Ten days, and the world has changed. Last week, I had planned to visit my dad at his apartment in a retirement home. He lives independently – alone – in a complex that also houses dozens of assisted-living and memory-care residents. They all get meals from a community dining room, and my dad has a coterie of friends who, in normal times, gather each evening for cocktail hour and chit-chat before their meal.
The evening before my scheduled flight, I’d packed my bag, checked in for my flight, even paid for a seat (on an aisle, to avoid the middle). But a knot in my gut kept nudging me. I finally checked online and discovered that American Airlines was offering travel waivers on ALL TICKETS purchased before March 1. (This feels so very long ago now.) So I called customer service, waited two and a half hours for a callback, and around 11:30 p.m., spoke to a human being. She canceled my reservation and told me to use the same booking code to reschedule anytime within 12 months of purchase.
A day later, my dad’s facility started restricting visitors to family only. Now: the whole place is in lockdown. No leaving the apartment except to get mail and food. Meals are served in take-away boxes for residents to eat in their own kitchens. And my dad is drinking his cocktails alone.
Meanwhile, I’ve been posting facts on social media and attending webinars for journalists covering COVID-19. Many of us independent journalists, like workers around the world, are losing gigs and facing the need to adapt in unprecedented ways. I’m so very lucky in that my work for the past year has centered largely on a few big projects with many tasks that can be done from home. Our documentary – almost done! – is in the final editing stages that require long hours in our home offices, in front of screens. But I’m also working with a partner on an hourlong radio documentary and we’re now faced with the challenge of reporting from afar – asking sources to record themselves. These are surreal, extraordinary times, and they’re bringing out our innate skills in adaptation and survival.
As the days drag on, I’m seeing a hunger for non-COVID news. Jokes and memes (coronavirus has inspired the best!), or pictures of kitty cats, puppy dogs, otters, and goats. I posted a photo of our nectarine in full bloom; that was a hit.
So here’s the deal: I’ve not used this space in a very long time – but I’m bringing it back. So much is happening so fast, I realized I wanted a place to put the news in context. That place is right here. Not only will I be writing coronavirus updates – but also stories about food, cooking, gardening, nature & art. Things we need right now. Things that have the power to help us heal.
Right around the time we started hearing grim reports from Italy, Jerry and I learned we’d been selected for a Solutions Journalism Network Reporting on Health Interventions Fellowship. We’d proposed covering the role of happiness and laughter in public and personal health. Ironic?
Now here we are, in a global outbreak of panic and anxiety. This is not a disease we can pray away or ward off with special tinctures. But we can – and must – cope because we have no choice. Our mental state is incredibly important to our physical health. There is solid science behind that. It was the basis for our SJN proposal. We have no idea how our project will play out (for now, the fellowships are on hold). But I’ve decided to start writing anyway.
We are facing an unprecedented pandemic with a disease entirely new to the human body. No one knows precisely how this will unfold. But I have lived through experiences that I hope can help put today’s news into historical and cultural context.
In many ways, this crisis is sending a message to humanity: slow down, look around, pay attention. Take stock of what’s important. And realize, now more than ever, we are all connected.
In these times, I can plant seeds and nurture new vegetables to feed us in the months ahead. It’s good for the eyes and the mind. And research shows it’s good for the immune system too (more on that another time…). Right now, I want to share a few positives about this virus, which is otherwise rife with uncertainties:
1. We know what it is. My first journalism internship, at The Albuquerque Tribune, happened to dovetail with the outbreak of a deadly form of hantavirus, “an infectious disease characterized by flu-like symptoms that can progress rapidly to potentially life-threatening breathing problems,” according to the Mayo Clinic. (Sounds a little too familiar, eh?) At first, no one knew what was sending people to the ER, unable to breathe. People were dying from a mystery. Not knowing the cause made for anxious times. The outbreak was centered right here in New Mexico, and UNM’s campus drew infectious disease experts from across the country. We reporters grew accustomed to regular press conferences with little new to report. My editors sent me to cover one of those briefings. No one expected much, just a daily update. (That’s why they sent the intern!) But to my great surprise – and journalistic excitement – that day, officials announced they had learned how the illness was transmitted, through the aerosolized droppings of deer mice.
It had taken many weeks and deaths to get to that point; so much time of panic, when no one knew what to do in order to steer clear of the disease. This time, we know what we’re dealing with. Even though it’s new, it’s not a complete mystery – which puts scientists in a far better place to fight it.
2. We know what to do. We just need to do it. Social distancing can save many, many lives. But the hardest part is doing it – everyone, everywhere, for a very long time until it’s over. Several years ago, Jerry and I visited a clinic on the border of Myanmar and Thailand that treats tuberculosis – including the extremely pernicious multidrug-resistant TB that sickens so many in that region. But this clinic made progress through isolation. It sat on a large plot of land, far from other people, sheltering sick migrants for months at a time. I remember the doctor telling us: the hardest part is doing it. Staying away from family, refraining from work, wearing masks, getting bored. Endlessly bored. And never leaving the compound. It wasn’t just the body that suffered; there was a lot of depression, too. But eventually, the patients who could endure that isolation went home healthy and hopeful, with new life ahead.
3. We have technology. We all have far faster access to information than anyone did during the hantavirus outbreak, the 1918 flu, the 14th century plague, and so many other pandemics that have frightened the world. Yes, sometimes technology offers us lies and misinformation. But it also gives us facts, the ability to see our families from afar, the chance to meet virtually with friends across the globe… and some of the funniest viral videos ever.
4. We have each other. I’ve seen the best and worst of humanity in crises. It’s our choice. We can decide to clear our minds, open our hearts, and do the right thing. We can put aside hatreds and biases – and recognize we are all the same species, all vulnerable to this and other disease. But our sameness gives us power to fight. This is not a time to let race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, politics, or anything else divide us. This is finally the time to cut the crap – and realize we all live and die as human beings.