While the Cheap Eco Wanderer blog may not seem like the most apparent location for a post on the novel coronavirus, otherwise known as the virus which causes COVID-19, I feel I am in a unique position to reflect on the global, public health, and economic implications of the virus. Further, the virus has, without a doubt, impacted the world economy at large (cheap), our environment (eco), as well as the travel industry (wanderer). I therefore rest my case.
Earlier this month I had the good fortune of travelling to Mexico City, Mexico, to attend a travel industry conference. At that time all conference attendees knew of the virus, but it was still on the other side of the U.S. and only seemed to be affecting those who were older and had underlying health conditions. To be clear, when I left the United States Mexico only had 5 confirmed cases of COVID-19, while the United States had over 130 and no travel restrictions had yet been put into place.
Soon after returning from the travel conference, new stories seemed to take a turn for the worse. The conference was held by a large travel company for whom I worked part-time. However, most of my co-workers at this company either worked multiple part-time jobs or worked “full-time” for the travel company. I use quotations around full-time because although my colleagues worked 40+ hours a week, the gig economy typically does not provide benefits as other full-time employment would, such as health insurance, paid time off, or FMLA.
In addition to my part-time work, I also work full-time in the health care industry and attended an all-staff emergency meeting March 13 about precautions our health clinic would be taking regarding the spread of COVID-19. I didn’t think much of the meeting until the next day, when I began reading more of the recommendations coming from public health officials regarding social distancing and flattening the curve. My background is in public health, and while I am not a trained epidemiologist I knew enough to realize I needed to listen closely to the recommendations of public health officials. On the evening of March 14 I stayed up late into the night reading about how epidemiological modeling of the virus predicted an overwhelm of the U.S. healthcare system, and how vital avoiding others in order to slow the spread of the virus would be. I was scheduled to work March 21 and 28 for my travel industry job, which would involve interacting with groups of 7-8 people and visiting a number of restaurants; I couldn’t quite see how I could successfully do all this while each and every one of us maintained a six-foot distance from one another. On top of this, my full-time job in health care requires me to work with immunocompromised, multiple co-morbidity possessing individuals whose health status is oftentimes poor due to socioeconomic factors, not to mention the over 60 population with whom I also work. That evening I wrote the manager of my part-time job an email stating that I felt it was my duty to follow recommendations of social distancing and to flatten the curve. In the email, I explained I did not feel the company emails about carrying around hand sanitizer and offering it to all of our travel guests were sufficient enough measures to protect the greater health of the U.S. population, nor the patient population at my health clinic – I was taking myself off of the job for the foreseeable future.
The evening of March 15 and the morning of March 16 our travel company held conference calls to reassure us that the business would do everything it could to keep us safe while also staying afloat economically and keeping everyone employed. Word on the street was that certain businesses would soon be closing, and on the afternoon of March 16 we all received an email – due to the recent governmental shutdowns of the restaurant business, the travel company was closing, effective immediately. Just like that, most of my co-workers were unemployed. Without their income, many of my college-educated, hard-working co-workers are now faced with applying for unemployment.
Unlike the majority of my co-workers in the travel industry, I have a full-time job with benefits and am therefore able to keep working. However, I work providing social service care to a largely low socio-economic status immigrant population (those without legal documents do contribute to our government’s income by paying taxes, so let’s take that inaccuracy off the table right now). Overnight, a large majority of my patient population, who worked in one capacity or the other in D.C. area restaurants, were without jobs. Many of these individuals either will not qualify for unemployment, or are too afraid to apply given the recent news bandwidth regarding the public charge ruling.
Let me be clear – I one hundred percent support Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision to close restaurants and bars on March 16 from a public health perspective, and fully applaud any further actions she takes to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, there is no question that this decision placed further financial hardship on many of those who are already struggling financially.
It’s in times like these that I remind myself to take a step back and look at how fortunate I am. Surrounded by those suffering financially and emotionally, I (to my knowledge) will still be receiving 100% of my paycheck. Some of my other friends are not so lucky. Even those whose industries were not shuttered were forced to severely cut pay in order to avoid lay-offs.
And yet, I sometimes feel conflicted in this fortune. Although I don’t provide medical care, I have been deemed an essential employee of the health clinic for which I work. While I so badly wish to support the public health effort of flattening the curve, I feel my hand is being forced on the issue – up until March 20, my co-workers and I were in the office every day, interacting with each other and patients because we were told we were unable to telework. Fortunately, as of this past Friday we have begun a rotating telework schedule, but those still in the office continue to interact with other co-workers and patients.
So let’s also take this moment to point out the immense sacrifices these individuals are making during the pandemic. Physicians, nurses, medical assistants, pharmacists, reception staff; I can assure you that none of them ever thought we would be seeing what is now being described as a “once-in-100-year” disease. And let’s not forget those who often go unrecognized – cleaning crews, grocery store employees, operations for all essential functions, public sanitation workers, transit workers, social service organizations who serve those impacted, and so many others.
And yet, speaking as someone who has been deemed essential personnel, I’m not looking for thanks. What I would love is for others to understand my coworkers and I cannot work while maintaining a six-foot distance between each other. That our clinic only has one box of surgical masks left. That there is a national shortage of nitrile gloves. And – this is most important – that you. must. stay. home. I’m saddened and frustrated by those around me and those I see on social media – some of whom are medical professionals themselves, who make comments about how they’re “not good at social distancing” or “can’t possibly stay home forever.” I’m astonished by claims I hear that this is the government’s way of controlling our lives. I don’t believe anyone particularly wants to stay home, but I’ve come to view it like this:
I don’t have much of a choice in my exposure at work, so I’m going to do everything I possibly can to limit my exposure in any other way.
I am lucky that I am young and healthy; if I were to become infected by the virus that causes COVID-19 I likely would survive. However, I also understand epidemiological social network mapping and how, in 2020, we are all interconnected. I’ve repeatedly had individuals tell me that they’re “just visiting a few friends” or relatives outside of their homes for a few hours. What I’ve tried to model is that unfortunately, with the virus that causes COVID-19, it is not that simple. If you and your significant other visit three people one day and another three the next day, this has created a circle of 8 individuals. If each of those individuals interacts with two other individuals outside of this circle, that’s a group of 24 individuals interacting. The number grows and grows, and yes, it will eventually reach someone whose immune system is not strong enough to fight the COVID-19 virus. As health and government officials have been warning for weeks now, the best thing we can do is stay at home.
I get it – staying home can be a mind-numbing, scary, lonely thing to do, which is why I relished finding Ten Percent Happier’s Coronavirus Sanity Guide. Someone on the guide posed a very important question the other day.
What if, instead of looking at this as a form of self-deprivation, we looked at this experience as a practice of compassion for others?