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My wife’s coronavirus anxiety is through the roof and has taken the form of desperate stockpiling. Our teenage sons and I gape in disbelief at the supplies coming in the back door daily. Twenty boxes of Pop-Tarts—really??? My wife is a lauded author and professor, and the transformation over the past few weeks has been startling. She says to me, exasperated after I make a snarky comment, “Can’t you have a little compassion?” I know it’s difficult to trust Mike Pence or the Centers for Disease Control after it has been starved of funding by Donald Trump. But is there any better way to figure out what to do?
You’ve nailed the root of the problem: With no confidence that our government will protect us, your wife is dealing with her justified anxieties by stocking up on supplies. And she’s not the only one; many Americans have been doing the same. But you’re not alone in your bewilderment as a spouse. The Wall Street Journal reported that many couples disagree on how much stockpiling is appropriate. There’s a kernel of rationality in the prepping: Were someone in your house to get sick, your family would need to self-quarantine and keep out of the grocery store. (Of course, it’s good to stay away from stores to minimize human contact right now, no matter what, though delivery is likely to remain a good option.) I agree, however, with your underlying sense that much of our hoarding isn’t rooted in such practical thinking. Disruptions in the Pop-Tart supply chain aren’t the most likely of our impending problems. I’m sure by now your family has figured out that the most urgent matter is to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus, including by practicing social distancing and staying at least six feet away from other humans whenever possible.
The enormous life changes demanded of us by this effort may by now be distracting your wife from going to Costco. She probably has to figure out how to put all of her classes online, perhaps care for aging relatives long-distance, help you nag the teenagers (presumably stranded in the house all day and sleeping till noon) to resist the charms of TikTok and Instagram long enough to help with the chores and do whatever schoolwork their teachers have remotely mandated, and get some exercise. But if she’s still stocking up, unless it’s a budgetary issue for your family (which it may be if you’ve lost work to the virus), just let it go. Twenty boxes of Pop-Tarts is more than you’ll need, but this excess is not worth fighting about. I get annoyed when people try to use the pandemic as an opportunity for personal growth—our goal in a crisis should be to stay alive and help others do so as well, so let’s not put extra pressure on ourselves to become more awesome during this time—but living in such close quarters with our partners and kids should, if anything, help us learn to pick our battles.
In this time of Covid-19, how should we take care of friends feeling lonely and blue, friends who have lost their jobs, friends whose parents are terribly sick but are not allowed visitors? Normally, I would seek them out or host them for drinks and dinner. How should I now practice solidarity?
I feel your letter deeply. I have been struggling with this problem myself. Hanging out in person, meeting people for drinks, or hosting them for dinner is how we all try to look after friends in trouble. And let us not forget hugs, a critical source of solace we’ve abruptly lost. (And what about friends with benefits, who have suddenly had to withdraw even coffee dates from a list that recently included more intimate and cheering activities?) While social distancing is essential to reduce transmission—a critical need for our already overburdened and fragile health care system—its impact is not evenly distributed. The injunction not to visit other people’s homes, not to spend time with anyone outside our immediate families or households, is a burden that may fall more heavily on those who live alone and count on friends for company, as well as on anyone who is suffering and in need of emotional support. In a society unaccustomed to sacrificing for the common good, many of us are zealously trying to do our part not to spread or contract the virus, but we may do so clumsily and without regard to the psychic pain around us.
People are just beginning to discuss the coming toll of social distancing on our mental health. As Ezra Klein writes in Vox, we are about to face a “loneliness epidemic.” My sister Miranda, a social worker, says, “People are going to crack. Social isolation is really dangerous.” Depending on where you live and what kind of recommendations or lockdown rules are in place, if you have distressed friends who are especially in need of human contact, you might be able to meet up and take a walk together, observing epidemiologists’ recommendations to stay at least six feet away from each other. (You probably need to get outside anyway, for your own mental health.) If you have a stoop, porch, or backyard that allows a safe physical distance, you could carefully hang out that way, too. Safer yet, some people are meeting for cocktails or coffee virtually via Zoom or FaceTime.
This pandemic presents us with emotional and social challenges that we’ve never faced before. The closest analog to the problem you pose is supporting suffering friends who live far away. Most of us have had to do this at times, and it’s never been easy. Thanks to technology, we have more ways of offering comfort than we did when humans had only letters and, later, the phone. In many cases, the best we can do right now is to let our friends know we are thinking of them. We can text to check in and also have long conversations by DM or Skype. We can even bring back letters and phone calls. My hope is that we all help each other survive this crisis by doing such things, but I also hope that we remember how much we’ve lost by not being physically together—and press our governments to be more prepared for the next plague so this never happens again.
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