During the pandemic, I’ve noticed most people have a default response to our new dilemma. When something startles my friend, Sue, she lashes out in anger. Luckily, she’s usually mellow and is rarely caught off-guard.
The late psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross taught us that people react to the prospect of death in five typical ways: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and, eventually, acceptance. I believe that, by temperament, some of us tend to stay in one state longer than the others.
By the sixth month of serious pandemic limitations, I noticed Kubler-Ross’ responses in those around me. In general, young people seemed to be in denial. Since most seemed to believe they wouldn’t get sick, or, at least, not very sick, they didn’t restrict their lives much. My thirty-year old son accepted the need for lockdowns that would mostly benefit oldsters. News broadcasts told us that a minority thought the old and weak should perish and let the young get back to normal lives. From summer into the autumn, urged on by political rhetoric, Covid-19 deniers grew from the young to include large populations of some states.
I’m usually a great denier of harsh realities, an incurable optimist. For example, I seem hardwired to believe that romantic love will prevail, no matter how addicted to drugs or alcohol a partner might be. But January, 2020 found me in S.E. Asia for three weeks, aboard the Westerdam, a Holland America Line vessel, heading toward Hong Kong as our final stop. I read about Covid-19 in the news, the whole city of Wuhan already in complete lockdown. In fact, China had run out of masks and were sweeping them up from Viet Nam and Thailand. New Covid-19 cases popped up daily in each country we visited: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia. The numbers were small, but rising. Only Viet Nam remained free of cases. The ship began to take passengers’ temperatures. The seriousness of the pandemic impressed me early on. The last week of my travels, I felt relieved to find colorful masks at a small market in Viet Nam and wore them most of the time. I also gave an extra five masks to crew members who weren’t allowed off the ship because of Covid-19. The ship had run out of masks and many crew members were left without any.
Our last stop, Hong Kong, had eight cases the evening we docked. The next day, they had twelve. I left the ship and scurried straight to the airport, fully masked. By the time I returned to the U.S. on February 2nd, I had emerged out of Covid-19 denial. I knew this disease was big and serious. I wore my masks daily when I went outside of my condo in Honolulu. Asian people in Hawaii commonly wore medical masks if they had a cold, as a courtesy to others, to avoid spreading their germs. But usually, you might see one person per week in a mask. Because I had just returned from travel, I decided to be extra cautious. I didn’t want to take any chances that I might spread a tag-along germ. Being masked was unusual in February, before Hawaii had reported any Covid-19 cases. However, Covid-19 awareness was in the air and many people thanked me for wearing a mask. By March, Covid-19 began its precipitous rise in Hawaii and the government required masks. Because of the Asian mask-wearing tradition, everyone willingly conformed.
In June, 2020, we saw major rebellion across the U.S. by people insisting all businesses re-open, in spite of rising numbers of new Covid-19 cases. As reported in the news, anger surged. I personally didn’t know anyone furious or rebellious about the virus’ exasperating longevity. Friends expressed frustration. Some moved away to find work. Most people I knew acknowledged the bad situation and dealt with the reality as best they could.
As a retired person, I took the recommended sensible precautions: mask-wearing, keeping six feet away from other, washing hands twenty times a day. To be honest, my lifestyle and work hadn’t changed much. My art and writing continued from my home and studio just as they always had. I did service projects to my usual charities (now online) and I gave more money to Covid-19-related groups and additional supplies to food banks.
I also made sacrifices, like most everyone else. Normally, I traveled to see my son every few months. No more. I didn’t see him for a year. A cousin suffered serious brain trauma in a bike accident and I couldn’t go visit him. Enforced isolation caused depression in some people, another common Kubler-Ross reaction to the upheaval of mortality. Luckily, my loved ones and I didn’t suffer from this, but I felt for those who did during this bizarre and difficult time, lonely for many.
I wondered why I didn’t have more of the denial, rebellion and anger I saw in others. Upon reflection, perhaps I adapted more easily because most of my life had been spent with dominant, irrational people. In childhood, I coped with overwhelming forces in daily life: Mom and Dad were ferocious inebriated gods in our household. Overcome with the screaming, violence and craziness at home, I ran away many times as a child. Even after a day or two, no one ever missed me. As I look back, I suppose it was because of the considerable tumult at home. Each time, I wandered back to our house, determined to adjust to the turmoil. I became an expert adapter. I found safety hiding in trees in the warm months and behind couches in the winter. With Covid-19, isolating in my condo felt natural.
Covid-19 became one more in a long line of hurricane-like life events that demanded adjustment from me. Survival depended on change. As an adult, my job remained clear: don’t let the big bad wolf get me, focus on my work and contribute to volunteer efforts.
I haven’t been surprised to see lots of people deny that Covid-19 exists, or to hear about large-scale anger and frustration. As Kubler-Ross taught, these encompass typical human reactions. Luckily we’ve also had many wise people who faced reality: scientists, researchers, nurses and doctors who’ve valiantly cared for patients and created medicines and vaccines.
From my perspective, a vast majority of people around me have been able to practice Kubler-Ross’ last step: acceptance. Most of us did our best. We wore masks, stayed six feet away from others, washed our hands and helped others when we could.
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.