In general, things are neither as terrible as people fear nor as wonderful as they promise. That’s usually the case, but there are always exceptions. Could this be the exception?
Such, pretty much, was my thinking three weeks ago when the news out of Europe was turning very serious.
Clearly, the answer to the question has turned out to be YES.
A lot of us have been riveted by the stories about ,and the progression of, the Coronavirus pandemic. Not everyone, however, reacts in the same way to this or any other unprecedented experience.
It takes extraordinary situations for people to either surprise you or confirm your expectations. Either way, people’s true colors will be revealed. That’s what I’ve seen in doctors, public officials and my family during the Coronavirus pandemic.
My family: a case study
Let’s start with my husband, Cesar. Ever the problem-solving engineer, he has approached the outbreak by acting and planning. He was among the first to head to Costco to stock up on things like sardines, nuts, tuna fish and, YES, toilet paper.
Early on, before politicians were sounding any alarms, he also instructed our younger son Andres, who lives in NY city, to come straight home to Connecticut at the first sign a quarantine might be imposed -which, by the way, he hasn’t done. A few days before the YMCA closed, he insisted passionately that I refrain from going -which I did to keep him calm, not because I agreed with him then.
Cesar’s convinced you must always do something to improve your odds of survival or to optimize your comfort. I’m a public school teacher. When school shootings became more frequent and my school began to implement lockdown drills, he kept thinking of things I could do to make it out alive. The ideas went from blocking the classroom door with heavy furniture to spilling marbles on the floor to make the shooter trip.
As I write these words, he’s glued to the news, captivated by how political leaders are reacting (or failing to react) and by the immediate economic repercussions, particularly the markets. As if we had a fortune to worry about.
He’s also thinking up big solutions for businesses and society, beginning his proposals with his usual, “If I were X, I’d do X.”
Our 26-year old son Diego, who has autism and an intellectual disability, has also reacted as expected. At first, he simply asked a few times, “Are we safe from the virus?” We answered in the affirmative and, because he trusts us blindly to keep him safe, he was calm as a cucumber.
As his activities were cancelled and he realized we’d be stuck at home long term, Diego has become restless. Lately, he has taken to stating he wants “everything to resume back to normal.”
Diego’s used to a routine, knowing what comes next. He’s the only person I know who likes to be told what to do! Every day, we write a schedule and make lists. Creature of habit that he is, I anticipate he’ll soon embrace this reality where it’s just us at home doing the same things every day.
Given his movie and superhero obsession, Diego frequently draws parallels, such as our town being on lockdown like Boston was on Patriots Day (the movie about the Boston marathon bombing). He also says he’ll save the world, just like Batman saved Gotham from the zombie plague unleashed by Professor Hugo Strange.
Then there’s Andres, our 24-year old, who lives in Long Island City. I thought he’d be pretty chill about the whole thing, him being young and healthy. Turns out he was the first to begin to marvel and track the virus’s spread, way back in January when most of us still saw this as a story unfolding far far away.
Early on, he began researching face masks and had me get N95 ones for the whole family. (They’ve been given out already.) Andres was especially concerned about my parents in Connecticut and his nonna in Venezuela. Who would have known?
For the most part, my five sisters haven’t reacted in crazy ways. In typical fashion, Rosanna and Lole, my two older sisters, have stayed calm and positive. Sandra, my doctor sister, is matter-of-fact. She enters “doctor mode” when talking anything medical, citing anecdotes, statistics and prevention measures without changing her professional tone of voice. Ana, whose four young children generally end up getting the flu despite being vaccinated, is appropriately worried.
Very early on, when there was minimal concern about the Coronavirus, my sister Gabi said it was Bernie Sanders she was worried about. This may sound bizarre; but then again, Gabi does tend to make random associations and to become obsessed with stuff. Because she loathes the prospect of a Trump vs. Sanders election (she deeply dislikes both), she associates everything to this.
Such were my sisters’ reactions two and three weeks ago. At this point, we’re all taking the quarantine seriously, and working hard at learning how to work remotely (three of us are teachers) and/or how to homeschool children in different grades. None of us fears for ourselves much, just for our parents.
My parents are 100% quarantined. I saw them last five days ago. They stood on the front steps of their house and Diego and I remained in the car, well over 6 ft. away. Today, my sister Lole told me they’re not even coming out.
My mom’s a positive person who doesn’t know what boredom feels like. She’ll read, talk on the phone, write notes, cook, clean, check her WhatsApp, reorganize everything. Most of all, she prays. And she’s learning more about tech in this time of need than ever before in her life. She’s using Zoom and finding ways to listen to mass on TV and online.
My dad’s a different story. Unlike my mom, he’s home most of the time anyway, virus or no virus. I’d say he’s probably happy to have his wife all to himself, even if he worries about his family and all of humanity.
Me? I’d say I’m three things: a bit worried for my parents, extremely sad for the dead and sick, and enormously curious about the evolution of the outbreak and people’s reactions to it. I also miss my students.
I used to check the Johns Hopkins CSSE map up on my desktop screen several times a day. One of my biggest concerns was whether a little red bubble showing a confirmed case in Venezuela would appear. Sadly, it did, and the bubble is growing.
I don’t believe in being over prepared with food and supplies. How long our supplies last, I figure, will depend on my family’s and neighbors’ preparedness. I mean, would I not share if they ran out?
Coronavirus and decision-making: Which option is less bad?
The COVID-19 epidemic is the type of situation that confronts us with the dilemma of not having any good options. The question becomes: Which option is less bad?
On a personal level, we face the “less bad” decision dilemma in ways that only affect our loved ones. Consider this scenario: Your immunocompromised daughter lives at home and your son’s college closed. Will you tell him not to come back to his own home? Or will you put your daughter at risk?
Some people, however, need to make decisions that affect not only their families but also the public.
This past week, on The NY Times podcast The Daily (‘It’s Like a War’), I heard about a doctor in Italy who is facing unthinkable “less bad” decisions.
Dr. Di Marco heads the respiratory unit of a hospital in Bergamo, a city in northern Italy very hard hit by the epidemic.
Here are a few of the unthinkable decisions Dr. Di Marco has had to make:
- Who should get the available ICU beds, the most likely to die or the most likely to survive?
- Given the age discrepancy when it comes to the virus’s severity, should he wear a mask at home to protect his wife or should he go without it so as not to traumatize his kids?
- Should the hospital allow a patient’s loved one to come in to say good-bye to a dying relative or will the patient die alone?
A pernicious consequence of facing “less bad” decisions is that we opt for paralysis. We do nothing.
In most situations, the stakes are low. I’m reminded of my friends and family who, in 2016, decided not to vote because they disliked both Trump and Clinton. “Come on,” I’d say to some, “You must dislike one of them more.” To myself I’d think: “That’s just being lazy, taking the easy way out.”
With this pandemic, doing nothing has life-or-death repercussions, especially when those paralyzed are in positions of power.
That, to some extent, has been the case with government officials and other leaders. They either wait for a higher-up to tell them what to do, or for the situation to be visibly urgent and a decision unavoidable. (A few, tragically, only ask themselves: What’s best for me politically?)
Nobody wants to be held responsible for over or under reacting. Haven’t they heard, though, that, as the wise superhero said, “with great power comes great responsibility?”