Reflections on COVID-19

Friends,

This is a set of three daily reflections from Seattle, written March 20–22, 2020.

Seattle reported the first U.S. case of COVID-19 in January and the first death in February, and we quickly became the original epicenter for this country’s outbreak. Stringent orders from Governor Inslee took effect on Monday, March 16th, closing restaurants (now takeout/delivery only), bars, entertainment and recreational facilities (including casinos and health clubs), banning all gatherings of more than 50 people and allowing gatherings of under 50 people only if strict social distancing standards are met. Everyone is being encouraged to practice social distancing whether outdoors or while shopping.

These three pieces taken together are my reflections on the challenges and gifts of this time.

Be well,
Andy Bernard

 

SEATTLE LOCKDOWN – DAY #5

Without universal testing for the coronavirus, the only real weapon we have for slowing down its spread is social distancing. But while it can/will be effective, it has multiple negative side effects, one of which is social isolation.

I am reminded of my work in oncology, where an effective weapon against cancer is chemotherapy. While chemo kills off cancers in best-case scenarios, it means injecting poison into a person’s body. I’ve witnessed the side effects, and they can be horrible. Nausea, mouth sores, and other nearly debilitating conditions have to be endured on the way to a cure. There are some treatments that can diminish these side effects, but they are still horrible for patients to bear and painful for loved ones to witness.

Social isolation is the painful side effect of social distancing. Depending upon a person’s living situation, needing to remain in the home or keep a safe distance from other human beings can be difficult. How many parts of our routines involve seeing a friendly, familiar face at work, at the store, at the bank, or at the coffee shop? This doesn’t even begin to take into account the people we interact with with whom we have formed relationships such as those who are part of our social network, leisure activities, or house of worship. Some people rely — more than they may realize — on regular interactions with people they see casually or know personally. Take this away and people will suffer, to varying degrees, isolation, stress, depression…and, ironically, a weakened immune system.

One of the best “treatments” we have for social isolation is reaching out to others virtually, whether by phone, text, email, or social media. Nothing replaces seeing that friendly face, or exchanging hugs. But I am amazed and encouraged by how many people are reaching out to others to diminish the isolating side effect of what we all hope will be the cure. This will be a long haul and I hope we have the commitment and tenacity to hold onto each other, figuratively if not literally, for the duration of this journey.

Tomorrow: where we find hope and strength for the journey. For now, goodnight from Seattle.

SEATTLE LOCKDOWN – DAY #6

Yesterday I shared my concern that social isolation as a side effect of social distancing affects all of us to some degree, but is a hardship that has a serious impact the mental wellbeing of many. It is clear that the need for social distancing (in the absence of widespread testing) will continue for some time. While good information enables all of us to play our part in fighting the spread of the virus, I find that watching news (which I tend to do regularly) has become one of the biggest stressors for me. I’m actually watching LESS news than before, simply because the constant dire warnings, the reports of more infections, the stories about obstacles to keeping our medical professionals safe and our hospitals functioning, and the concerns over the long-term economic impact worldwide become less about acquiring useful, new information and more akin to crazy-making, fingernails-on-the-blackboard noise.

With so much depressing noise coming at us and the realization that we are going to be in this situation for an unknown amount of time (but more than any of us wishes), where do we find hope and strength to carry us through? Rabbi Judy Schindler once said to me that each of us has one sermon, and she told me that mine was about finding holiness everywhere. I do, indeed, believe that people are often too busy or too preoccupied to see the blessings that surround them.

I did not grow up in a religious household so my first encounters with spirituality and my perception of whatever name one might give to the Power of the Universe that is beyond human control and understanding comes as an adult. My experience of the Divine Presence (or call it what you will) — something that requires a heightened awareness — is most acute in two situations: when there is meaningful interaction and connection between two people, and when I feel dwarfed by the miracle of Mother Nature.

During my long walks this week, I have gratefully observed this lovely, early spring, but have been truly moved by signs of imminent beauty. Unfolding leaves and swelling flower buds have been, for me, the embodiment of hope. They shout with promise. They portend small explosions of all that is good and beautiful in this world. They remind me that these signs of new life — part of the grand cycle of nature — cannot be suppressed by pandemic fears. They help me rise above the dark noise.

And isn’t it “convenient” that these signs of hope just happen to coincide with the onset of extreme social distancing measures. Some people believe that God controls everything, but my years working in the most critical areas of children’s hospitals cause me to reject the notion that any deity I might embrace causes horrific illnesses. I reject the notion that God causes sickness just as I reject the notion that God could magically take it away if that was God’s will. Rather, I believe that disease is simply a part of the natural world and that God can be our source of strength as we do our work to combat the virus, keep it from spreading, and struggle to keep ourselves, our families and friends, and our communities healthy. Strength comes from hope. And hope is, right now at this perfect moment, everywhere we look.

SEATTLE LOCKDOWN – DAY #7

As I said yesterday, I am most acutely aware of the Divine Presence when I feel dwarfed by the beauty and grandeur of nature, and when there is meaningful interaction and connection between two people. Yesterday I described the hope and strength I derive from paying attention to the wonders of springtime on my long walks. Perhaps more important during our new practice of social distancing and the subsequent dangers of social isolation that result, is the outreach and caring I see among friends, family, acquaintances and even virtual strangers. And it astonishes me.

A few weeks ago, I began receiving messages from friends and family around the country wondering how things were here, as Seattle was the original epicenter of the U.S. outbreak of coronavirus. It’s natural, I think, that when we hear of disasters in other cities, we want to contact our friends there to see if what we are seeing on the news matches the reality on the ground. At that time, we were experiencing only the first effects of the epidemic and were totally unaware of what was to come. Our governor announced the lockdown measures we’re under currently a week ago, and at that moment we saw a sudden and dramatic shift in how we live our lives. The communications I’ve received since then are what I’ve found astounding.

I’ve received messages from people who have not reached out to me in years, asking how I was doing. When I exchanged messages with a couple of very recent acquaintances — people I barely know — they ended by offering any help I might need. Just today, someone in our townhouse complex — where people know each other only vaguely — posted on our Facebook group (which has been inactive for the past six months) a message asking people to respond with any needs they might have and offering to try to assist. These unexpected (and frankly to me, rather shocking) exchanges are in addition to the incredible volume of texts, emails, phone calls, and Facebook messages that have flowed every day. The situation we all find ourselves in is horrible. But the response is a gift.

These exchanges are so important because, even though we all share in the reality of this pandemic, each of us is affected differently. Factors of age, health, employment status, and living situation hit all of us in varying combinations and to various degrees, and so each person’s needs are unique. While some posts speak broadly of the challenges and frustrations of the day (and these are quite valid), the personal exchanges I’ve seen are focused on the specific needs, stresses, and fears of each individual. It is a remarkable and beautiful thing to behold.

There is a teaching I’m particularly fond of that says that the people who support us and comfort us at our most difficult moments are messengers from God. In Jewish tradition, God’s messengers are the angels. I have certainly been blessed by angels over this past week. I hope that each of you are surrounded by your angels as well, to hold you up and stand with you during this time.

No pictures today…but a beautiful piece of music that gives me hope and comfort. From Psalm 91: “For He shall give His angels charge over thee, that they shall protect thee in all the ways thou goest; that their hands shall uphold and guide thee lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. They shall protect thee.”

[Click here: “For He Shall Give His Angels Charge Over Thee” from F. Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”]