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Letters  

Societal Stages of Covid-19

Stage one: Nothing to worry about

I first started hearing about the Novel Corona Virus in January 2020. I wasn’t too concerned. It was something happening half-way around the world. It seemed far away and I felt immune. After all, it hadn’t been too long ago when another corona virus, SARS, had swept through the world, and my corner of the globe had been unaffected. So, it really just felt like another piece of news happening in the world that didn’t affect my life directly. Like news I hear everyday.

Then things started to change. I felt my first wave of panic when the NBA put a hold on its season. I am actually not a basketball fan at all, but it made me scared for the NHL, and I do love hockey. And sure enough, before I knew, the NHL was on hold. Now this little Corona had my attention. I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took losing hockey for me to take this seriously, but now I was being personally affected and I didn’t know where that would stop.

Stage two: Panic mode

While the Covid-19 wave grew, none of us had any idea how big this thing would get or what it meant for our world. I recall with vivid clarity, my wife and I sitting in our bed on the morning of March 16 (2020), holding onto each other in fear and uncertainty. “What will happen?” we asked ourselves. “Will we be ok?” We reached to reassure each other. But we really had no certainty about the future. Would my practice dry up? Would clients be able to pay for their sessions? Will we stay healthy? How will I know if I am sick? What should we be doing to prepare for a lengthy quarantine? There were just so many questions and so few answers. We struggled to understand this new term “social distancing. And now I have to wear a mask? Nobody had really clear answers, and directives kept changing. It was a recipe for anxiety.

Stage 3: We are all in this together

But in the whirlwind of uncertainty and unprecedented crisis, something unexpected and amazing started happening. While stepping into gut-wrenching anxiety and a world of uncertainties, I saw beautiful and heartwarming examples of compassion, kindness and human care. People standing in a line at grocery stores politely and staying six feet apart. I heard cashiers and other perfect strangers wishing me good health. My professional community came together to support each other as we learned how to effectively deliver therapeutic services in an on-line format. The worst thing I saw was a run on toilet paper. And what was that all about anyway?

I saw it on a personal level too—families finding creative ways to come together and support each other, individuals finding ways to cope. I saw birthday car parades and virtual graduation ceremonies. It was inspiring watching my own family members cope in each their own way. My out-of-town adult children, from who I was now cut off from visiting, created daily Instagram feeds as a way of staying connected with friends and family. I felt proud of society, proud of humanity. We were standing together and unified against something that threatened us all.

Stage 4: The Great Divide

Then, over time, I noticed something new. The “we are all in this together” statements on Church and Tim Horton’s marquees disappeared and in their place came something dark and menacing. Suspicion and division. I noticed, in every corner of my world, questions arising about the validity of the pandemic narrative. The range of suspicion was wide. It included everything from microchips in the vaccine to a secret government plot to usher in ultimate state control. On the opposing side of the issue, I began to hear rumblings that if enough people resisted mandates and refused the vaccine, this would cause numbers to spike and the pandemic to drag on. The scene became set. Now the threat seemed to be less about the virus itself and more about the conflicting stories being told about it. We were now not only at war with a virus, but each other. What happened to the kindness and emotional support that had seemed so universal just a few short weeks ago?

How did this happen?

I’ve talked to people on both sides of this great divide and, but for a few sad exceptions, have been able to keep the conversations quite civil. What I’ve learned is both shocking, while also not surprising. In spite of this divide, there is something we still all have in common: we’re scared—scared of feeling out of control of our lives, scared of losing our freedom to live as we choose, scared of losing our health. And mostly, scared of not having a voice in any of it.

Our fear is understandable. It’s a normal response to threat. Fear moves us to action, to provide safety by taking control. If not for fear, we would sit idly by as our lives are destroyed by whatever calamities we are confronted with. It creates a one dimensional kind of thinking that keeps our eye on the ball and prevents distraction. When this runs out of control we call it an obsession, but in a crisis we call it focus.

But there’s also a catch here, and it’s this catch that leads us to our divide. This same one dimensional train of thought that keeps us fixed on our target, also prevents us from hearing any different perspective. In fact, an alternative perspective may even register in our brain as a threat. Something to be shut down and silenced.

So, we find ourselves being pulled into, without realizing it’s happening, what’s commonly known as a “Fight-or-Flight” state of mind. One side of this great divide comes to the hard conclusion that the quickest path back to freedom is to follow mandated safety protocols and take the vaccine, while the other side becomes locked into eying the pandemic narrative with suspicion and resolves to taking back familiar rights and freedoms by force. And so the battle lines become set, each side feeling threatened by the other.

Of most note is what doesn’t happen. Nobody is listening. And the more we feel threatened, and the more we villainize the other side, the more we get entrenched. Because the more we don’t get heard, the more alarmed we feel and the more alarmed we feel, the more focused and entrenched we become.

The only way to break out of this cycle is for someone to listen, understand and validate. I see this consistently in my couples therapy. A couple comes to see me because they are stuck and scared, too scared to hear each other. So I listen to, and for both of them, and in so doing their fight-flight mechanism starts to deactivate and they can start to hear each other. But here is the problem I see in the pandemic, and this is what really terrifies me: If everyone is scared, who will listen? I feel it in myself because I too, feel threatened.

So, when I encounter someone on the opposite side of the issue, I feel my gut tighten and guard go up. I want to make my point and tell them how wrong they are. Something deep inside is telling me I can’t afford to listen. This “other” position is a menacing threat and I have to shut it down or get away from it. Fight. Or flight. I have to work very hard to regulate this biology, and I can’t always do it.

Stage 5: The fix

When I look to the future, what frightens me most is what this divide will do to the fabric of our society. There has emerged, very suddenly, a sharp divide separating friends and family from each other. Hurtful and divisive words have been spoken. Relationships have been severed. When Covid is long in our rear view mirror, what societal carnage will it leave in it’s wake and how will that be repaired? I think it can be repaired, but we have to start now. The longer we wait, and stay in a fight-flight state of mind, the greater the divide becomes, and the more difficult to heal.

First, I need to own the fact that when it comes to Covid-19, I am scared as hell. And so are you. Whether you are afraid of economic ruin, government control, or the virus itself, these are terrifying times. My sense of terror may not look like fear on the outside, even to me. It may come out as anger or activism, but that’s exactly how fear behaves. The only way I can make rational decisions and develop compassion for others is to accept that I am threatened, and in dire need of emotional support and comfort.

It’s only then that I will be able to change my view of others. Folks on the other side of the issue are not dumb sheep incapable of independent thought. Nor are they stupid science deniers incapable of critical thought. They are people. Scared. Threatened. Uncertain about the future. People with the need to be heard and understood. Emotionally supported and comforted. This is not an easy process. It takes time and mostly, a willingness to listen. I believe the responsibility to start the listening is on all of us. The very fabric of our society depends on it.

Henry Sawatzky



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