Monday, April 13, 2020

I Am Not Afraid; I Am Afraid

I'm not afraid of this virus. I'll either get it or I won't. My immune system will either fight it off or it won't. It's like every other virus in that sense. I'm practicing social distancing, staying home, and washing my hands because that's what we're doing to keep our healthcare system from being overrun, but I'm comfortable with the fact that I will one day slip up, or someone close to me will slip up, and I'll contract the highly contagious illness that goes with it. There's even a decent chance I've already survived it given all the travel I did between December and March and the fact that this virus is as likely to reveal itself through symptoms as not. There are a handful of doctors, nurses, and even some infectious disease specialists in my social circle and every one of them privately confirms my assumptions, with the caveat that there's a slim chance that I get lucky enough to dodge it for a couple years until a vaccine is developed and deployed.

Mine isn't a manufactured fearlessness, one to wear like armor against anxiety. I'm genuinely unconcerned about this virus and I've been genuinely unconcerned about all viruses during my entire career as a preschool teacher. I've always washed my hands and taken other common sense precautions, but you simply can't avoid contracting everything that comes down the pike if you work day-after-day with young children. The profession weeds out the fearful and makes the rest of us strong. So in that sense, one could say that I'm immune to this type of fear.

I'm somewhat more concerned about our economy and what a long-term recession or even depression will do to people. The Seattle Police Department has reported a 21 percent increase in domestic violence calls since the stay at home orders went in effect. I've not seen any credible evidence of a jump in suicides, but unemployment is a well-established risk factor for suicide and our suicide rate was already, even before the widespread job losses caused by this pandemic, upsettingly close to the rates experienced during the Great Depression. I'm sad about all those small businesses that will never open again. Even if the owners land on their feet, our community will have lost much of what makes it special.

But I'm not afraid of our economy being forced to reassess itself. In fact, I'm looking forward to it. Among those small businesses that will never re-open are thousands of small preschools and child cares. This is going to force all of us to take a hard look at how essential child care is to our economy and the mess the profession is in these days. Maybe now, we'll be forced to sustainably address the deeply flawed economy that has taken the central project of every civilization that has ever existed and shoved it to the low-income, low-prestige fringes. Maybe now we'll be forced to deal with the fact that child care is too expensive for most American families, while at the same time, bizarrely, it's so low paid that many caregivers live on the edge of poverty. Something's got to give and I have some hope that this crisis will leave us no choice but to deal with it if our economy is to ever get back on its feet. I'm not holding my breath, but I have hope.

And that's the debate that we've been having since the beginning of all this: staying safe from the scary virus versus staying safe from a collapsing economy. It's presented daily in the media and the halls of power as the central dilemma, but there is a third concern that has been weighing far more heavily on me than either of these. I am worried, even fearful, about both the short and longterm impacts of social isolation on our mental health, and especially that of young children. Humans are a highly social animal. Creating social relationships is central to our well-being and social interaction is vital to proper brain development. In the absence of social relationships children are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, tend to have lower subsequent educational attainment, and are more likely grow into psychologically distressed adults. Social interactions are so vital to humans, especially young humans, that our brains react to social isolation as a threat:

Having an active stress response over an extended period has been proven to increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, infectious illness, cognitive deterioration, and mortality . . . High levels of stress are therefore regarded as a threat to a socially isolated child's health, not only in their early years of life but also in adulthood.

There is no evidence that these few weeks of social distancing are going to have any long term psychological impacts on children, but the longer this goes on the more likely it becomes. I'm already feeling it within myself, so I know children are experiencing the strain of this unnatural, even anti-human, life we've been forced to live this past month. At a minimum we're going to be doing this for another month, staying distant from our fellow humans. We're doing what we can right now, of course, trying to figure out if we can stay connected virtually, and I'm sure it helps. We had a brief family Easter brunch Zoom session yesterday, which was nice, but obviously not the same as being in the same room, breathing the same air, hugging hello, hugging goodbye, and passing dishes around the table.

For my own mental well-being, I am ignoring those who gloomily predict that this dangerous experiment in social isolation will go on for months and months, or worse, that this is the new normal. And I'm extra ignoring those who fear-monger about how this virus, unlike all the other viruses, might not convey some level of immunity to those who've survived it. If that's the case, all bets are off. That means we have to spend the rest of our lives hiding from this virus, a fate worse than death from where I sit. I had a strong emotional reaction to a simple Facebook conversation yesterday among acquaintances agreeing that they were going to stop shaking hands after this. I replied that I would only shake hands with people who had first refused my hug. I was met with the chirping of crickets. I know that I will not be able to live in that sort of dystopia, nor will children who need human touch and lots of it to develop properly.

When we went into this phase, we did it with the understanding that we were doing so in order to keep our health care system from being overwhelmed. We are succeeding, it appears, at least here in Washington state where they tell us we are nearly a week past our peak in terms of both daily deaths and resource usage. I'm prepared to continue this through May, with a gradual return to normal spread out over the following weeks, accompanied by extra precautions surrounding those who are most vulnerable. I'm likewise prepared for the inevitability that this will be followed by ebbs and flows of this particular virus. It will make a "come back" and this time we'll be better prepared for it, even if it will, like many viruses, take a few lives along the way, but most of us will survive to enjoy at least some level of immunity. And then there is the eventual development of a vaccine for those who want it. This is the normal state of affairs between us and the world of viruses.

I am afraid, but not of the virus and I'm not afraid about the economy. I am afraid of the mental health recession we are facing. If we make the mistake of dragging this out, this will be the real legacy of this pandemic: a generation of children damaged by social isolation. I do not want to be part of a generation that has chosen to push pain and suffering off onto the next one.

Meanwhile, I'm doing my part.


I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. 

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