I think the reality of the situation is beginning to sink in for more people. Certainly there are those who still somehow believe that magically, the virus danger will be behind us in a couple of weeks. These are the people counting the days in their social posts – “Day 4 of Social Distancing.” That is an unwise and unsustainable practice. The reality is that we will be grappling for many months with the virus, with social distancing and with the knowledge that as the virus continues its exponential spread, an increasing number of the people we personally know and love may become sick or worse from COVID-19.
It’s been called the “new normal” but honestly, most of us are making it up on the fly. There’s no handbook or protocol. No one can determine for you what your risk tolerance is. Each of us must define our own modus operandi in this new, unfamiliar and ever-unfolding situation. We must establish and adhere to rules that determine which social excursions are justifiable. From grocery pickups and pharmacy runs to medical visits – what are the rules for such interactions? Do we wear a mask or not? Is hand sanitizer sufficient? If I have to enter a grocery store, how many people need to be in an aisle for me to automatically avoid it? What if someone is coughing? Do I abort the mission altogether? Should I hold my breath every time I pass another shopper just to be safe? Must I sanitize each purchased item before it enters my home? And at what point will we begin to justify loosening these rules? What will have to be true for that to even be a consideration?
And with interpersonal relationships, who is okay to see in person? Certainly the immediate family in our own homes – with the exception of those exhibiting tell-tale symptoms and even then, when they rely on your care, there’s little choice. But what about extended family that live elsewhere and may have a different set of rules guiding their interactions? How can we be certain that they are as careful as we are? The weakest link in our personal social network determines our risk of contracting the virus.
Is it inevitable that we will contract COVID-19? No one knows. But what we can be sure of is that the longer we can avoid exposure, the longer we can hold out, self-isolate and endure the daily frustrations and inconveniences, the better our chances of survival. On the other side of the initial tidal waves of patients flooding our medical facilities, after factories have ramped production of critical medical supplies, after our supply chains have improved distribution of these supplies, after testing is ubiquitous and efficient and after we have more quantitative and qualitative information about the disease and its progression – perhaps that’s when a more calculated risk may be justified. But that, it seems to me, is likely months in the future.
With respect to the economy, knowing what we already know, how can anyone predict anything less than a significant and protracted disaster? To be sure, it will recover. It always does. Until then, how many jobs will be lost? Businesses shuttered? Retirement accounts decimated? What will happen to home values? Will some of us be underwater in our mortgages? If we lose our jobs and can’t continue to make payments, will we be able to sell? Is anyone going to be buying or will we be forced to walk away, potentially leading to another foreclosure crisis?
As with 9/11, certain changes are inevitable after we emerge from this situation, both in government and in our daily lives. Certainly our nation will take global pandemics seriously, and do a better job preparing for them. We will stockpile critical supplies. We will train more physicians. We will focus more on vaccinations. We will be more acutely aware of our interconnectedness, our reliance on each other, and on the industries that kept operating through the crisis. Perhaps healthcare will become more of a fundamental right. Perhaps we will pass minimum wage increases. I could see individual savings rates increasing, including building of emergency funds. Work-from-home arrangements may become more common as companies realize they can still produce quality work without the overhead of massive physical offices.
So, as I sit here in my home office on Friday March 20, 2020, there have been 16,796 positive cases and 229 confirmed deaths in the U.S. How high these numbers will go and when they peak is yet to be known. We can expect these figures to grow exponentially for the next several weeks, into the hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths. Only time will tell.
Until then, the best advice I’ve heard is to focus on today. After you’ve established your house rules and mapped out specific plans for a handful of possible situations, it’s time to stop ruminating about possible scenarios that may or may not come to pass. Control the controllable. Check in with your friends and loved ones – make sure they have what they need, both physically and emotionally. Take it day by day – even hour by hour, if that’s easier for you. Limit news and social media. Get present. Take time for gratitude. If you are alive, healthy and reasonably safe, then every moment is a gift to be cherished. This too shall pass.