Early on in the semester, COVID-19 seemed like a distant threat, unlikely to approach us. Since then, rapid changes have sent many of us scattering. Most students returned home, but some have nowhere to turn. For Tanya Jagdish, a sophomore from Bangalore, India, a lot is still up in the air.
“At this point, everything is uncertain. I cannot go back home because India has closed its borders until the end of March. This could possibly be extended if the situation does not get better,” said Jagdish. “I got approved to stay on campus, so I plan on being here for the rest of the semester. But after that, I don’t know where I am going to go.”
What makes the push and pull between home and school more difficult is the unexpectedness of the situation. Many students were surprised by this sudden change in their college experience and have mixed feelings as a result.
“I think people did not realize the extent to which the COVID-19 virus would affect our lives. Two weeks ago, all of us were enjoying our spring break. The whole idea of COVID-19 virus seemed very distant. But here we are now,” said Jagdish. “I think the government response was also to wait and watch rather than to take precautionary measures immediately.”
This lack of immediate action is characteristic of the U.S. As a country with relatively well staffed and top notch medical care, according to assistant anthropology professor Dr. Meghan Webb, the U.S. tends to consider itself exempt from a lot of these types of infectious diseases. Webb is the college’s medical anthropologist, whose work focuses primarily in the field of global health.
“There’s this uncertainty of how do we react? What is the best strategy to take? Can our health systems support all of the incoming patients?” said Webb. “We definitely see this in the global health landscape when we’re thinking about the fact that these health systems tend to be under resourced. They’re understaffed, and so the general sense of uncertainty and not having confidence in the fact that if you’re sick you’ll be able to be taken care of is actually pretty common for most of the countries in the world.”
According to a recent study published in The Lancet, a peer reviewed medical journal, only 57% of countries surveyed in a study of preparedness to handle a novel infectious disease had the functional capacity to perform crucial activities at the national level. It is predicted that, while awareness of weak spots in systems increases at times like these, the focus on public health measures will wane once the panic has subdued.
As the number of cases around the world changes rapidly, people are unsure of what to do. There is a lack of knowledge about the disease, misinformation and some panic.
“That sense of uncertainty has really hit us in the U.S. a lot more because we tend to forget that it’s just a condition of life in most places,” said Webb. “We have a more visceral reaction in the U.S., and it has kind of exposed that there are lots of different situations, lots of different levels of precarity in the U.S. that we may not have previously acknowledged as much.”
According to Webb, the U.S. was not significantly impacted by the recent outbreaks of similar infectious diseases, such as SARS in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2012. Midwest rural America particularly was not impacted by recent infectious disease outbreaks. The most recent outbreak with a national awakening was the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, but it did not go so far as to cause schools and businesses to shut down.
The uniqueness of this situation has sent many people scrambling. Changes in lifestyle are startling, causing panic and anxiety for many.
“Any global health situation is intrinsically unhappy, and a lot of times they don’t necessarily have positive or even satisfying outcomes,” said Webb. “So, one of the most important things is taking care of your mental health.”
Mental health and immediate reactions are things decision makers have to consider as well. At different points in the outbreak, people have had differing thoughts on next steps. Some institutions wait to see what decisions are being made around them, while others take the lead. Initial decisions may be precautionary, but rash decisions early on can end up being detrimental. While this whole situation is new for the country, there are other experiences to learn from.
Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, commented on precautionary measures for healthcare providers and other close contact responders in a recent publication in the New Yorker. Gawande observed how the outbreak was handled in Singapore and Hong Kong and noted that widespread shut down or extreme precautionary measures, such as hazmat suits, would only delay the spike in cases and is simply not feasible for the resources available in his area. Instead, carefully tracking sources and only enforcing quarantine for those exposed to possible cases for a certain length of time is a more effective strategy and keeps staffing from dipping too low.
“Few countries, like South Korea and Singapore, have done an excellent job in containing the virus and we have much to learn from them,” said Jagdish. “India’s response to the virus was very similar to the US. Initially, they only tested people who traveled outside the country or have been in contact with people who have traveled recently. This kept us from testing community spread of the virus, keeping the initial number of recorded cases very low. So people in India went on with their lives and did not follow the rules of social distancing. But India has also just realized the need to take precautionary measures. The whole country, with 1.3 billion people, is now on lockdown for the next 21 days.”
Learning from discomfort
In this new-found mess of uncertainty, there’s a lot to learn from other countries, not only in terms of policy but from the daily lives of people who live in constant uncertainty.
“This is a time where the vast majority of the U.S. is experiencing this uncertainty, and it’s very uncomfortable. It’s not something that we’re necessarily used to feeling,” said Webb. “It’s an added stressor in the whole situation, this feeling of uncertainty.”
All of what has changed highlights the relative comfort we lived in previously. Our entire personal social structure condensing shows us who we truly are.
Although we may feel inconvenienced and frustrated by what is happening, it’s also important to realize that for us, this is happening in a high income country. In many low and middle income countries, widespread uncertainty of health and safety is nothing new.
“If you live in a constant state of uncertainty, this is just one more thing, which is not necessarily healthy when we think about psychosocial health. But the expectation is that it’s not going to be good,” said Webb. “Living in that chronic stress, that chronic precarity, does have negative health impacts, but I don’t know that these groups necessarily have had a visceral reaction to the pandemic.”
Our social system may seem progressive, but it is very fragile. A slight disruption has sent our entire social structure scrambling, but for those who live with it throughout their lives, they’ve built a stronger tenacity for dealing with change and uncertainty. They have something we can look up to.
This entire situation is a learning experience, from a personal standpoint to a more global context. People in places that are often seen as less fortunate are in some ways a lot stronger.
As we work our way through this new situation, it is important to stay mindful.
“Each person is going through so many unique, unprecedented challenges right now,” said Jagdish. “Some students don’t have a home to go back to, while others are at a risk of losing their jobs, preventing them from coming back to college. So, be kind and practice social distancing.”
In the constant hustle and flow of activities that was considered “normal” before this outbreak, it can be easy to lose sight of social location. This pandemic emphasizes the meaning of each person relative to their personal network.
“I think one of the things that the pandemic has shown us is that even if we are geographically far removed, we are all really connected to each other, and thinking about how we all contribute for the good or to the detriment of society and communities nestled within each other is important,” said Webb. “So, I would encourage students to not forget the feeling of ‘Gosh, I was scared and I was frustrated, and I didn’t know what to do,’ and to use that as a motivation to be involved in community service of some sort in the variety of communities that we inhabit.”