Sunday, March 22, 2020

Coronavirus: Getting through this moment

A perspective developed with the advice and help of Lourdes Rodriguez, Nupur Chaudhury, and the Cities Research Group of the University of Orange

I’m a social psychiatrist, which means that I study the way social structures affect mental health.  In the course of my life, I’ve had the opportunity to get up close and personal with a series of epidemics that struck the inner-city in the 1980s and 1990s.  That era of “mad” plagues – as the kids used to say – included AIDS, crack, violence related to crack, mental illness related to violence, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, asthma and obesity.  Just as that was calming down, 9/11 shook things up again.  The stress, trauma and sheer cussedness of those times gave me lots of opportunity to learn about the structure, function and outcome of social upheaval. 

One of the aspects of churning that is essential to know is that each moment is different from the last – we are moving through a rapidly changing space of interaction and we are responding to what the moment presents.  Each moment is new and largely unpredictable.  It is similar to the feeling I had in the Loma Pieta Earthquake of 1989 – the World Series Earthquake – when the building was moving beneath my feet and each second was different from the last.  Then it stopped and we could crawl through stairways to the streets.  Where the next thing happened.  And so it went for months, ending for me when I moved back to New Jersey, onto solid ground. 

We are in this process of rapid change from one unknown to another, and we are and will be behind on getting our bearings.  There is, I have learned from watching many of these, a strategy for getting through this that will help to stabilize or least calm us as we are going through this.  When we are calm, we can tend to others, and they can tend to others and we can all get through this. 

This strategy, which our team at the Community (now Cities) Research Group developed in 2001-2002 following the collapse of the Twin Towers, is called “collective recovery.”  We identified four crucial group tasks in collective recovery:
      Learn, and

We must remember history, in this case, that massive disasters have happened before.  As one sage put it, the Renaissance followed the Bubonic Plague.  We must show respect for all people.  It is easy to stigmatize and discriminate, but those actions intensify the disaster and push us away from recovery.  We must learn.  We have never seen this situation before, therefore we must be “citizen scientists” studying what it is about.  And we must examine the ecological situation for clues about its deeper origins.  Finally, we must connect.  At every moment, we need to deepen, expand and strengthen our connections to others.  This was never truer than in this moment when physical distance is the core of pandemic management.

In this phase of the pandemic, we can use collective recovery principles for “getting through the disaster.” In public health parlance, this is secondary prevention, in which we try to limit the harms unleashed by a destructive process.

Getting through the disaster
Turn on the Love
The first part of getting through a disaster is to recognize the difference between love and fear.  This might seem obvious – and perhaps it is – but there is a lot of each floating around.  Fear is normal in such situations but must be contained and minimized because 1) it doesn’t help and 2) it can really hurt.  Fear let loose on the self becomes panic, let loose on others becomes stigma and worse. 

Love, on the other hand, is profoundly useful in these situations.  It empowers us to do our best for ourselves, our families and our world.  People in disasters have a built-in need to “do something” to help.  This has gotten our species through many a hard time, and it is needed now.  Fear turns off love, makes us want to retreat from the threat.  Love turns off fear and helps us approach the need that is presented to us.

An example of love at work: a man in Pennsylvania was getting ready to close his distillery as a non-essential business, when he became angry at reports of skyrocketing prices of hand sanitizer. The distiller realized he could make hand sanitizer with the alcohol he had on hand and give it away for free or for at-will donations. 

Turning on the love keeps you from overreacting and restores your calm in those moments when you need it most.

Pay attention to this week’s needs
Our needs change every day in a disaster situation.  While going through the aftermath of 9/11, I found that the cover of New York Magazine was the best indicator of the feeling tone of the city.  They really had their ears to the ground.  I learned from them that I could do that, too.  Each of us can do “citizen science” by watching our social media feed, seeing what the newspapers are reporting, and listening to the emotions our friends and family are sharing.  A meme from NY Week 1 said, “Relationships aren’t cancelled.”  Another from NY Week 2 said, “It’s time to change from your daytime pajamas to your nighttime pajamas.” 

In this process, let go of the issues of last week – New Yorkers aren’t frantically buying toilet paper in week 2, they’re hysterical about working at home with kids out of school, or worse, of losing their income because they CAN’T leave home while the kids are out of school.  Or they’re hysterical because they must go to work and there are no adequate protections in place, the complaints reported by those working for UPS and Amazon.

Note that I labelled the weeks by place, as we aren’t all on the same page.  Epidemics travel along a geographical hierarchy, meaning they get to the flyover states from the coast cities – there is a lag.  The lag is often interpreted as “it can’t happen here.”  Don’t buy that line of reasoning.  Use the time to listen to what other places are going through, then buy carefully.  You might skip the toilet paper craze and spend your time planning balanced menus.  I didn’t have an appreciation of variety, but you could learn from my mistake.  And be sure to get lots of Vitamin C, D, and zinc tabs to have on hand. 

The point of this citizen science is that you need to respond to this week’s challenges.  Start numbering the weeks with your group and sharing what you think are the big issues.  Then, together, look for strategies to solve the problems.  And know that the problems are time limited.  This week’s problems will be solved, or they will go away.  We don’t know why there was a run on toilet paper, but we can let that issue go and focus on the challenge of home-schooling our whole child-age population.  Did you ever think what a blessing the US has so many homeschoolers who’ve been doing this for a while?  What a resource in this moment!

Fight injustice
It is essential to fight the injustices that are being perpetrated at this moment in history.  As I noted earlier, injustice undermines secondary prevention, and expands the harms of the disaster.  Justice – love made visible – is the great force limiting the harm this pandemic will visit upon us.  There is injustice all around and there has been a sustained outcry against it, which we can all join.  We need unemployment insurance for everyone laid off, including all the “gig” workers without benefits.  It doesn’t matter if Uber drivers are so-called “independent” contractors: at this time, they’re out of work and need our help. 

We must turn on the money needed by people who will be or have been put out of work. For the most powerful force fighting injustice, I recommend connecting to the Poor People’s Campaign, which is launching a national effort for a moral response to the pandemic, and relying on guidance from key leaders in public health. 

It is also important that local organizations use their clout and their websites to share trusted public health information and ways to access resources.  Where I live, we’re using a health coalition website to address these needs.  It is a source known in the local community and the many coalition partners can all help with linkages and web development support.

Extend and strengthen your network
The US is a very fractured nation.  We are divided by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, region, political party, Coke vs. Pepsi: you name it, we’re divided by it.  This pandemic has fallen on a very weak body politic.  We aren’t looking out for one another.  Furthermore, our most important leaders have exploited our division to build their political power, which they are continuing to do as we move through this disaster. 

Our networks are formed within our groups, with all-too-few ties that might link one group to another.  While we must care for our families and our group – church, school and neighborhood – we must also seek to reach across division to help others who are different from ourselves.  This is the hardest thing to do in our society.  We have found, however, that every one of us has some connection across groups and each of these is unique.  By pooling our out-group connections, we can build a much wider set of relationships.  And if those people reach out, it becomes bigger still.  It’s like repurposing the webs of infection as the webs of protection.  In webs of infection, we want to cut face-to-face closecontact, increasing physical distance.  In webs of protection, we reach across the divisions to provide succor to everyone, eliminating social distance.  This is the moment to go through every single contact you have – even if you don’t remember who it is! – and send a note saying, "How are you holding up?"  Doing so may connect you to someone who needs a hand or who may be able to help you get through this time.

As one example, Doug Farrand, who heads the Music Department at the University of Orange, sent the UofO leadership a photo of a little boy named Jordan whistling while standing next to his drawing of himself whistling.  It felt to me like a window into another world and it lifted my spirits enormously that Doug was Jordan’s music teacher.  I can, in return, share with them, the ways in which I’m working with the team that cleans my house to implement mutual safety.  Doug doesn’t know my team, but I know it will lift his spirits to hear about this collaborative work we’re undertaking.  

We, the people, are very big and very powerful, if we but knew it. 

Build a personal foundation of spirit
We need spiritual support in these times.  In the aftermath of 9/11, our collective recovery work took us to labyrinths and art sessions, hikes and meditation.  On the first anniversary – September 11, 2002 – we spent the afternoon on the stairs at Union Square, sitting in the sun, and taking in the impromptu festival that was unfolding there. 

There is spirit everywhere – that is the point of spirit.  We need to pause to remember that!  We can build our confidence in spirit in many ways.  It could be that you choose to darn all the socks in your house, remembering all the places those socks took you and all the places they will take you.  It could be that you will practice trumpet, as Doug has been doing, very pleased with the sound he’s been getting.  It could be that you want to read War and Peace, as people convened by Yiyun Li are doing.  I am taking daily photos of my lilac bush, documenting its coming into bloom. I love this time of year, as I always think of Whitman’s line, “when lilacs last by the dooryard bloom’d.”  It reminds me that this time next year I will look back at all the things that I couldn’t see and couldn’t imagine, like this pandemic and who knows what else? 

Spirit is one resource that is available to each of us, no matter how rich or poor, sick or well.  My teacher, Dr. Michael O. Smith, once told me that anyone could sit on a bench, recognize the harms of addiction, and stop using drugs.  He was then working in the South Bronx at the height of the synergistic plagues of disinvestment, crack cocaine, AIDS and poverty. 

An invitation
Along with my colleagues at the University of Orange, and the Cities Research Group, I extend an invitation to you to join us in a journey of collective recovery.  We will be annotating the weeks and reminding ourselves and you to REMEMBER, RESPECT, LEARN AND CONNECT, as we move through this disaster with LOVE.

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