[U.S. News & World Report] COVID-19 Challenges the Psyche of a Fractured Nation

OAKLAND, CALIF. — ON A recent weekday, 25-year-old Sybil Henry zipped up her rose-colored hoodie, tucked a face mask into her bag, and headed with her longboard and sunglasses to Oakland’s Lake Merritt. It was day three of the Bay Area’s enforced “shelter in place” order. That evening, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom would order a mandatory shelter in place for the entire state, prohibiting its nearly 40 million residents from partaking in unnecessary activities, avoiding large gatherings at home, and maintaining at least six feet of social distance should they go out for groceries or exercise. By the end of the week, New York and Illinois would follow suit.

For Henry, a self-described extrovert who lives alone and knows movement is essential to her well-being, being among runners, walkers and dogs circulating the lake as she released some tension on her longboard was a semblance of normalcy – even as the masks some donned, conspicuous social distancing, and snatches of conversation revealed no one was denying the communal crisis in their midst.

“Some moments I’m feeling fine and hopeful and everything’s OK,” Henry said as she sat on her longboard by the lake after a failed FaceTime call to her family. “The next minute someone will reach out to me – my friends and family are kind of in panic mode. So when I hear from them, it kind of sends me into this downward spiral.”

Across the country and the world, the novel coronavirus has now closed borders, shuttered schools and nonessential businesses, skyrocketed layoffs, frozen much of the economy, and forced workers and families who are able to adapt their lives online, exposing existing inequalities in the labor force and health care system. As of Monday afternoon, more than 41,000 people in the U.S. have been infected with COVID-19, and roughly 570 people have died.

Just as it’s testing individuals’ psyches, the pandemic is challenging the nature of communal response in a nation that, by many measures, is already used to being fractured.

“When the book is written on COVID-19, we’re going to have to tell it from every perspective of every group, every state, every locality, to really get the bigger picture within this,” says Scott Knowles, a historian of disasters who’s now hosting daily Zoom briefings with other disaster experts during the pandemic.

Some psychologists and sociologists – as well as historians like Knowles – point to moments in history like 9/11 and the 1918 flu pandemic as times Americans also united under national stressors that were both instantaneous and long term. But the current bottom-up nature of government intervention and lack of cohesive messaging suggests local and individual circumstances and identity will play an enormous role in how people cope and respond to the coronavirus outbreak, especially given how unique and far-reaching it is.

On top of mixed messaging from various levels of government that contributes to distress, “the event is really unprecedented in the level of secondary stressors that we are seeing people experience,” says Dana Rose Garfin, a psychologist at University of California—Irvine, who studies trauma and community disasters. It’s essential for people to pay attention to news to know how to best protect themselves and their families – but research also shows repeated media exposure is highly linked with psychological distress over time. And the economic and social repercussions of COVID-19 will depend on where individuals and communities are starting to begin with.

While every range of reaction – from panic to calm to feeling down or depressed – is normal, the underlying issue most people are dealing with now is uncertainty, Garfin says.

Gig and contingent workers are grappling with how to stay healthy and earn a living where 1 in 4 Americans and counting are ordered to stay at home. Parents working from home wonder how long they’ll have to homeschool and entertain their children indoors. Meanwhile, grocery store employees, warehouse and delivery employees, and other workers whose jobs require them to be outside their homes agonize whether they’re becoming vectors for disease if they can’t afford to not show up sick.

The Bay Area’s strict orders have forced swift action to assist the massive regional and state homeless population, already in crisis mode as it’s now more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19. Newsom is allocating $150 million in emergency funding to move homeless people indoors and $50 million to purchase and lease facilities to house the homeless who test positive or show symptoms of the coronavirus. But it’s up to local jurisdictions to prioritize who can be in those units, says Brenda Goldstein, who oversees supportive housing and medical services for the homeless at the Alameda County community health center LifeLong Medical Care.

Against a statewide housing affordability crisis, Newsom has also issued an executive order to protect California tenants from evictions if they cannot afford to pay their rent because of COVID-19 or income loss during the outbreak.

In his new book, “This is Chance! The Shaking of an All-American City, a Voice That Held It Together,” Jon Mooallem documents the weekend after the largest earthquake in American history rattled Anchorage, Alaska, on Good Friday in 1964. The true story shows how disaster highlights another natural tendency: to want to help. Almost immediately after the quake, hundreds of people flooded into the police station looking for jobs to do while a part-time radio host and mother, Genie Chance, was on the radio in less than an hour.

“A lot of what she was saying about the earthquake was scary and bad news,” Mooallem says. “But as someone who was listening that night told me, information is a form of comfort.”

While the U.S. may be beyond the days of relying on a central voice of authority as deep political fissures and polarized media also shape how people consider this public health crisis, examples of community solidarity abound. More than 22,000 COVID-19 related fundraisers have sprouted on GoFundMe in the last several weeks, according to the organization, to support restaurant workers, artists, homeless populations and families affected by COVID-19 who need financial assistance, to name a few examples. Communities are organizing to assist their most vulnerable neighbors under quarantine. Amid medical supply shortages threatening the ability for health care workers to care for patients and protect themselves, technologists are crowdsourcing equipment repairs and using 3D printing technology to make protective masks.

This kind of ingenuity and adaptation is not unexpected, says Tricia Wachtendorf, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “Working our way through this idea of a ‘new normal’ is something that is quite normal,” she says, although she acknowledged the long-term recovery of coronavirus will be unlike anything we’ve seen before given its wide-reaching ramifications – and a recovery period can be much more stressful than the immediate response situation.

But the situation is still unfolding; it’s hard to tell just yet how the national mood, and our individual reactions, will shift.

In the meantime, says Garfin, the psychologist, seeking a unified message from local leaders and working to manage anxiety are key. “The more people can feel prepared and the more people can try to do the things they do have control over, the calmer they’ll be.”

 

This piece originally published on March 23, 2020, on U.S. News & World Report.

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