During a national crisis event, like the COVID-19 outbreak, living in the Washington D.C. region has its perks, and it has its downsides.
On the positive side, I’m friends and acquaintances with people who are working for the government and federal agencies, national news outlets, and other places that are currently tasked with understanding the national situation and developing a response. Such connections mean I’ve often got my finger on the pulse of trending stories and best tips for preparedness.
On the other hand, our region rarely lets a good opportunity to panic go to waste. Many winters, we’re the laughingstock of the country when a national news outlet reports that the federal government and D.C. schools have closed due to an inch of snow. And Washington D.C. locals know that a simple rain shower could cause serious traffic backups simply because people forget how to drive in the rain. Of course, sometimes our region’s panic is understandable—like when the White House, Pentagon, and Capitol building were evacuated immediately following a fluke earthquake just days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, because the Secret Service wasn't certain an explosion of some sort didn’t cause the rattling of the buildings.
Learning from past experience and the old adage “better safe than sorry” come to mind here—not only in response to my dear city’s propensity to panic, but also as I’ve surveyed the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
We in the United States have the experiences of other countries like China and Italy, who’ve experienced large COVID-19 outbreaks, to learn from. And if there is still a debate over whether we’re overreacting to a disease many (most?) of us will survive—maybe we are, but wouldn’t we rather be over-prepared than under-prepared, safe now rather than sorry later?
As this week has gone on, the low-grade panic about the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States has hit a bit of a fever pitch. In certain regions like Washington state and New Rochelle, New York, life has already come to a near standstill because of the novel disease. But for many regions in the United States, where cases of COVID-19 are still relatively low and isolated, the announcement from WHO that it’s now a pandemic, the diving stock market, President Trump’s address to the nation last night, and reports that toilet paper may be low in supply has triggered a sudden reaction. How do we keep calm and be prepared?
I’m not an expert on how an infectious disease spreads, how your 401K is reacting to the market, or where the economy will be in Quarter 2. I’m just a woman, living in a city that is one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreaks and home to many of the leaders in charge of the national response. The following are just a few ways I’m keeping calm—at least for this week.
Tailoring social media usage
I can’t be the only person who’s been wondering what it would be like to live through a pandemic before social media and the internet. Of course, there's the obvious fact that we wouldn’t have as much information, which has been helpful in forming our preparedness.
In the past few days, I’ve followed first-person accounts on Twitter and other news outlets of Italians and even some Americans currently quarantined in their cities and homes. I’ve learned that quarantine doesn’t mean you can’t go outside. In fact, walks outside are encouraged to break up the day and mitigate cabin fever (TikTok also seems to be lightening the mood for those stuck at home). Until yesterday, Italians were still able to shop at stores and have some meals in restaurants; and while most stores and restaurants are now closed, grocery stores and pharmacies remain open. Here in the States, certain religious groups, like the Episcopal Dioceses of Washington D.C. and Virginia and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, have cancelled religious services for a period of time.
Of course, we can’t know what restrictions our local or federal governments, religious leaders, or other institutions might suggest, but if we were to move into a quarantine situation, this is all still helpful information for getting a sense of what it might look like. I, for one, am glad to know I’ll be able to breathe in the spring weather from time to time (while keeping appropriate social distance to prevent germ spreading), and as a religious person, I’ll be sure to embrace opportunities of worship now, so long as I’m not sick and our church hasn’t cancelled services.
But as with all trending topics, I’ve reached a point where just about the only thing I see in my feed is information about COVID-19. And if it’s all I’m reading about, then it’s about all I’m thinking about. You can imagine my surprise when I find myself encountering other things are going on in the world still—like a picture of a fun dress-up day at my niece’s school, or that Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison yesterday, or even a friend’s emotion about her personal life that has nothing to do with “social distancing” and COVID-19.
Indeed, I hit a point last night when I realized the social media vortex had sucked me in. What I was seeing on Twitter had been magnified in my already slightly anxious mind. The combination of the two—anxiety and social media—were fueling my panic (and I imagine might be fueling the panic of others, too).
“Anxiety functions by constantly reminding you to pay attention to it,” wrote Laura Turner for The Atlantic in 2017. She continued:
And so does Twitter. Twitter draws users back for more and more and more. Smartphones are designed to provide instant gratification, and many of Twitter's features depend on our biological fear of scarcity, says Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center. The push notifications, the little number next to our mentions, the bar that tells us how many tweets have been sent since we last refreshed the page—all of these details are designed to keep users coming back, afraid that we might have missed something vital. "Social media doesn't really promote moderation," Aalai says (in what could perhaps be the understatement of the year).
I’ve known this about Twitter and my engagement with it for some time, but it’s often during a panicked news cycle that I find myself needing this reminder about how anxiety and social media actually work. Each time, I gain more control of my media consumption habits. Yesterday, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone, forcing me to only check in on my desktop—making the experience for me more cumbersome and less enticing to scroll for hours on end.
I’ve also limited the journalists, doctors, news outlets, and other expert accounts I’ll follow for COVID-19. There is little sense getting worked up about a piece of information from a semi-anonymous Twitter account which may or not be reporting the facts accurately. By and large, I’m sticking to government official reports and straight news reporting. I’ve discerned carefully the first-person accounts I’ve read, erring toward well-balanced as opposed to highly emotional reactions. I’ve kept my reading of opinion commentary to a minimum, too.
Bias is near impossible to keep out, but I see no point in getting personally worked up about whether the president’s reaction has been good enough or not (depending on which political party you’d like to win the Oval Office in 2020). It’s best in times like these to focus on what I can control.
Being prepared but not hoarding
A few weeks ago, an acquaintance commented that hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes were completely wiped out at the several stores she went to and on Amazon, too. I thought little of the issue, as I don’t keep these items on hand regularly anyway—I’m a soap-and-water hand-washer and have plenty of disinfectant spray for my home. Next week, however, I’ll hopefully be flying to the Midwest for a family gathering. Short of the airlines forbidding us to fly or becoming sick myself, it’s the sort of family gathering I’m not willing to miss. But Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer would sure be nice defenses for the airplane tray, seat belt, and armrest handling in my travels. Lesson learned: a little preparedness never hurts.
So earlier this week I went to the store to pick up non-perishable items, frozen foods and a few household items. Before I did that, I planned a few meals to make from said items, so that I wasn’t overbuying, but rather buying with intention. I also picked up a pack of toilet paper (just one!), some paper towels, and one extra bottle of hand soap and disinfectant spray. While some stores are limiting the number of household items like toilet paper each person can buy, mine is not. However, the concept of taking only what you need is important to remember. Belinda Luscombe for Time explains why:
Those who might actually need the hand sanitizer and less-perishable food and plenty of TP are the frail, already ill and elderly, those who are least likely to be able to rush off to the store. Face masks are most needed by medical professionals or frontline workers; reducing supply for them means a greater likelihood of the virus spreading.
As our nation moves through this outbreak, we’re all in this together, so let’s make sure we don’t trample each other along the way and make the situation worse.
Staying connected during “social distancing”
Keeping a spirit of solidarity may feel difficult in a time when “social distancing” is the recommended norm. As a woman who lives by herself (albeit in a large apartment complex with lots of friendly neighbors), the idea of walking through a potential quarantine or even just this time of heightened concern alone has been distressing at times. But a few pivotal moments this week have given me inspiration for not only how to make it through, but how to respond when stress and anxiety take hold.
It started with a friend calling me during her workday commute this week. As we chatted about the news and the precautions we’re taking, I mentioned my lack of Clorox wipes and my upcoming trip. That’s when she volunteered, “We have canisters of wipes—you can have some.” And so we set a plan for me to come over with Ziplock bags to transport some with me on my trip next week. A tiny bit of anxiety lifted.
Later on, a family text exchange about the stock market dropping reminded me of a lingering financial question that suddenly feels more urgent in the face of a potential economic recession. So I swallowed my independent woman pride and texted my parents about my question. Their answer was helpful and also calming.
And now I’m thinking of ways I can pay forward the generosity, to help others who might be distressed, too. I’ll start by trying to find topics that don't concern COVID-19 to talk with friends about, so we all can have reminders of other aspects of life. And I plan to let my friends in the area know I do have a few extra rolls of toilet paper, should our stores run out.
Social distancing might be what we need to keep the virus from spreading between people, but a sense of community is what we need to get through this outbreak in a calm manner. So consider taking a minute today to call a loved one and ask her if there is anything she needs, or share a beautiful story or a laugh about anything but the COVID-19 outbreak. I bet you’ll both feel a little calmer when you do.