At first, I wasn’t concerned at all about the spread of COVID-19. In fact, as the news started to roll in, I was a bit smug about the rising anxiety. But as the global community rushes to meet the challenge of this unforeseen health crisis, I’ve found myself chewing on a fundamental question: with all the threats that our communities face on a daily basis—the ravages of institutional racism, gun violence, addiction, rampant homelessness, pervasive domestic and sexual violence—what is it about this particular threat that feels different, more terrifying to those around me?
The anthropologist in me drew the easy conclusion. We’re contending with a basic instinct here: fear of the unknown. We humans have a well-cultivated, more-or-less successful strategy: fear what we don’t understand and overreact to unfamiliar information. This tendency is only amplified by our formidable ability to imagine so many unpleasant scenarios using our limited data.
But I’ve been at FFI for a few years now, and I’ve learned to dig down beneath fear, knowing that it is often driven by our need to hold on to our assets in the Five Domains of Wellbeing while we navigate the tradeoffs—big and small, voluntary and involuntary—that are required of us as we live our lives. FFI may be most well-known for demonstrating the ways that this operates on an individual and family level, but in the news I’m watching a live case study of how threats to our collective assets in the Five Domains of Wellbeing play out on the community level.
As I grounded myself in a wellbeing orientation, my perspective began to shift. Suddenly, my slightly smug dismissiveness was swept away by the realization of how deeply we will be impacted in each of the Five Domains:
Safety: Clearly, on the individual level, this is a direct threat to our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Will our friends, family, and co-workers of Asian descent be targeted by dangerous rhetoric? Is it ok to go to spaces that we have taken for granted as safe? Markets, places of worship, workplaces are all markedly more risky. Is anyone putting precautions in place to stop potential spread in these places with screening protocols or information on quarantine procedures? A casual cough by someone nearby now feels more dangerous. Can I trust other people to care for themselves appropriately if they start to feel ill?
Stability: An appropriate public health response on the scale required to stem the spread of a viral disease disrupts the patterns of our lives. If we’re required to work remotely to help flatten the curve, what will it be like to work in an unfamiliar space, to miss out on saying “hi” to our coworkers as we fill up our coffee, to establish new rhythms of work that we’ve relied on to keep our days on track? Will our travel options remain reliable? On any given day, what routines related to work will be disrupted? School? Childcare? If this escalates, will our bakeries and coffee shops open? Will our polling places be safe and accessible in November?
Social Connectedness: We are suddenly faced with the realization that even touch—a cornerstone of human social connection—is something that we should avoid. As we adopt various modes of social distancing, how will we stay in touch with our colleagues beyond an email, our friends outside of social media, or our faith communities as events and “extra” meetings are cancelled? Will we be able to give and receive care to our loved ones if the disease spreads to our doorsteps? And what if (may it never be so!) we contract COVID-19 and then recover—what stigmas might we face during our illness and upon recovery?
Meaningful Access to Relevant Resources: Our communities are not self-sufficient. We rely on trade–inter-city, inter-state, and international—for the goods and services that make our lives possible. It’s not just Baby Yoda toys and other mass-produced commodities that are at stake here. In the case of quarantine, will we be able to access food? Will we have access to the medical supplies we need to move through this? If we find ourselves scrambling to hoard supplies, are we protecting ourselves or are we exposing the most vulnerable people in our communities to increased risk? If public institutions scale back services or staffing, what segments of our populations will lose access to the help they need for housing, food, and other necessities?
Mastery: Are we collectively up to this? Are our systems strong enough, organized enough, resourced well enough to meet this challenge? Will testing kits and medical supplies be made available when and where we need them? Will public institutions that have so far struggled to produce clear guidance manage to do so in time? In the absence of this kind of guidance, do we feel like we can have an influence on our environment? If not, how might we act out individually and collectively to give ourselves even the illusion of that control—hoarding food and medical supplies; obsessively refreshing the news on our phones?
COVID-19 feels like a different type of threat because the best practices that are needed to stem the spread of the pandemic require us to make major tradeoffs—all at once—in each of the Five Domains. Taken individually, these may seem like minor inconveniences or small adjustments. Taken together, it’s overwhelming.
I feel like I can at least wrap my arms around the fear I see now.
So I’m not as smug about the rising panic. I’m approaching it with less eye-rolling and more hope: hope that when we stop and view this crisis—and our response to it—in the full-frame, we open up new pathways for a strong community response. Hope that as our public health officials issue guidance and move into action they will consider the tradeoffs that people will have to make, in order for that guidance to be successful. Hope that we’ll design a response that protects the people at the margins of our society just as much as the people at the center. Hope that we can find the path forward that preserves our collective wellbeing–and even contributes to our wellbeing after we successfully contain this microscopic terror called COVID-19.
This staff perspectives blog was written by Matthew Leger-Small, Special Assistant to the CEO on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.