As I write this blog entry, we have now been living through the COVID-19 pandemic for the past six months. In some ways, time has flown by, and in others, it feels like time has stood still. I have had many thoughts about the pandemic and have made many interesting observations along the way. Yet as I sit here now, on the holiday of Labor Day, it all still seems very surreal.
Labor Day is an annual tribute to the achievements of American workers. It originated in the late 19th century at a time when the average American was working long hours, in poor conditions, with little pay. Over time, labor unions began organizing strikes and protests. Eventually, the holiday of Labor Day was created to recognize the contributions of the American worker. In recent times, Labor Day weekend also represents the end of summer and the start of the back to school season. However, this holiday weekend brings with it many cautions, as the CDC warns that a lack of social distancing is likely to increase spikes in coronavirus cases.
The pandemic that began towards the end of 2019 has now spanned the entire globe. At present, it has resulted in over 27 million cases of the COVID-19 virus globally, and 881,000 deaths. There does not seem to be an end in sight, although there is hope that a safe and effective vaccine will be readily available in 2021. I have viewed this "unprecedented" time in history from multiple lenses. As a clinical psychologist, I have seen the detrimental effects it has had on mental health. Anxiety disorders and depression are at an all time high, and those that used to feel like their mental health challenges were somewhat manageable, now find themselves unable to cope. I have also seen the grief and loss when client's family members have become sick with the virus and have died. I have seen the unique challenges the pandemic has created for our youth, and the toll of social isolation and missing out on milestone events. I have seen how much of a struggle it is to be divorced and try to co-parent when an ex-spouse has different perspectives on what it means to stay safe, and to keep kids safe. I have seen how parents of young children have struggled with the unique challenges of juggling virtual school and work. I have personally experienced feeling more at risk because of my health history of being a cancer survivor. Mostly, however, I have been surprised to see how people's opinions can differ so greatly. I have been disheartened by how much inequality exists in our world, how corrupt politics can be, and how unfortunately, science doesn't always conquer all, especially when it is sometimes blatantly ignored.
At the start of the pandemic, I moved my psychology practice to Telehealth sessions. As I was packing up my office, I noticed that the last quote I had written on my quote board was one by Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world." At this point, I'm thinking COVID-19 might be the one thing that defeats more people than anything else in the world. However, fear is certainly vast and powerful in these uncharted times. The anxiety and uncertainty that humans have faced due to this pandemic is likely to persist for years after this global crisis ends. Through the toilet paper shortage, the stay at home orders, the unemployment rates, the online schooling, and everything in between, we have learned just one thing is certain. That is, there really is no certainty in life. You can't always predict or plan for tomorrow. If we've learned nothing else from these challenging times, we've certainly learned that you never know what tomorrow brings. Learning to be flexible and adapt to uncertainty is possibly the most important life skill you can ever learn. It is also one of the most difficult. Additionally, we've learned how important it is to appreciate the people in your life, because you never know what might happen that will prevent you from getting to see them again. For single people, such as myself, the pandemic has taught us even more about coping with increased times of isolation.
For some, the pandemic has created an increase in feelings of guilt and questions of morality. The idea that socializing with others has become dangerous is something we would not normally think about. I find many people struggling with whether or not they are "bad" if they choose to attend a social event or decline it. These are questions we may ask ourselves now that would never have been factors in our decision making in the past. Likewise, wearing a mask (or not wearing one) has certainly become a focus of conflict. I will admit, I've been surprised at how many people refuse to wear a mask to protect themselves and others. Just the other day I was in line to use a public restroom, and the other people nearby smirked and laughed at me for wearing a mask. Likewise, I was discouraged to see patients and staff at a medical office without properly worn masks. The issue of masks has been at the center of violence in many situations and places.
In the beginning of spring, when our country was becoming overwhelmed with increasing cases and deaths from the virus, my clients with OCD would tell me how they felt better than their friends and family. Ironically, they were coping better than others, as they felt they had been preparing for this their whole lives. Avoiding germs and contamination came naturally to them. Granted, for some of my anxious clients it was the tipping point in which they felt they could not handle any other stressor in addition to this one. However, some felt like the rest of the world was finally getting to know what it was like to have mental health challenges. Did anyone without anxiety ever think of disinfecting their groceries before this pandemic hit? Unlikely. Suddenly germaphobia was the norm. Similarly, for my introverted or socially anxious clients, the stay at home order was a nice reprieve from the social pressures of our fast paced daily lives.
So what are all these "pandemic ponderings" really about, besides just describing my observations? And what, if anything, does a pandemic have to do with Labor Day anyway? It comes down to one thing, really. The only way for us to overcome COVID-19 is to work together. Whether it's working together towards a vaccine, or working to teach our children virtually or in person, or working to help our friends and family stay healthy and safe, the only way to do so is to join together. On this Labor Day, let us remember that this holiday is not just about barbecues and family and friends, but rather it is a tribute to the contributions workers have made towards the strength and prosperity of our country. It took a common goal and joint effort to get to a point where workers could see improvements in their work life, and have a national holiday created to acknowledge them. The unrest and rallies and protests that ensued for years before Labor Day became a holiday is a reminder of how we cannot give up when people's health and safety depend on it. In my opinion, the next celebration of strength, well being, and contribution, such as historically describes Labor Day, would be the day that our world overcomes COVID-19, together. Happy Labor Day, and please be safe!