The View from a small island: Pandemic of Fear. Stress, Snake-oil or Counseling

“Pandemic data are like the light of distant stars, recording past events instead of present ones.’

                                                Ed Yong, The Atlantic, September 9, 2020

Coping, accusations, impatience, to mask or not to mask, bleach remedy, Princess Bride and a certified young man at 51. 

I am reminded this week I have a hot temper—like an uncharted strike of lightening. Anxious and argumentative after a hot summer of self-quarantine, my temper exploded in full and foolish force. The poor soul in front of me deserved better, but she will think twice and more carefully before she accuses me of benign racism. Me, a Karen? More on that later.

How are we coping with a pandemic on our small island? Is our anxiety justified or just magnified? Are we angry at our neighbors? Impatient with our partner? From articles written by respected journalists, I conclude my small island is merely a microsystem of a global one. The world seems anxious, out of sorts. To check out my theory, I find local informants as my go-to sources—our barber or hairdresser. Barbers and hairdressers often have the pulse during a disaster, a hurricane, a fire or a pandemic. Local COVID updates and the Facebook hysteria shared hourly amplify fear. But a quiet chat as you sit in the hair-chair draws a conclusion with some authority. Anecdotal, yes. Factual or gut-feel intuitive hypothesis? Does it matter? Is it shared?

Recall our post on the speed and unreliability of confirmation bias in today’s world?  Bad news, neighborhood gossip, or the most recent COVID stats—compounded and amplified by social media—make its way through the community of like-minded. From the heuristics (facts) readily available in the mind, we speak quickly and with authority. These facts—correct or incorrect—are likely to carry weight because they are so quickly available; our voice deepens, our jaw tightens, our back straightens. Dopamine flows. We are reaffirmed by those who agree with us.

Our barber or hairdresser encounters the multitudes weekly and reluctantly absorbs the pulse of a small island. My hairdresser observed the lock-down for months and at great economic cost. When business finally opened, she took every precaution required. Yet our anxiety impacts her—she who is usually cheery and happy with a hearty laugh. She absorbs our shared anxiety and worries aloud. Yes, the ‘collective we’ is still anxious—all these months later.

We are frightened—this fast moving, hard to pinpoint virus wreaks havoc even on a healthy body. Pandemic data unravels its scientific mysteries daily adding new information—some new worrying wrinkle. We are confused. Post-infection and post effects are still unknowns. Can we be infected twice?  Which organ will be damaged? Will I ever recover?

Ahead of us is the long winter’s night of unemployment and for some, hunger.  The tourist season is different this year—three million vacationers crossed our bridges since early June, but as the temperatures drop and the nights grow long, they will depart. The specter of unemployment runs rampant. By car and by boat, scruffy and unkempt salesmen import illegal drugs, are arrested by the sheriff and shamed publicly by the local press. We doubt their sales go down. Economic distress will take its toll upon our psychological health.

Publicly, our leaders engaged in ‘Magical Thinking’—the virus will disappear in hot weather followed by ‘It’s a Hoax, No Big Deal.’ ‘Hygiene Theater’ soon occupied the stage—bleach will kill the virus.  Bleach that is sold on Amazon? Theatricality breeds complacency. Personal blame rather than systemic fixes. Blame the victim—too ill, too fat, too poor, too black. Return to normalcy, exponential growth is counterintuitive. Avoid panic. I argue childishness, lying and mixed messages create panic. By September, we are now in the vaccine race and, not alone, I trust no one.

I check-in with several thirty-somethings on our island. Perhaps due to reduced vulnerability, they seem less worried, unencumbered with fear—taking some risks but with caution and common sense. Yes, the virus has intruded into their lives, but they are adapting to a ‘new and cautious social life.’  A couple with a budding business (outdoor) and a six-year old child has limited time so socializing does not factor in their life.  One interesting observation: Consistently, if I asked about ‘masking up’ all but one reacted defensively as though being criticized. The argument surrounding masks is present even on our small island.

Fires rage and engulf the entire West Coast of the U.S in September.  COVID outbreaks occur again in New Zealand. An ugly election season—a campaign of hate ramps up. Caution to the wind. Many are maskless. Hoax believers gather to cheer in tight spaces: distorted grimaces, red caps and sinking flotillas. The New York Times, The Atlantic and STAT (journal) and online therapy services such as BetterHelp all confirm our anxiety and our longing for normalcy.  Though the September weather is beautiful, a hurricane is lurking off shore and my little island feels under siege.

We look for relief anywhere

Laughter is my only way out and it arrives from an unexpected source—the 1987 cult film, Princess Bride:

Earlier in July, British actor Cary Elwes (cast as Westley, AKA Dread Pirate Roberts) offers advice in a tweet which referenced The Princess Bride’s most famous line (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”).

Advocating the wearing of PPE, the actor wrote: “Hello. My name is Coronavirus. You do not want to wear a mask? Prepare to die.”

In the film, the character of Westley while wearing a face mask encounters the compassionate sweet giant, Fezzik.

“Why the mask?” Fezzik asks. Westley cryptically responds: “It’s just that masks are terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.”

A Certified Young Man

To appeal to the millennials most often accused as maskless-actors contributing to the virus spread, film and TV actor Paul Rudd created a public safety announcement for New York City. He may give you a laugh or irritate you beyond belief.

This virus is big business—big enough to warrant an August article (Business Section) of the New York Times: Pitching Serenity in Age of Stress.  The quote from Princess Bride must have been written for this article: Life is pain, your highness. Anyone that says differently is selling something.”

Squishy and soft Moon Pals and stress-busting gummies are the snake-oils of 2020. Elixirs, extracts and essentials oils, all unregulated by the FCC, claim to be ‘backed by science.’ “Turn the stressed life into your best life,” today’s mantra, seems to override our usual island skepticism.  “We have been under this threat for so long, any remedy seems worth a try,” writes the New York Times business journalist, Tiffany Hsu. Nearly a third of Americans report symptoms of anxiety or depression—perhaps just loneliness at loss of contact with friends and family?

Perhaps a summer’s irritability brought on my anger at the intelligent woman sitting by the ocean and a safe six feet away. (I need an excuse for my hot temper?) Maybe a play of Indigo Girls’ new song is what the doctor ordered. Indigo Girls new song

Next post: Growing up Southern on a segregated island—the other virus, Racism.

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