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Taking care of ourselves and each other during coronavirus | COMMENTARY

Coping during a pandemic can be stressful. It's important that everyone takes care of themselves as well as others.
Coping during a pandemic can be stressful. It's important that everyone takes care of themselves as well as others.(Dreamstime)

In his heydey, Mayor Ed Koch relished moving about New York City and asking anyone in earshot, “How’m I doing?” Typically, we New Yorkers would give him an earful.

President Donald Trump doesn’t ask us. He gives us an earful every day in briefings that amount to the spread of viral misinformation. Despite evidence to the contrary, he boasts: “We’ve been doing a great job" and “We have taken this thing and done a hell of a job."

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New polls by Fox News and by ABC News in partnership with the Washington Post show that Americans are about evenly split on whether they approve of how he’s handling the COVID-19 crisis. Whatever approval is being expressed is no doubt less about his erratic, fantastical and contradictory statements and more about what we hear from the team of federal health professionals, led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s official infectious disease expert, and from Vice President Mike Pence, who is coordinating the coronavirus task force.

Forget the president. How are we doing? The aforementioned ABC-Washington Post poll shows: “The number of adults who report experiencing stress as a result of the pandemic (70%) exceeds the highest level of stress caused by the Great Recession as measured in ABC/Post polls (61% in March 2009). And the 69% who are worried about infection in their immediate family far surpasses the highest level of such fears in past epidemics, 52% for swine flu in October 2009.”

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But who needs a poll to tell us how we feel, from the time we wake and take our temperature or test our breathing or carry out any number of self-assessments? And that’s before we turn on the television or go to the internet for the latest alarming statistics on people infected or dead; the dire conditions in New York and New Orleans and Chicago; and the increasingly severe directives of our own Gov. Larry Hogan.

In terms of anxiety, this waiting for the ax to fall reminds me of the period in the 1990s when AIDS claimed the lives of so many of my friends and relatives, most of them in the prime of life. In New York, my circle was on edge waiting to learn who’d be next. In a matter of hours, we’d cycle through rage, defiance and resignation before mustering courage to do what needed to be done. And yet, that time was different than this COVID-19 time. Then we could be fairly certain of who was at risk. Now everyone is at risk.

No matter what make-it-through-the-day mantra we subscribe to, seeing a makeshift hospital being erected in New York’s Central Park this week, and refrigeration trucks serving as makeshift morgues, has been a heartbreaking reality check. In those quiet times when we are most honest with ourselves, we know that a lot of us won’t make it to the other side of this crisis. Dr. Fauci says we can expect 100,000 to 200,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Despite that, most of us are not letting dread paralyze us.

As we find ourselves confined inside, many of us are actually going inside ourselves to audit what really matters. We’re reaching out to members of our circles, even our outer circles, to ask: “How are you?” We are physically isolating ourselves from each other, but not cutting off all human contact. In ways unimaginable a few months ago, neighbors are living that word. Our phones and our computers have become our lifelines, providing temporary substitutes for cancelled weddings, birthday parties, family reunions.

Technology is a blessing, but I advise against gorging on 24/7 cable news or local news updates. The situation hardly changes from one 15-minute block to another; so consume in small doses as needed. Then turn to something mindless or comforting for a complete change of pace. Think of this as interval training for emotional well-being.

As we establish routines, please include time dedicated to civic responsibility. Give money to food banks and animal shelters and funds to assist first responders and health care workers. Complete that census form on paper, online or on the phone. Get those absentee ballots. Residents of the 7th Congressional District will be voting by mail this month; everyone will vote in the primary that’s been delayed to June.

Take care of your business. We’ve got to eat. We’ve got to exercise. We’ve got to be engaged. That still leaves time to binge-watch TV and movies and to dance to the oldies. Even those activities can be done communally as we get through this #AloneTogether.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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