It’s eerily quiet on a Sunday in New York. Pandemics have that effect, I’m learning. We’re in the midst of the most disruptive infectious pandemic in generations. Many of us are facing unspeakable loss and pain.
I am a cardiologist with 25 years of experience. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. My patients are immune-compromised. They are the survivors of heart surgery, the ones living with myocarditis, battling heart failure. The people I treat are most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19.
So you may be surprised when I tell you that I remain optimistic. There is evidence all around us of a silver lining to this global threat to human health.
In the face of death, our priorities shift. We choose not to let petty nonsense, unnecessary conflicts, and hatred interfere with our precious time together. As only essential workers leave their homes to work, we now have the legitimate excuse to get off the fast train of commuting, meetings, gym workouts, chauffeuring kids, and getting up at dawn to do it all over again.
Instead, we are reconnecting with loved ones: at the dinner table, via video chats, on walks (staying six feet apart). We’re reminded why we love them. We appreciate what we share in common. We’re talking more than tweeting. Hugging our pets. Checking in on neighbors.
On a hike the other day, I noticed families pointing out the wonders of the nearby forests: the oak trees, the daffodils, and star-shaped glories-of-the-snow. I saw still-spotted fawns and swarms of tadpoles in the mountain streams. Children were tuned into the waterfalls and winter-worn trails, experiencing real life, not virtual, eyes wide with wonder.
Many of my patients are infants. Their mothers are terrified. Is it safe to nurse? Is it OK to cuddle? What if they get sick? I explain breastfeeding is beneficial to the immune system. Their milk provides important immune factors including disease-fighting antibodies to defend against respiratory and intestinal viruses. La Leche League and the World Health Organization encourage all mothers to breastfeed. When we return to nature, we are again amazed by what it has to offer.
“Is it worth it?” Neighbors, colleagues, and patients want to know. They’re overwhelmed by social distancing, isolation, and helplessness. They feel the immensity of the situation, disheartened by the idea that they have no real control over the sociopolitical aspects of their lives.
I tell them not to panic, to stay the course, to breathe. Even if we fail to flatten the curve successfully, it is the very essence of trying that actually matters. We are giving testimony that our social contract with each other still has value to us. This reaffirmation is priceless.
My oldest friend is a nurse administrator for elder-care facilities. He had to notify families that, to prevent the unintentional spread of the coronavirus to the nursing homes, they could no longer visit the elders.
Not wanting to be isolated, many residents went home to their families. Anecdotal evidence suggests the elderly living amongst their loved ones have been faring better than those who have remained in nursing homes. They have more mobility and better appetites. They’re taking fewer antidepressants, requiring fewer doctor visits.
He foresees significant restructuring of older adults’ living arrangements, an architectural transformation modeled after countries in Asia. Another silver lining of lockdown: Older adults experience a higher quality of life when we share the same household with extended family.
There are more upsides: As we undergo this forced natural experiment, our air, water, and land are clearing up. Decreased human activity is resulting in less human-generated pollutant levels. With clearer skies, our breathing problems improve and we understand the power we have as a collective. Instead of returning to smog and pollution, we can make changes to keep the environment clean and healthy.
International collaboration has become necessary. To fight this common enemy, we are sharing medical and public health data between Asia, Europe, and the United States. Together we are more empowered than in isolation. Scientists from diverse countries are combining their brainpower to find a cure and develop a safe and effective vaccine. Once they have done so, together we will apply these discoveries responsibly and appropriately to quell the current pandemic and diminish the future potency of the virus.
Best of all, we are all becoming humbler. Our humility is our strength. With pride gone, we can be open to powerful and creative solutions to the health and socioeconomic problems we all share right now.
The importance of community, family, and the natural world. If we learn these lessons together, we will promote not just prosperity for some, but survival for all.
Dr. Eric Fethke is a pediatric cardiologist, author, and legal advisor who has been practicing in New York for 22 years. He received his BA from Princeton University and his MD from Columbia University. He has taught medical students and residents at Columbia, Albert Einstein, and now Touro universities.