We are in the midst of a scary and confusing time, no question. Our current interconnected civilization has not been tested in exactly this way before. We have faced economic turmoil, political upheaval, even military conflicts all with potential and actual global impacts. This, however, is our first struggle with such a highly communicable infection. We may not be passing the test with flying colors but we are not necessarily failing it horrendously either.
The tone of the story varies quite a bit from one country to the next for a whole host of reasons. Amount of advanced notice, health care infrastructure, competence in leadership, the government’s powers and ability to take decisive action, the list goes on and on. There will be a great many ‘what to do’ and ‘what not to do’ lessons to take away from this moving forward.
And I say ‘moving forward’ because there will be a forward, we will get through this. There will be life on the other side of this.
The ‘normal’ we knew at the end of last year may take a long time to return, if it ever fully does. We are facing difficult times right now and there will be more to come but we will find a ‘normal’ beyond this, and a temporary one will assert itself while we are working our way there.
The consequences people are facing or not hypothetical or far off in the future. They are serious and their impacts are numerous. Even beyond the immediate medical concerns we will be dealing with the social and economic repercussions for a long time, economic repercussions which come at a time when so many people are already extremely vulnerable. Working from home is not an option for every job and many people cannot afford to suddenly go without their next pay check, or two.
I am in a very fortunate position for which I am immensely grateful. I live in Canada where access to health care is universal, our overall numbers are still relatively low, and we are already taking action to try and keep them that way. I am financially capable of supporting myself, without going into debt, if I am forced to stay home from work without a pay check or two. I also work for an employer who would do everything in their power to see to it we were not simply cut adrift like that should such a situation arise, and since we are a dance studio it quite possibly could.
People who work in the arts, even very successfully, have a particular vulnerability in a situation like this as they rarely have the same kind of financial safety nets of conventional workplaces and their primary source of income involves gathering large groups of people together for the purpose of public showings and performances. As disappointing as it is to hear that upcoming show you had tickets to has been cancelled think of all the people who were depending on that show to make a living.
We need to be honest about how serious things are and it is perfectly natural to be scared. We should be. But that makes it all the more important we do our best to not allow the clutches of panic to take hold.
It is essential we acknowledge the true seriousness of the situation and prepare as best we can for the challenges ahead but the wild thrashings of panic inevitably cause as much, if not more, damage than the core problem itself.
So what can we do to keep natural, understandable, and perfectly acceptable fear from surging out of control? How do face our situation with open eyes and justified concern without letting that concern spiral into panic? Here are a few things to keep in a mind and a few simple practices to employ.
The Situation Is Serious But Not Permanent
Three months is not an insignificant amount of time but neither is it forever. The first cases were reported in China at the end of December and now in mid-March their numbers have plummeted. They took very serious action to reign in the outbreak but the video is now circling of doctors removing their masks as they close down the last of the emergency hospitals built to handle the crisis. It required some pretty stiff measures but even that runaway train has subsided and more than seventy percent of the people in China infected with COVID-19 have recovered and been released.
And now that China has reached the other end of its initial curve we we may hopefully start to see some data about whether or not people who have recovered from the virus have developed the antibodies to fight it bringing the transmission concerns back down to the level of other common flus and colds.
How we respond to the crisis, what steps we take to limit the spread of the virus, greatly affects what the curve will ultimately look like but everything which curves up will eventually curve down. That doesn’t mean it won’t exact a cost before it does, this virus already has and will continue to do so, but we will reach the other end of the curve and find our way back once we have.
The Main Issue Is Transmissibility
The primary reason this virus is causing such a global crisis is that it is new. It is a new form of coronavirus which none of our bodies have encountered before. This means, unlike the many other forms of coronavirus such as colds and flus which our bodies have dealt with before, our immune systems do not have any antibodies with which to fight off this particular strain. Since we are most potently contagious when symptomatic with a virus, or in the day or two just before we become symptomatic, if our bodies are able to fight the virus off the rate of overall spread drops dramatically because we never reach that symptomatic stage.
A great deal of conversation continues around comparing lethality rates and while they are legitimate concerns they can also be misleading and skewed towards inducing panic. Three percent may not be thirty or forty percent but it is not nothing either, especially when dealing with something this transmissible. Most of the deaths directly caused by the virus are occurring among the elderly and those with pre-existing pulmonary or cardiac vulnerability, though not limited solely to that group. The vast majority of people only experience minor symptoms, if any at all, and the best way to keep the number of fatalities down is to do everything we can to minimize transmission of the virus so it has less chance to gain access to those vulnerable groups.
The Main Battle Is For Health Care Capacities
All of the measures being taken from cancellation of events and suspension of workplaces and schools are aimed at one main objective, keeping the rate of infections from overwhelming our healthcare capacity for treating those who end up needing intensive medical support, including those who need that support for reasons which have nothing to do with the virus. A national total of a million ICU beds might sound relatively impressive but if seventy percent or more of them are already full that leaves a remainder of available beds which could be surpassed by three percent of a single Province or State’s population.
Until more work is done around vaccination and treatment people are going to get sick with COVID-19 and around fifteen percent of those people will need some degree of medical support. If the rate of transmission is kept as low as possible then the numbers of new cases requiring that kind of intensive treatment stay at a more manageable level, allowing time for them to recover and be released thus freeing up the supports.
If the transmission gets explosive then medical services get swamped and are unable to provide the support needed which is what we are seeing happen in Italy. Their mortality numbers are dramatic not because the virus is any more lethal but because their medical resources were overwhelmed leading to people not being able to get the treatment they needed and to tragic stories of people dying while in quarantine in their homes.
The first and most crucial battle we need to win is trying to keep the rate of infection slow enough to allow our health care systems to treat and support those who need it while the illness runs its course. Fifteen percent can be a manageable number when dealing with thousands, even tens of thousands, at a time. The goal is to keep it from being a case of fifteen percent of millions or tens of millions at the same time.
People Are Working On It
Medical and scientific developments do not happen overnight but progress is already being made on isolating and understanding this virus and researchers are learning more and more about it literally every day. This can lead to a bit of confusion as the statistics and percentages tend to keep shifting as more information is gathered from more and more global sources but it is also cause for reassurance.
This virus has exploded onto the world stage in just a couple of months but in those same short months our understanding and preparedness to take precautionary steps has also surged to meet it. Curves such as those in China and South Korea show us there are effective ways to reign in even an explosive scenario, extensive testing and effective quarantine procedures being chief among them.
And even beyond the medical sphere societally and economically people and governments are figuring it out. From pre-emptive closures and cancelling of large gatherings to potential mortgage and loan deferments for those unable to work because of quarantine or workplace closures to telecom companies waving data fees to online institutions offering free platforms for virtual schooling we are figuring out how to cope, how to help each other weather the storm.
Stress doesn’t always bring out the most attractive parts of our nature but it can also engender the kind of solidarity and refusal of despair we see in stores providing free sanitary products to the elderly and neighborhood sing-a-longs on balconies in Italy.
We will get through this because we are all in this together.
Knowledge and perspective are important and helpful but they alone are not always enough to keep the tides of panic at bay. We don’t need to become Zen masters, however, in order to maintain our calm in the face of such unprecedented stresses. A few simple habits can make a world of difference by enabling us to keep the tides from rising too high, to keep them at the level of a manageable swell rather than a drowning tsunami.
Three Deep Breaths
One of the primary and most important tools in the practice of meditation is breathing. Full, deep, and controlled breathing. You don’t need to be a life-long student of meditation to reap the relaxing benefits of effective breathing. Increased oxygenation of the blood steadies the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, improves the releasing of endorphins and neurotransmitters, to say nothing of the ‘count to ten’ benefits gained by taking three good long breaths before reacting to something.
When confronted with a spike in stress or anxiety take three slow and deep breaths. In through your nose with your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, aim to fill your lungs from the bottom up, then release the breath just as slowly out through your mouth. Try it first thing in the morning and last thing at night regardless of your stress level. The calming and clearing impact can make a world of difference.
Take What You Need + 1
Feeling that you have what you need to get through the challenges ahead is a vital part of feeling secure and ready. Perceived scarcity can be one of the more potent stressors in our lives. There is nothing wrong with wanting to ensure you have enough supplies on hand to get your through any potential pitfalls ahead. In times of heightened stress it can be tricky to see clearly exactly what those supplies are and just exactly how much is needed.
The length of isolated quarantine being recommended, or enforced, is approximately two weeks. Events, school, and workplace cancellations are being enacted on longer time frames but it is important to separate the idea of ‘working from home’ or ‘practicing social isolation’ and being under quarantine. If you are looking to ensure you home is stocked enough to handle a quarantine situation two weeks is the time frame to work with.
If it will help ease your sense of anxiety add one more of the item than you would need for a two week period. Get however many cans of whatever, bottles of whatever, packages of whatever plus one. In the industrialized world our supply chains are still alive and well, we won’t run out, and even in places like Italy where the entire country is in lock-down grocery stores and pharmacies are still open and stocked.
Fear is natural and understandable, panic can be hard to keep at bay, but part of the damage panic can inflict is depriving those in need of supplies because we have triple or quadruple what we need sitting in a pile in our basements.
Only Check The Stats Three Times Daily, Max
Staying informed is important. The complexion and status of this crisis changes again and again over the course of each day but we can drive ourselves towards the point of obsession and panic by constantly checking our feeds and news alerts for the latest minute-by-minute updates. The situation is constantly evolving but the twenty-four hour news cycle doesn’t help matters with their perpetual tone of ‘Breaking News!’ making it sound like we don’t dare look away from our screens for even a moment. Nor does it help they constantly use terminology like ‘no treatment’ and ‘no cure’ typically used only in reference to end stages of terminal illness, subliminally associating testing positive for COVID-19 with stage four cancer.
The ‘excessive urgency’ bias the entertainment industry model has infused into the world of journalism is a whole other topic but it is important we don’t let that ratings-driven tone take us hostage. We need to allow ourselves time and space to have other thoughts over the course of our days if we wish to have any hope of maintaining our sanity.
Keep yourself informed but only check in with news media three times a day, at most. Once in the morning, though not right first thing when you wake up. Once at some point during the day just to keep your finger on the pulse of what is happening. And once at the end of your day to get a sense of where things are sitting, though not last thing before you go to bed.
Be Patient With Each Other
This crisis is scary, stressful, we are all feeling anxious and uncertain. Even minor disruptions to our normal daily routines can be distressing and we are facing some rather profound disruptions on a global scale. As such it is not likely to bring out the best in us. Scared people tend to behave strangely and aren’t known for thinking the most clearly. Those three deep breaths aren’t just for your own inner calm but also to help boost your capacity to be patient with your fellow humans.
We are all going to be distracted, worried, and prone to all the loveliest reflexive impulses fear tends to inspire. Hold that door open even if the person doesn’t say ‘thank you’, understand that cashier has had a long day dealing with anxious customers, appreciate the person who is wearing a mask for wanting to play it safe, and stay in contact and connection with one another by any and all means possible.
As a species we are a pack animal which means our access to social connection and interaction has a massive impact on our mental and emotional health. Even at the best of times social isolation can be incredibly painful and corrosive. At times like this, when we are all facing stresses we have never faced before on an unprecedented scale, we need each other now more than ever. And this time around we’re not going to be able to heal it with a hug. Not for a while at least anyway.
The world we are living in now is here because we have weathered the storms of the past. We will weather this one as well, the tires will eventually make it back onto the pavement. There will be costs and losses but we will get through this. Take those three deep breaths and stay connected.