*Editor’s Note: The “Views from NAU” blog series highlights the thoughts of different people affiliated with NAU, including faculty members sharing opinions or research in their areas of expertise. The views expressed reflect the authors’ own personal perspectives.
By Lisa Hardy
Associate professor of anthropology
COVID-19 is still here. In Arizona, there have been an estimated 1.27 million cases. Nationwide more than 5 million people have lost their lives. These numbers don’t capture high rates of depression and anxiety from isolation, job and income loss, political arguments and grief, and there is no end in sight.
What can we do?
For nearly two years, I have been working with an international research team to study the impacts of COVID-19 on social and emotional worlds. We began in the first weeks of the pandemic and continue today. This research takes us into lives of people all over the world and explore how things change and stay the same. Our hope is to take what we learn on the ground and turn those insights into useful information for living with COVID and other global crises.
One year ago, I wrote about something we saw in our data that could help people to stay safe over the holidays. People we interviewed were less likely to think about dangers of spreading or contracting COVID-19 with people they knew than they were with people they didn’t. Interviewees who said they followed protocols still described parties or trips stating that it was ok because they knew everyone there.
This year, what has changed?
Here is what we hear in interviews. Just when it seemed things might be waning, the omicron variant arrives. Novelty of new connections during a time of crisis has worn thin. Many of us live with grief of people lost from COVID-19 and related physical and mental health crises. Many live with debilitating long COVID. Others hold the idea that COVID can become part of our regular lives like the flu, suggesting, “It’s out there and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Some suffer with isolation as friends and family fail to adhere to their wishes for safety. Others argue that vaccines are a form of control. Political divides and blame continue to grow. On the eve of holiday gatherings, it’s worth revisiting our beliefs and practices as we plan to gather (or not) with one another not only for the physical risk of COVID-19 but also for the emotional toll of social divides.
I think it is safe to assume that most of us, no matter where we fall on the continuum of beliefs, are tired. We don’t want to spend our days looking around at people wondering if they agree with us and if they are doing the same things we are. We don’t want to worry about our sniffly nose or family members.
We want this to go away.
We also don’t always know what to do. We hear and observe uncomfortable situations due to differences in beliefs and a lack of clear rules among us. Some people have their vaccines and boosters and are not masking. Others are still at it and continue to adhere to strict safety standards. And others are against vaccination and become angry when others require vaccination or masks.
What do we do when we are in community with one another? You may have also found yourselves in common situations, wondering if the person who shares your office or classroom has been vaccinated when you see that they left cough drop wrappers on the table, or awkwardly wanting to unmask when the plumber comes in. We don’t all have common rules, and many of us still have vastly different ways of making sense of COVID-19.
Here are some guidelines for you to consider if/when you choose to gather this holiday season:
- Go ahead and ask. Asking people if they plan to mask and/or distance and if they are vaccinated can feel difficult when there are so many political beliefs around masking and not masking, vaxxing, boostering, and not. Asking about vaccination status, masking, safety protocols, and COVID safety does not need to be political. Think of it as a basic question you might ask like, “do you have any room in the fridge”? or “can I bring the beer?”
- Don’t be offended if others ask. It may seem personal if your best friend asks you if you have your booster because you may believe that they already know this about you. Try not to take it personally. Part of normalizing the conversations is reframing the discussion of COVID safety as something people ask and answer as simply practical considerations for getting together.
- Don’t assume. Many assume that everyone in their social groups have made the same choices regarding safety protocols. We have interviewed people who assumed safety because they were only with family only to find out that a family member hadn’t disclosed symptoms of what they thought was allergies only to find it was COVID-19. And, just like last year, take care not to assume that someone can’t spread COVID-19 just because you know and love them. Go ahead and ask.
- Remember COVID-19 still exists. COVID-19 still kills. The threat of COVID-19 can be anxiety-provoking and isolating for those who haven’t had it and sometimes even more for those who have had it and don’t want to get it again. The health risks of COVID are still immense and people still lose their lives to this virus. In a desire to meet and play and share food and see loved ones, don’t forget what COVID is and simply ask and answer questions to keep one another safe.
- Take care of one another. Even when you have different health and safety protocols from others, remember what we all have been through over the past nearly two years. You can’t always see or know the grief and suffering of others, even those you know and love. You can’t see if the person next to you has an ill child or lost an uncle to COVID-19. You can’t see if someone’s child can’t sleep because they are terrified of COVID-19. Remember to try to respect the decisions others make through your actions and through normalizing questions about safety and health.
Normalizing asking is one way to find our way back to one another during times of isolation, loss, and hardship. We don’t have to agree and we can still do what we can to keep one another healthy and safe.