandemic. The virus exists — it is a real, physical thing — but at 120-nanometers you cannot see it coming. Where a hurricane, flash flood, forest fire or tornado manifests as physical force and leaves a debris field, COVID-19 is immune to your senses.
For that reason you may come to feel — at least on a subconscious level — that the threat is not real. Compounding that problem, many of the solutions we are employing to compensate for the disruptions caused by the pandemic are also unreal, or at least virtual.
Instead of meeting in person we meet online, further abstracting ourselves from important aspects of physical presence such as proximity and touch. It is of course a blessing that we have such compensating technologies, and all we have to do to see that is imagine what the pandemic would be like in the pre-internet age, but those blessings reinforce the feeling of unreality.
To resist the disorienting, destabilizing effects of sensory abstraction, consciously do what you can to ground your senses in the world around you. Human contact by any means is better than no contact at all, but try to replace non-human virtual experiences with real, tangible, physical equivalents when you can.
Instead of doing puzzles or games online, have a book of crosswords by your bed, or a jigsaw on a table where you watch TV, or break out a board game. (And that goes double if you have kids.)
Instead of ordering out or warming up prepared food, cook if you can, so you get the full physical experience of preparation and consumption. (And if you don’t know how to cook, take this opportunity to learn.)
Whether you have an acreage, a yard, or just a sunny window, there is still plenty of time to grow flowers or vegetables. Watching something grow and produce beauty or sustenance is always uplifting, and may be particularly reassuring during our current battle with nature. (If you’re not sure what to grow, ask your friends, and if you have kids get them involved.)
As much as you can, as safely as you can, stay in touch with the real. If you still feel overwhelmed, however, and writing your thoughts down in a journal doesn’t help, write to me here — either in a comment, which may be helpful to others, or privately via the contact form.
— Mark Barrett