COVID and the Holidays

I know. You know. COVID doesn’t look good right now.

It’s been an exhausting year for all of us: students, teachers, healthcare workers (bless you), and regular people trying to work from home or stay employed. We’re tired of the constant deviation from normality, and the strain it has put into the routines we otherwise recognize as life-giving or healthy. Not one person I talk to hasn’t had something to give up this year, and it’s been a long nine (nine) months of pandemic.

I’ve sometimes wondered about the mental health impact of all this isolation. My husband and I think of the singles in our sphere, or people in the fringe, or friends we know who moved to a new city just in time for it to shut down. In a pre-COVID era, developmental psychologist Susan Pinker said, “Social isolation is the public health risk of our time,” referring to the deep importance and health impact of strong community ties. The burden is ever heavier this year, and I just want to pause and say, I see that. Let’s never be intellectually dishonest enough not to acknowledge the complexity of the issues in front of us.

But as a public health professional married to an ER doc, I can’t look past the human toll of COVID. I know our ICU beds are full, I know our healthcare workers are exhausted. I know that a year of more preventable death is not preferable to a year of creative caution. COVID is now the third cause of death in the U.S., nestled in below heart disease and cancer. I would like to say it doesn’t discriminate, but unfortunately it does. The already-unjust distribution of health in the U.S. is amplified by this pandemic, which disproportionately affects people of color and people in poverty. To dismiss the data because we “don’t know anyone with COVID,” only underlines a saddening sense of indifference and privilege. If this is you, I beg you to reconsider.

One week from today and throughout the next month, people all over the nation will be gathering in the homes of family members to celebrate the holidays. Young, old, sharing a table indoors, eating together, laughing and talking. Under normal circumstances, this would be beautiful. Necessary, even. But under the present circumstances – with COVID skyrocketing nationwide – it has the potential to be devastating.

My husband and I made the difficult decision to suspend all holiday travel this year. With three sets of extended family between the two of us, it was either show favoritism or meet individually with three separate vulnerable groups of people across three different states within the space of a month. We couldn’t justify either. This comes during a year when we have already excluded some of the most beloved people among our family and friends from attending our wedding, which went from a 240 person gathering to a 20 person gathering outside with masks. Some of the people we wish to see the very most – our grandparents – are also the people we are least willing to endanger. The decision is heart-breaking, but in our opinion, must be made.

I don’t know what your family situation is this year. Some people live in places where social distancing and eating outdoors are more feasible, or have already been in a tight bubble with their family members. Some people have already been quarantining in anticipation of the holidays (bravo!), in an effort to avoid carrying anything nefarious home. I would encourage you to consider making every possible step to make this holiday safe, which may mean having an unconventional year at home, or with people whom you have already been in a bubble with. Unconventional does not have to be unfortunate, and it doesn’t mean you love your family any less. If anything, your willingness to protect them shows a deep sense of caring for their wellbeing. As much as we’re all zoom-weary, it still is a way to see our loved one’s faces and hear their voices on these important days, to send gifts of merriment or share pictures of new recipes we tried this year. For us, the creativity of making it beautiful and meaningful is our focus, and the sacrifice of going without our loved ones’ hugs this year is still better than putting them or others in danger.

We long for the days when we can give great big hugs and laugh about stories at the table. But how much sweeter will those things be in time to come. I know the holidays are an especially charged time for people, and making sacrifices can be extremely difficult. But I would ask you to strongly consider ways to make it as safe as possible. Your family’s and community’s health may be to thank for it.

Stay healthy,

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