I’ve hunkered down. No more gym. No more dinners out. No more coffee dates. No more subway. No more theatre. No more window shopping. No more book club. No more writing class.
My husband Dan has metastatic lung cancer that is currently stable — if not moving in the direction of remission — due to weekly immunotherapy treatments as part of a clinical trial at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. But we thought it wise to limit our exposure, to practice “social distance” as coronavirus case numbers rise and test kit numbers remain low. Why not minimize the risk?
I’m all set up for this. In my former life I have lived in California, New England, and then Northern Virginia. Used to preparing for earthquakes, snowstorms, hurricanes and provisioning a sailboat for two weeks at a time back in the day – I just went on automatic pilot as I filled the freezer and pantry and stocked the cleaning closet. At least power outages don’t seem to be a part of this disaster, unless you count the human variety. No need for more batteries or gallon jugs of water.
I don’t go stir crazy. I’m basically a social introvert. I know that sounds oxymoronic, but it really isn’t. I like people. Just not too many, too often. I can be outgoing and fun to be with, just not all the time. I like solitude. I like living in my own head. I like reading, and writing, and puzzles, and projects like reorganizing every closet in my apartment now that I am staying at home rather than being out in the world. And once this is over, I’ll be happy to meet you for a drink and tell you all about how much I got accomplished. Or better yet, throw a “We Survived Coronavirus” party with gluten free homemade cupcakes covered with sprinkles to resemble the dreaded pathogen.
I’m just one person in a big city in a big country in a big world. But I believe in my role as part of the herd. By practicing social distance I’m protecting Dan and myself, but also my neighbors down the hall and the super of my building and the people in my yoga classes. I’m a senior citizen, so presumably I’m at higher risk than my nextdoor neighbor, a strapping six foot five or six thirty-year-old who works for the New York Knicks Organization and travels with the team. But am I? He’s flying around the country, spending lots of time in crowded places.
I may be in the “OK Boomer” category but I’m fit as a fiddle with no underlying health concerns or daily medications beyond the occasional allergy pill or ibuprofen after too much exercise. I like to think I am aging gracefully, or maybe even disgracefully, given my occasional potty mouth (I was a sailor, remember).
Nevertheless, in a world of medical scarcity such as what is currently happening in Milan and Bergamo, Italy, I would not be first in line for the coveted spare ventilator. Hospitals there are either already practicing what ethicists call “distributive justice” or will be soon. Just as in a battlefield situation or a mass casualty event, resources are being triaged according to a number of considerations: age of patient; severity of injury/disease; comorbidity; prognosis, including potential years of social contribution if healed. My husband would be put to the curb because of his cancer. I would be put in line on the sidewalk because of my age. My next-door neighbor, assuming he became ill, would be moved to the head of the line.
Now that the WHO has declared the world in a global pandemic, the odds are that medical care in the U.S. might become subject to “distributive justice,” further rationing care, even among those lucky enough to be insured. We hear a lot about how Medicare for All would be disastrous, causing rationing of care, long waits for procedures or appointments, inferior treatment. In the U.S. we already have rationing, it’s just based on ability to pay. I have Medicare. So does my husband. We also have gold-plated supplemental health insurance. At least we don’t have to worry about that.
I wish all of you had that peace of mind too, especially the under 60s who are being told by the powers that be, “Don’t worry, only old people or those with compromised health are going to die.” That cohort is twenty percent of the population – your coworkers, neighbors, parents, grandparents, friends. None of us is immune to the emotional toll that coronavirus deaths will bring. We need to provide our own herd immunity, in this case not by getting a vaccine, which doesn’t yet exist, but by practicing social distance, washing our hands, staying home if ill.
Moreover, given our government’s fecklessness in handling this crisis, we need to think of those who depend upon us in many other ways: those whose employment is now at risk; those with children out of school who need to be cared for; those who need help navigating the online world we are confined to, and many more.
I met my personal trainer today at the entrance to the gym and gave her a check. She needs to pay her rent and save for graduate school. She has been there for me through difficult times, rescheduling at the spur of the moment, encouraging me through Dan’s cancer diagnosis. She didn’t want to take the money. She teared up. I pressed. I explained to her that at a time of great personal crisis and unemployment due to my school’s sudden closure at an earlier time of my life, several of my students’ families stepped in to help me out. I’m just paying it forward. I can afford it. Things worked out for me then, enabling me to prosper and help her now. I’m grateful that I can do it.
You may not be able to stay home. You may not be able to afford to help someone else out monetarily. But you can do something. If we all pay a little bit forward, we can mitigate this disaster, empowering ourselves rather than falling emotionally victim to this unseen scourge. Trust me, embracing being part of the herd is a vaccine against anxiety, hopelessness, fear, if not coronavirus itself.