COVID-19 is the most dangerous pandemic we have faced in 100 years. Of that, there is no argument. However, dangerousness does not only stem from the devastating loss of life and potential long-term damage to those who have contracted the virus, but rather the divisiveness of the populace. There have been daily news reports of individuals who refuse to wear masks and practice social distancing when in grocery stores, as well as those who attend parties and events, gathering close together without any PPE and with complete disregard to guidelines set forth by the CDC and WHO. These gasoline-on-a-fire actions have accelerated what could have been contained had everyone made the simple sacrifice of wearing a mask when going into a public setting and standing a few feet away from one another.
As noted, divisiveness has caused additional destruction secondary to the virus itself. There appears to be a split down political party lines with Republicans denying science and believing in conspiracy theories, while Democrats have been promoting safety measures that would reduce the spread of the deadly virus. Mr. Trump, at the head of the Republican political table has offered bizarre solutions ranging from using hydroxychloroquine, a medicine that has no efficacy against COVID-19, and which can cause cardiac arrhythmias, to drinking bleach, to ultraviolet light therapy. It was initially suggested by Mr. Trump that COVID-19 was a political hoax to damage him, a theory still believed by many of his supporters. Moreover, his denial of the seriousness of the virus and his sluggish response resulted in tens of thousands of additional deaths.
My road trip throughout the country for the Mental Health Across America blog post confirmed what the news media has presented with regard to the political divide in the reaction to this dangerous pandemic. In a gas station in Southern California, I overheard a woman claim the virus was a manner by which the media was attempting to scare people, adding “People don’t know that more people are killed by the flu,” a common refrain I heard throughout the trip. The idea the flu has killed more people than COVID-19 is objectively false. At the time of the trip, 115,000 people had died from COVID-19, while the average death toll per year from the flu is between 50-60,000. The 115,000 dead from the novel coronavirus occurred in a fraction of the flu season, mind you. I asked her age and she told me she was 80. She wore no mask and no gloves and later said the protesters for George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police officer were all “hoodlums.” One of the cashiers at the station was 76 and she said the virus “scared the living daylights out of me cause of my age.” The manager of the station also noted he was scared. He was a young man in his twenties with a wife and children at home, all of whom presented with COVID-19 symptoms and grew very ill. Although they were not tested, he believed they did contract the virus. He said it has been a rollercoaster ride, as his mother-in-law has also grown very ill and is on watch for the virus. He reported she is concerned she will never again see her grandchildren. The manager proudly showed me the new disinfectant his company has provided the station and noted they scrub the doors and pumps regularly.
At a Safeway supermarket close by the gas station, I spoke with a manager who noted they have hired 40 people to work part-time who were out of work from the closing of local retail stores. He personally lost his grandfather to COVID the previous week, and he is concerned given the steady rise of cases in the area. He personally has not suffered any high levels of anxiety, however, his staff and the public in general do appear to be having mental health issues. Not everyone, he noted, has been able to adjust to the new norm. Although they have 112 workers at the supermarket, and not one of them has contracted the virus, there is a lot of stress knowing that if one of them does become ill, many of them could suffer the same fate. It has been established that if anyone does contract the virus, they will be paid in full for two weeks. He stated that lots of people from Phoenix and Las Vegas have come to their town in order to get supplies such as canned and boxed goods as well as toilet paper, paper towels, hand soap, etc, as in their cities, the supplies have thinned out. Although the company has made masks mandatory by all workers in the store, many customers have verbally attacked them, calling the virus a Democrat hoax and making fun of them, asking if they are “afraid of getting the flu.” He further noted the riots in their town have been accelerating. The National Guard was called in for one protest in particular, a protest organized by two teenagers over Facebook. The manager said, “People are all about protecting the 2nd amendment, but they seem to have forgotten about the 1st.” As for his personal life, he mentioned he misses his friends. They used to gather every weekend and have dinner at one of their homes. Now he plays online games with them so they can at least share an activity. He also purchased gym equipment to stay in shape. He said it has been sad to watch the “pathetic” government response to such a health crisis.
In Winslow, Arizona, I came across a retired couple who live full-time in their 5th wheel RV. This was the first day they had gone out into public since March. They reported they practiced social distancing with other couples whenever anyone visited them, which was rare. They have also been using Zoom to keep in touch with their family. They each have risk factors, namely their age, and they were apprehensive and anxious about returning to public. They have rearranged all of the travel to avoid hot-spots and have been very careful. It has irritated them whenever they have seen people without masks and not social distancing. “They don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves,” they said. When the discussion turned toward the current civil unrest, they noted they had each been alive and vocal during the civil unrest of the 1960s and feel sad we are still facing this issue. They consider this the worst leadership the country has ever faced, and are hoping for new leadership in the coming election. To that end, however, they are concerned there will be limited mail-in voting, which will reduce the number of people being able to vote.
In Tucumcari, I met a mother and daughter who were in the process of moving across the country. They consider themselves very progressive and they formerly lived in a highly-Republican area. “I couldn’t stand speaking to them anymore.” The response to the COVID outbreak validated their decision to move. As had been the consistent refrain, the conservatives in their town believed COVID was a hoax and the Democrats were out to “take down Trump.” They were both growing depressed with the situation, having to stay home. The daughter is a dancer, and her mother works at the dance company. It was their life. The daughter participated in online dance classes, however, it wasn’t the same and it felt less enjoyable without being present with the other dancers. To help with their mental health, they have begun a routine in which they wake up at 5:30 and begin their day meditating. It sets a peaceful tone for the day in an otherwise chaotic new reality. It was a “game changer” for them, as they were falling to depression and anxiety. After meditation, they do deep breathing and prayer, all before breakfast. They are both into civil rights and participating in protests. They hope the coverage of the current protests will open eyes that perhaps were resistant to see the civil unrest previously and to teach them about the widespread racism still plaguing the country. She hopes people who have avoided the talks on race “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
At Cadillac Ranch in Texas, I met to school teachers from Mississippi on vacation with their two children. They said, “God blessed us,” referring to still receiving a paycheck despite being out of work. Both noted there had been no civil unrest in their town, for which they were grateful. The extra time they have been granted with their family has put life into perspective, shown them what is truly important. Their priorities have changed with the slowdown in life. The COVID outbreak has caused fear and made them worry, which has led them to take extra precautions. They have kept their children from hearing much about the virus, as they do not have television in their home. However, they participated in their online church services, and the children did hear about it there. The previous week was the first time their church held service in person again and they noted they were saddened to witness very few people wearing masks and not social distancing. The wife said, “You don’t want to wear a mask? Wait to you have to wear a ventilator.” In Amarillo, Texas, I visited the Big Texan, a famous steakhouse I go to every time I pass through the area. Every staff member wore a mask. Even the many statues of cowboys and horror movie and tv show villains had masks on. The bartender informed me that he had been out of work for 6 weeks when the restaurant had been shut down due to COVID. He was extremely worried not having income for that entire time, as he has a baby at home to feed. However, the owners ended up giving 4 paychecks to the employees when the stimulus package came through. Still, he ran out of money and was forced to live with his mother. He feels he is blessed that the restaurant re-opened, however, he now fears bringing the virus home and infecting his family.
When I hit Oklahoma, I met a man traveling with his wife who insisted that COVID is just another flu. At the same campground, I met an older man who was fed up with the protests regarding George Floyd. He said while he believes everyone should have equal rights, “It’s black this and black that. They just won’t drop this racism thing.” He further noted, “They aren’t even black. There’s white in the, whether they want to believe it or not because their white masters had children with their slaves. You’re not truly black unless you come from Africa.” He then mused about whether the protesters believe in Jesus Christ.
I passed a yard sale in Tennessee at which not a single patron wore a mask or practiced social distancing. When I arrived in Nashville, I went to Broadway to see a band I love at one of the bars and spoke to the guitarist, one of the most amazing young guitarists in the world. He told me this was their third gig back after 2 months. He reported he had suffered stress from not knowing when they would be playing again, and fell into depression during the time off. He used retail therapy to aid in his depression, making many online purchases, and reported that going down the driveway to his mailbox was the biggest part of his day sometimes. Although he lives with his mother and father, he did not see any of his friends during this period. His father had a very difficult time with the pandemic and suffered from depression as well. The bouncer at the bar had a similar story of depression, as well as anxiety and financial troubles. Despite the concerns and struggles, he was happy to have more family time.
While many people used the time they have been granted by this devastating pandemic in productive and soul-searching ways, many more have struggled with mental health issues. Depression and anxiety are soaring, and PTSD symptomology is certain to follow. No matter what political side in which a person resides, the effects of this pandemic will likely be long-lasting. We have not faced anything like this in 100 years. However, as we survived and thrived following that pandemic, so shall we after COVID.