I have been conversing with people about how they plan to re-emerge from this year-long COVID retreat we have been on. My purpose in asking them “if and when” they will return to whatever is defined as normal comes out of my own awareness that I am using very different metrics to assess risk than I used to.

A Year Ago

This time last year I was on a cruise to New Zealand. I had spent a few days in Sydney, Australia prior to boarding the ship, enjoying sightseeing in museums, using public transportation, and attending the opera. Listening to evening news in my Air BnB, I was struck by the reports of the shortages of toilet paper due to hoarding. COVID was present in Australia. People were being cautioned to wash their hands frequently, sneeze and cough into their elbow, and not to worry about shortages and empty shelves. Since I was traveling by myself, I wasn’t too concerned.

Once aboard the ship, I was encouraged by the number of hand washing stations and reassured by crew members who were constantly cleaning off surfaces, door knobs, and cheerily reminding us to “washy-washy”. My traveling companions observed these precautions and we added a level of safety (so we thought) by only using our knuckles to punch the elevator buttons.

Trip Interrupted

Several days into the cruise, the ship’s captain started making announcements preparing us for the possibility that our trip would have to be cut short. Conversations in our group were somewhat resigned, yet held out hope that we would be able to see a bit more of New Zealand. We did stop in Dunedin, Akaroa, and Wellington and made two or three on-shore excursions requiring us to board buses and be in close quarters with people. But generally, we did not feel threatened by the virus.

Our trip was curtailed by the Australian government deciding that the virus threat was so severe that it was going to close its ports. This meant we had to cover 1,202 nautical miles in two days if we were to be able to return to the U.S. We immediately headed back and our ship docked in Sydney in the early hours of March 20.

Passengers had been assigned groups for disembarkation. We left the ship as smiling crew waived good-bye and wished us well. Once our baggage was collected, my travel buddies and I took an Uber to the airport where we found ourselves in a hauntingly empty international terminal. We boarded our plane and 13 hours later landed in San Francisco.

Four days on I tested positive for COVID.

At the Start of All This

I look back in my diary and am struck by what I chose to note – fatigue (which I ascribed to jet lag), runny nose and cough (which I blamed on a sinus infection), and finally, loss of taste and smell. I never had a fever. I remained quarantined for two weeks, feeling a mixture of guilt, resentment, and fear.

Two others in my traveling party also tested positive for COVID. The fourth didn’t have any symptoms and so was never tested. Probability suggests that she, too was positive. One of us had to be hospitalized and placed on a ventilator. Fortunately, she survived that ordeal and is now home.

Quo Vadis

Since I returned, over 530,000 Americans have died of COVID. Three vaccines have been approved, passed rigorous testing protocols and put into production. While these efforts are turning the tide in the pandemic for the moment, coming to terms with the long-term behavioral changes needed to keep us protected will be more challenging.

Re-establishing trust in experts (government or otherwise) will be essential if we are to move forward. We need to find ways to trust each other again, along with our systems of healthcare and healthcare delivery. This is not unlike what people experience in the early stages of recovery. Newly acquired habits and behaviors that are essential to remain clean and sober are competing with the emotions of a new-found sense of freedom and the risk of relapse.

To Mask or not to Mask

It took us a year to get into the habit of putting on our masks, carrying them with us wherever we go, and silently (and sometimes not so silently) criticizing others for not following COVID protocols. As more and more of us get vaccinated, the need for wearing a mask will change.

I understand the desire to take off the mask and see each other’s smile. Instead we are being told to wear two masks. The sense of protection from the vaccine feels so good, but will I become lax in my practices because I feel safe now?  How can we stay vigilant?

Please Get Vaccinated!

It is beyond my comprehension that there are anti-vaxxers and people with trust issues who seem to be intractable in their beliefs and refuse to get vaccinated. Facts alone are insufficient to sway them. Threatening them with punishment just seems to make them more defiant. How do we persuade them to stop being so selfish and not put all of us at risk because of their misguided and ill-informed beliefs?  I wish I had the answer.

Can I Trust You?

Ultimately, though, this is going to come down to re-establishing trust in each other. In conversations this week, I have noticed that many of my friends are reluctant to trust others without some kind of proof or reassurance. For one friend, this comes in the form of showing my vaccination card before coming in her home. For another, it is a choice to continue her pandemic protocol of staying in her home, only going to stores that require masks and keep numbers of shoppers tightly controlled.

Many of my friends have on-going medical conditions that make them more vulnerable, so I understand their reluctance to venture forth. While many are longing to go to a restaurant or the movies or just spend time with each other, they speak of doing these things in future tense. There is a wariness not overtly expressed, but palpable, nonetheless.

Feelings Not Facts

I crave certainty and predictability. I want to know that I am safe. But what do I use to assess the facts?  I use feelings. If it doesn’t feel right, then I probably won’t do it. And, if it does feel good, I probably will.

The CDC recently issued guidelines identifying activities that can be safely done after you have had your shots. I was thrilled.  When I shared the good news, some of my friends pushed back and said they didn’t trust the CDC because it had changed its mind and issued contradictory instructions over the past year.

Which is accurate!  But the reasons for the apparently contradictory guidelines lay more in the learning curve than in confusion. Unfortunately, this has led to mistrust. Doubt and mistrust planted by others continues to influence how the facts are interpreted.

Actions Speak Louder than Words and Sometimes are Contradictory

Based on my observations, it is not sufficient just to recite facts to people. Actions really do speak louder than words. I will continue to wear a mask when I am out and about. I am more likely to take my mask off with others I know because I feel that I can trust them. But if I know that they are engaged in unsafe behaviors (as I define them), then I will continue to keep my distance.

It will be long time before I feel comfortable flying or going to a movie. But if there was a chance for me to return to Australia or New Zealand again, I would find a way to manage my anxiety. I have never felt the need to wipe down my groceries, but I am righteous about keeping physical distancing in stores. I would love to go to a restaurant, but I will wait for good weather and dine outside for a bit longer.

I don’t know how long it will take for trust to return. I am willing to try new things and gradually find my footing in this new normal.  It may take awhile.


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