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Keeping Our Humanity: Notes on Fear, Trust and Salvation During COVID-19

This is not a post on plants, or medicine, or nutrition. I want to take some time to talk about something bigger than all of that, because at the end of the day, especially in a time of global crisis, these are all mere details in the scheme of a much bigger issue. When COVID-19 hit the United States, we weren’t scared. The effects at first seemed limited to small environments made up of the elderly and immunocompromised, following the same basic pattern as a flu outbreak and with similar impacts. I myself was one of the original naysayers, more concerned about the possibility of mass hysteria than I was about a viral outbreak. I maintained that position for a while, until reports started coming in from Italy and China about the state of healthcare there, and until my husband, a nursing supervisor at one of our downtown hospitals, started seeing it affect his day to day work life. This was something. And it was coming.  Those were the early days. They were just a couple months ago, not even really. We of course know now how serious this outbreak really is, and I have, like most others, changed my position on it. As an herbalist and a medical provider, I began working hard to find ways to support my patients, clients and students through this difficult time, give the best advice I could, and learning all I could in turn. I wanted to know what I could do to support healthcare professionals working on the front lines, I scrambled with my co-parenting team to figure out what would happen with our children and I got used to social distancing guidelines from our Governor. I watched people panic shop for toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and listened to our COVID protocols change at work on a more than daily basis. I will refer to those days at the mid-days. Those days were a reflection of our worry and concern for the future, embracing the unpredictable and watching together as the world seemed to fall apart around us. But we met that mess as one. There was no enemy. There was only humans united behind the common cause of figuring-this-all-out. We are still in those days and also outside of them now.  I look around me now and enemies have started to emerge. It seems that more lines are being drawn in the sand these days, when before there was just us against the virus. As governments, healthcare institutions, cities and special interest groups start to gather their thoughts on COVID, there are opinions now that cover more ground than just “wash your hands” and “stay 6 feet apart”. Now, in these later days, probably the first of many to come, the message has changed. Its no longer just us against the virus. It’s becoming us against them.  What does it mean to have humanity? What does it mean to lose it? How does it happen? And perhaps most importantly, how do we keep it in the worst of our human times when it often seems missing even in the best of of them?  We have to figure that out. Because our humanity is more important now than it was before. It matters more now.  I want to share a story. It was told to me by my husband, a person who admittedly has more integrity in his pinky than most of us ever will have in our whole bodies, myself included. A young boy was brought to the hospital the other day. He was sick, not with COVID-19, but sick. He was on a ventilator in the pediatric ICU and his condition was increasingly unstable. Thanks to new COVID-related visitor restrictions put in place by the institution, an attempt was made to keep his parents out of his room, as he lay dying with little hope of recovery. Alone. And scared. My husband refused to leave work until he knew they had been permitted in, but the story terrified me. And it was only one of many that he would come home with.  We cannot lose our humanity because of this. As many of you other New Yorkers know, upstate and downstate NY might as well be different planets. We who live upstate have an extremely different set of needs than our city counterparts, needs that are often not heard by our state government despite leaders relying heavily on upstate resources. New York City is currently dealing with mind-blowingly precarious situation – on the radio I listen to Governor Cuomo talk about buying ventilators on eBay and how the city is projected to be 40,000 vents short of what will be needed in the upcoming week. WEEK. Not weeks. I am not a city girl. I love upstate New York and I honestly feel like the most that New York City ever did for me was to keep my otherwise conservative state Blue during elections (shoutout to NYC for keeping abortion and Medicaid accessible in our state). And now the city wants our ventilators, wants our hospital beds, wants our healthcare staff. What do we do? How are we supposed to feel? Where does our humanity lie now? I want to start by sharing some facts. Fact #1, we have extra stuff. I’ve never seen so many empty hospital beds, so may laid off healthcare workers and so much time idle. A friend of mine told me that her outpatient office now sees patients half the day and plays Parcheesi the other half. Hospitals are at risk of closing because they are losing so much money due to the lack of patients. Administrators worked hard to clear room for a surge of COVID-19 patients, but the reality is, it hasn’t really hit upstate yet.  Fact #2, that is starting to change. Young people and elders alike are becoming sick in our area and our hospitals are starting to feel the strain. The beds are starting to fill. It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening. That fact, and the fact that its going to get worse, cannot be underestimated. Our Governor threatening to send in the National Guard to “take stuff” doesn’t help either.  Fear is a major driving factor in human behavior. It makes us do things like stockpile toilet paper, steal N95 masks from hospital stores, threaten military intervention to save a city and also resist giving help if we think it might put us at risk. Fear is an evolutionary protective mechanism that at its base is very helpful – it kept us from getting eaten by mountain lions long enough to make it this far. We’ve seen a large amount of fear in the past few months, and when it comes to us against the virus, this fear is a good thing. It is serving its evolutionary role. Without the drive for self-preservation inherent in fear, no one would be social distancing or working from home or washing their hands. But when fear becomes institutionalized, when it becomes part of official policy, when it becomes part of the us against them narrative, it changes. It leaves the realm of protecting the human experience and enters one in which our humanity is left seriously at risk.  When our hospitals keep families from visiting dying relatives out of institutionalized fear, we lose our humanity.  When our state representatives draw a line in the sand between our sick and the sick in Manhattan out of institutionalized fear, we lose our humanity.  When our communities demand that hospital beds intentionally be left empty, that ventilators be left in storage and masks in boxes out of institutionalized fear, we lose our humanity.  And, out of institutionalized fear, when our Governor responds to our communities by turning to military intervention, we lose our humanity.  It grows from there. The fear turns into mistrust. The mistrust turns into threats which drive division. That division drives hate.  We’ve all seen the post-apocalyptic shows and movies where the grocery stores have been looted and we are all eating each other or shooting each other to survive. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but that starts somewhere. We are making decisions today, decisions about our fellow humans, how we view them and how those views get translated into official action, that will carry us forward from here. Do we create policies, plans and procedures that preserve and uphold compassion or do we take that line in the sand and pour concrete down? Those are the decisions of our current days.  I don’t claim to have the right answers. As a human, an upstate New Yorker, a healthcare worker, a wife and a stepmother, I am scared too. But how do I learn to utilize that fear differently? It’s not a lack of fear that will save us but how we choose to respond to it that will make the difference. It will be taking that fear and throwing our full weight behind it, together, united towards a common goal that will save not only our lives, but our human-ness.  This is about the virus. And if we let that narrative change, if we allow attitudes and laws and procedures to reflect the us against them instead, that virus is going to win on more levels than just infections rates. It will claim us in ways we didn’t even notice, in ways we were not prepared for and didn’t see until it was too late. This is the time to hold out our (proverbial) clean, freshly washed hands out to each other, not pull them back behind quarantined doors and allow that social distance to become an emotional hardening.  We need to maintain our humanity. Our sense of reasonableness. Our rationality.  Our trust that if we open our hearts and our doors, it will be ok.  That’s really hard to do. Its hard to trust that our best hope for survival is in each other. We’ve been let down by each other before. But I would argue that we can’t afford to do otherwise in a time of crisis. Call me naïve, I wont mind. No one is a bigger skeptic than I am about the decisions our race makes on a daily basis. But I ask you, as someone who usually assumes the worst, at a time when the answer to the question “who is the enemy” matters more than ever, please assume the best. Keep your hearts open, your minds in kindness, your humanity intact.

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