Mark Sherman: We’ll get through this

I typically begin writing my column a couple of days before it’s due, and, of course, a couple of days ago, the big story — as it has been for several weeks now — was the coronavirus and the disease associated with it, COVID-19. This is typically a humor column, so I wrote about it with humor, for example joking about how we might hurt our elbows when we do one of the now preferred ways of greeting each other — the elbow bump. 

But with this crisis, things change by the day, and when I showed the draft of the original piece to my wife (I send almost nothing anywhere without her reading it first), she scowled and said, “No, this crisis is hurting too many people too much right now. It’s not a time for laughs about it.” And then, when someone in my family, whom I love, called to say that she had been exposed to someone with the virus, and when two other family members called to say how nervous and scared they were, I realized my wife was absolutely right. We may very well (and I hope we will) laugh about this someday, but not today. So now, with my column due in less than three hours, I’ll try again.

Since people have called me for comfort, I assume that — no matter how anxious I often am — they feel I may have words that they’ll find helpful. So I’ll try to do that here. I am not a doctor (well Ph.D., but that’s not a “real” doctor), but my dad was, and here’s one thing I remember about him from growing up, which is quite relevant to dealing with this pandemic: He was always washing his hands. I am sure that one of the first things he learned in medical school was the importance of doing that when treating patients. Indeed, though I know little about the history of medicine, I believe that a huge breakthrough was acknowledging the importance of not spreading germs with one’s hands or by droplets from coughs, sneezes, or even breathing. Hence, we see the prototypical picture of the medical person wearing gloves and masks. (And keep in mind, that, as far as I know, the main purpose of the surgical mask is not to avoid catching something, but rather to avoid spreading it.)

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So, if you have even glanced at a newspaper, your TV, the Internet, or listened for even a few minutes to the radio, you know how important hand hygiene is. I’ve always been a little crazy about this — not only washing my hands more than is necessary, but using Purell so much that my hands get raw and cracked. I’m not recommending you go as far as me, but this is a time for all of us to really keep our hands clean — quite literally (as well as figuratively, of course).

And one part of that is to avoid what I see so many people do — and every time I see it, it makes me angry. When you cough or sneeze, don’t cover your nose or mouth with your bare hand; do it into a tissue or the crook of your arm. I have seen people cough into their right hand, and then approach me to shake hands; even before this scourge, that bothered me a lot. I know, if you are anywhere near my age, you may have heard that as a kid — when you’re going to sneeze or cough, cover your mouth with your hand. But as we do as a species, we learned the better way. Of course, during this pandemic, the current wisdom is simply to avoid shaking hands, which I totally go along with. But some day, I hope, we will again — and then, it is imperative to have your hands as clean as possible.

And, as difficult as it is to do this, try to keep your hands away from your face. There’s hope here, based on my years as a behavioral psychologist (and this was something I noted even before that training). New habits are not necessarily that hard to learn. The first, and main thing, it requires is awareness. I used to say “ya know” all the time when I talked as a kid, until my dad (a stickler for grammar as he was for clean hands), told me that he couldn’t stand it (and he said that in his scary dad voice). So I began to note every time I did it, and the frequency rapidly went down. I’m sure the same can be done about face-touching.

I’ll stop here with my suggestions about avoiding getting COVID 19, realizing that some of us could in any case (the hardest thing to do is social distancing — trying to stay at least six feet away from other people), and say a few things about the bigger picture. First, keep in mind that unless you’re an older person or someone with an underlying condition, your chance of getting seriously ill from the coronavirus is small. This bothered me at first, since I’m an old guy, but then I realized that if any group is going to be more at risk, it should be mine. (I do feel especially bad for anyone with underlying conditions.) When I talked to one of my sons yesterday, he said he was extraordinarily grateful that his two boys were not at great risk for problems. I feel the same — about my own children, and most especially my grandchildren.

Also, none of us know what the future will bring. Warm weather could help put a dent in the spread of this disease. (It’s not just the president who said this, but so too have some very good doctors.) And we never know what our creative scientists can come up with in terms of treatment. And there will be a vaccine. I remember polio epidemics. That was a much worse disease than this one, and disproportionately affected young people. It was terrifying. A vaccine was created. Polio was wiped out. 

Finally, two things to remember, one said so often that it’s become trite – but things become trite because they’re true: This too shall pass. 

And second, as FDR said in his first inaugural address in 1933, when the country was in the midst of a horrendous depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” More recently, Governor Cuomo said the current situation is not in itself so horrific. It is fear that can lead to hoarding of food and other socially harmful behaviors. 

We’re all in this together and we will get through it.