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A COVID-19 Tale: From Social Isolation to Social Responsibility

Rachel Alexander April 22, 2020

Recently, in this time of COVID-19, I had an experience which I’m sharing as I think it might be useful to others. It resulted in a shift which changed my attitude and approach to this pandemic and my role in it. Not to say that this event relieved me of the hour-by-hour, sometimes moment-by-moment struggle of this disaster. A good portion of each of these days is strange and heavy. Each seems to stretch on unnaturally, intolerably, an unhappy version of the first elongated days of early summer. There is a lugubriousness that takes constant readjustment. Like suddenly using manual car windows after decades of knowing only automatic. Everything feels it’s returned to a manual version of itself.

I am privileged to have a best friend, whom I’ve known since age fourteen. She also happens to be something of a superstar — a physician, professor and researcher at a major university hospital. Among others, her hospital has been a leader and disseminator of trusted information since the beginning of the pandemic. My friend, in particular, sounded an early alarm for me — voicing the enormity and seriousness of the COVID threat.

In mid-March, as I was embarking on a three-part move/relocation, anticipating the cavalry — i.e. my friend to arrive for a day or two as she normally would for these major life events — to lead the process and hold my hand emotionally (and maybe, when necessary, physically).

But these were not normal times and the cavalry was not coming — social distancing and emergency requirements meant it was redirected elsewhere.

In our early conversations at the onset of the pandemic, I was tone-deaf to the seriousness of the situation and was veering toward the fatalism of James Dean and early adolescence — thinking that if something happened to me, so be it.

My friend said something that changed the way I would proceed from that day forward. She said, “If you get sick, I will come to you and take care of you. That will happen because I love you and because you are that important to me.

She went on, “Know, however, if you get sick, you don’t only endanger me and your Godchildren and the other family members in my house, but you also could be endangering the lives of maybe thousands of people if I’m taken off service because you get sick and I am exposed to the virus. So you need to be mindful of that and take good care of yourself because that’s the impact your getting sick can have. It’s a responsibility. Not to yourself, but to me and everyone I am responsible for.”

I knew with absolute certainty that if I got sick, she would come. And I knew, as if for the first time, that my impact extended well beyond myself.

Her response has deeply shifted my understanding of how connected I am to someone who loves me and that this single connection ties me to possibly thousands of others, who could be impacted by my choices, and my nonchalance. This sole person, my dear friend, would affect dozens of others — not only by having contact with them, but by potentially being restrained from contact with them. And because each of her patients are loved by certain other people, unknown to me, there were uncountable lives in the mix.

My friend is not an infectious disease or emergency room physician, so she is not on the immediate front line of treating COVID-19 patients. She is a neuro-oncologist. Her regular patients are suffering from tumors, usually cancerous. Often they are under the age of 30. Although her patients aren’t COVID patients, they, like other sick people everywhere, are collaterally and significantly affected by this health crisis — they are prohibited from getting treatments like chemotherapy, which is critical to keeping them alive. Because they cannot safely enter the hospitals and be exposed to, what would be for them, a life-threatening risk of contracting the virus.

With this global catastrophe and my friend’s words — the verbal equivalent of a firm grip by the shoulders and shake into awareness — I awakened to the reality impossible to shade our eyes from now: each of us, however few our social connections, can profoundly and irreversibly change the lives of others. A responsibility that is weighty and uplifting at once.

It’s happening in real-time. The cause and effect, our link each to the other, though no less present only weeks ago, are far more apparent now.

This interaction with my friend shifted my understanding of social distancing to social responsibility. And personal responsibility too — a way to protect the people I love most as well as those I’ll never know.

Clearly and finally, a new level of self-care became indistinguishable from caring for others.

How I care for myself — slowing myself from galloping up and down the staircase in slippers, paying greater attention when slitting open endless moving boxes with tired hands and an unfamiliar boxcutter, introducing deliberateness and mindfulness where, in earlier March, the world was different and my carelessness seemingly affected only me. A minor injury would not automatically morph into a catastrophe with far-reaching effects on others. Clearly and finally, a new level of self-care became indistinguishable from caring for others.

More than a month into this changed world, I am more adept with the new customs of distancing. I am learning that compassion means nodding my head to someone who is six feet away and knowing that those six feet demonstrate more solidarity than if we clasped hands.

For those of us, particularly those who are single or living alone, unaccompanied by partner, family or friends in those ways necessary to our humanness, we can be reminded that we are fundamentally and critically connected. Even as we maintain considerable distance. Perhaps we can find some encouragement in our collective experience — or that our experience is indeed a shared one, including the novel ways we must hold one another while traversing this historic time together.