5 things I’m learning from the COVID-19 outbreak

First, I hope wherever and whenever this blog post finds you that you are safe and well.

I’m staying in, and will be working from home for a while. Here in Boston, it feels like the COVID-19 outbreak developed both slowly (after all, everyone has been watching the news from China, Italy, and the west coast closely for quite a while) and suddenly. Though coincidentally, this is not the first time I’m staying home due to a pandemic. (Or should I say social distancing? This esoteric epidemiology term really has slipped into our lexicon overnight!)

Last time was in 2003, when I was quarantined at home after SARS broke out in China. Because of a suspected case, my school was one of the first to close – it was probably some time in March, as Beijing ended up closing all public schools from late April to September. 

Being a 7th grader without a cellphone or Internet, let alone online classes…the joy of “no more school!” turned to “school PLEASE school” pretty fast. My parents took caution but still had to go to work, and I honestly don’t remember much except for a period of intense boredom. Most time was spent indoors with my pet turtles (RIP), with the occasional trips to the grocery stores and restaurants (delivery was not a thing yet). All around us, people were getting infected, and dying. At the height of the outbreak, hundreds of new cases popped up in Beijing daily. One in 10 died. (Though we would not learn these numbers until much later. )

This past week I’ve been reflecting a lot on how much the world and my personal circumstances have changed since then. And as the ever so wise Bill McKibben wrote (in this terrific New Yorker piece which you should read ASAP): “if we’re fated to go through this passage, we may as well learn something from it.” So at the risk of writing yet another “hot take on the coronavirus”, here are some thoughts.

1. First…yay science? (I think this tweet says it all.)

2. When push comes to shove, the least resourced communities will suffer the most

Every news headline is a painful reminder that the most vulnerable among us are the least equipped to deal with a crisis like this. Companies frantically setting up telecommuting options for its workers – who are likely to have those jobs? Grocery shelves getting picked clean by panic buyers – who has the time, financial cushion, and physical ability to hoard? (Not the folks with disabilities, or those who have to work multiple jobs to get by.) And the most heartbreaking to me: a fierce public debate about whether or not to close schools, because some kids will lose their only meal of their day (provided by the National School Lunch Program), or because their parents can’t afford to stay home for childcare.

May this reality teach us a lesson that environmental activists have long argued: different populations will have different abilities to cope with the impact of climate change, with marginalized communities getting hit first and the hardest. 

Which brings me to this point.

3. Moments like this require us to come together

Image credit: Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Scanpix via The Local dk.

Open your cupboard/pantry/storage closet: if you see 80 rolls of toilet paper, bottles of sanitizers that you’ll never use up in your lifetime, months worth of canned or bulk food, it is time to check your privilege. And if you don’t like what you see, do better.

If you have extra supplies, call the senior centers or healthcare institutions in your city to see if they need them. Check in on an elderly or immunocompromised neighbor. Ask if food banks, homeless shelters, churches, and community centers need donations. Buy from small, local businesses that are suffering. If you need to stay in (e.g, if you aren’t feeling well), donate money. Many non-profits and community organizations are stepping in at a time when the public sector is not doing enough (remember that come election season, yes?). Many of them also rely on fundraising events to continue operating, which are increasingly getting canceled around the country, so they particularly need your support right now. Of course, don’t forget to carry this mentality and community spirit forward once this outbreak is over.

Lastly, be sure to stay connected – digitally – with family and friends during what may be a time of isolation. A good friend – who I honestly don’t talk to enough – has been having a daily check-in with me partly as a way to ease the anxiety that I’m sure we are all feeling right now. We ought to do that more often when there is not a pandemic!

4. Technology can do so much good, if we use it right

Despite the paralyzingly scary news all around us, my heart is infinitely warmed by all the support and organizing happening online. My neighborhood Buy Nothing group wasted no time in starting a public Google doc to share resources, and to offer help (financial, physical, housing, etc) for anyone who asks. Donation requests shared. Extra food given away. Monthly transit passes held by people who are working from home offered to those who still have to commute.

On the healthcare side, the world is suddenly realizing the potential of so many technological advances. Robots are being deployed in China to disinfect hospital rooms and communicate with folks in isolation. South Koreans are using apps backed by government data to see how close they are to where a confirmed patient has been. Of course, there’s been a lot of reporting on the “should have could haves”: artificial intelligence predicting the coronavirus long before public health authorities; insurance companies and providers wishing they had stronger telehealth infrastructure, etc.

Disinfecting robot. Image credit: UVD Robots via Recode.

5. Individual acts are not enough

The last point I want to make is probably one you are sick of hearing from me. Crises like this – be it a global pandemic or climate change – can’t be solved by individual acts. As a health policy researcher watching this outbreak unfold, I’m both delighted by how much progress has been made on the policy front since 2003 (e.g., look up Taiwan’s 24/7 National Health Command Center and their single electronic medical records system that incorporates its citizens’ oversea travel record), and dismayed by how little – in some parts of the world.

One does not need to be in this field to recognize the role of government responses in this pandemic. So why aren’t more people waking up to the importance of governments, public policies, and good governance when it comes to the climate? Thinking that we can reduce/reuse/recycle our way out of the climate crisis is like believing that hand washing and social distancing alone will get us out of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Stay well friends!

(Header image credit: Markus Spiske via Unsplash)