The spread of COVID-19 is likely to be one of the defining issues of our time. Just like those that lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and perhaps even 9/11, it will live with us for the rest of our lives and leave its imprint for decades.
Our children, and grandchildren, will remember this — and be influenced by — our collective actions against this dangerous virus.
My son, Jake, is an EMT in Salt Lake City. He is on the front lines. I worry. But I have not heard a word out of him about his risks. He is doing his job. I am sure he, like everyone else, simply wants to do whatever is possible to be part of the solution. To be part of the community. To be part of our collective humanity.
And as with all defining moments, we are vividly living our common humanity. Almost anything we do – an ordinary trip to the grocery store, a lonely walk in the park for a moment of respite — takes on new meaning and depth. We are all faced with daily decisions that may have consequences. And those consequences could mean life or death.
For all but a few of us, this is not normal.
Physicians and particularly surgeons come to mind. But also military, police, fire, and emergency workers. And these people are professionally trained to be decisive and clinical, and they understand that it is part of the job.
How about the rest of us? Most of us aren’t on the front lines, and shouldn’t be. The best thing we can do is to stay at home, keep our physical distance from other people when we go outside for a breath of fresh air, and hold our loved ones close to us emotionally (even if it’s by phone or Zoom).
Never have I been more hopeful. I have never smiled at so many strangers. And I have never thanked so many people who, perhaps, I did not even notice before.
People are stepping up. It seems everyone is willing to put personal risk aside, and find a way to make a meaningful contribution to the world in this moment. There are certainly exceptions, largely born of ignorance. But for people that understand what we are facing, the almost universal response I hear is “how can I help?”
From the first days when scientists began discussing the novel coronavirus we now call SARS-CoV-2, even when we had no idea what we were dealing with, physicians and healthcare workers on the front lines in China were knowingly putting themselves in harm’s way. It was for the patients they served, but also to try to gain an understanding of what we were dealing with to warn the world.
Li Wenliang was on the front lines. He sounded the alarm early in December. For that service to the world, he was imprisoned by Chinese authorities, who accused him of spreading rumors. (He died in early February, and was recently exonerated by the authorities). Li, understandably, is front page news. But almost no one else will be. Everyone in the medical profession knows the risks they face when they work with patients, and yet it is hard to keep them away from the hospitals. They want to be there.
People are making adjustments on the fly. Retired healthcare workers are back volunteering. Restaurants are delivering healthy, delicious meals to healthcare workers to support them and keep them focused on critical patient needs. Medical school students are screening patients via telemedicine with systems that simply did not exist 10 days ago. They are making it work.
What impresses me most of all are the people who are stepping up, even when they have no duty, no sworn professional oath and no real rewards for running toward the fire.
Think of the people working the cash registers in grocery stores and pharmacies. The people who keep the water supplies, the energy grid, the TV and the WiFi information pipelines working. The janitors, garbage workers and maids handling our refuse and stepping in to clean what is surely biohazard material without the appropriate personal protection equipment. How about the home healthcare workers who assist elderly people, who change bedpans? Not only do they do that, they are doing it while extending some needed compassion with elderly folks during what’s surely a stressful time.
We need to keep the supply chains and society running, at least for what are considered essential services. It is perhaps humbling that so many of us in so-called “high-level jobs” do not fit into the definition of “essential services.”
It is in times like these where we see so much of better angels of humanity. And some of the beautiful and selfless things people do to help one another. Younger people are checking on older neighbors and volunteering to get them their groceries or medicines. Stores have altered their schedules to accommodate shopping for seniors-only during the early morning hours. Teachers are finding ways to teach their students online and keep them busy and learning.
I serve on the board of San Francisco-based VIR Biotechnology. It’s a company that was purposely built up over the past few years to go after infectious diseases. Those capabilities are now springing into action against this virus that was unknown to the international scientific community until Jan. 11. People there now are working in the labs, if they need to be there to keep their experiments going. Some early, preliminary work on neutralizing antibodies has shown promise.
But this is truly a worldwide collaboration of scientists working with passion and purpose. Lab workers at our subsidiary company Humabs BioMed are working in Switzerland near the Italian border in what amounts to a war zone. These scientists never take their eyes off the ball in their search for antibodies to fight COVID-19. And they never asked for anything special in return.
A pandemic like this has heroes. For the most part, I think of the professional healthcare workers and scientists that are working with patients and searching for cures. That is amazing.
But what is even more amazing to me are the people who have never trained, and perhaps do not even fully understand the risks, but know that they are a critical part of keeping society moving forward. They will not be recognized for what they are doing. We rely on them every single day. We simply expect that their work will be done. We rarely thank them. We rarely take the time to ask how they are weathering this storm.
I recently moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We are far from New York City, Seattle and San Francisco. Yet the virus is here as well. And many people live paycheck to paycheck in Jackson. In a tourist town like this, I would imagine the unemployment rate just went over 30%. The ski resort is closed. People are still out in nature, but at a distance. The folks that plow the streets are up every day at 6 am, plowing and shoveling snow. Everyone is worried. But they seem more worried for their neighbors. There is a community here. We are all reliant on many of the invisible jobs to keep things from falling apart. What is most impressive is that nothing is falling apart.
We all know we are in this together.
So thank the folks that are bagging your groceries. Appreciate the flight attendants and pilots who are traveling despite the risks. Be kind and empathetic to those who are going about their days to make life work for the rest of us. They are human. They are at great health risk, great financial risk, and facing all of the same fears as the rest of us.
That is heroic.