Take it from a Jewish doctor and mom: To fight corona, we have to fight our fear.
I’m a physician, a mom, and an active member of my Jewish community. The coronavirus crisis has hit the three aspects of my identity hard. I’m worried for my patients, and concerned for my family and for my community. But in trying to meet this crisis head on from my unique vantage point, I’ve realized three important things: Firstly, sometimes fear can be as damaging as a dangerous virus. Secondly, our social networks can be a liability but also our greatest strength. And finally, we should all make sure we count our blessings.
Let’s start with fear. It’s natural for fear to take over when there is a void in knowledge and treatments. When new infections arise for which we do not yet have immunity and for which we do not have specific pharmaceutical therapies, our options are more limited. But as a physician, I’ve learned I have to balance my words wisely. The words we use as well as the actions we take can either establish trust or perpetuate fear, and one of the most dangerous and counterproductive reactions to fear is fear-propagating.
Just like an infection can lead to an overly vigilant immune response and turn a patient septic, so too can an unchecked response to fear lead to a “social sepsis” of sorts. In other words, by spreading panic, you’re spreading the very thing you’re trying to protect against.
In the case of our collective response to COVID-19, the ugliest interpersonal responses have been stereotyping and scapegoating of those who have been most affected by the illness. Sadly, anti-Asian bias and acts of racism have been on the rise since the rise of COVID-19 earlier this year. And of course, fear and blame of Jews — observant Jews in particular — did not take long to bubble to the surface. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a common mistake when speaking about the virus. “They go home, and they have five people in their home,” he said. The repeated use of “they” in reference to observant Jews and the spread of COVID-19 perpetuates fear of the “other,” as though we are not all a greater community experiencing this situation together.
That’s where our social networks come in. Leaders like Cuomo should take a lesson from those acting on the local level; what we need is to come together to help a community in need. Rabbi Fink of the Young Israel of New Rochelle congregation in Westchester County described how people from neighboring towns stepped up to shop and deliver goods to those who were under quarantine, in a letter to JTA. Families delivered mishloach manot for Purim to the front porches of those in isolation.
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When we so often hear of the harms that come from social media and the internet, I appreciate that we have these powerful resources that are equally if not more powerful, which can do good both clinically and socially.
As a physician, I participate in the greater online medical community, helping to coordinate patient care, to find specialists and resources for our patients, whether COVID-related or otherwise. As a mom, I appreciate that schools have been able to continue educating our students with the use of the internet, with video-conferencing and online learning tools. With the closure of places of worship, congregations can still gather “virtually,” hold virtual minyans or at least support each other in a time of anxiety and illness.
Consider this one of the blessings we should notice: Now more than ever, we can appreciate how tightly all our worlds are interwoven, how quickly illness can spread, how much of our supply chain for medications and everyday items depend on the greater global marketplace.
This connection also allows us to share medical data, case reports, experiences and strategies for success with one another across the globe.
While it is important to practice social isolation and to quarantine when the need arises, to wash our hands and avoid sharing germs, it is equally important to strengthen our connections for the good — to share medical knowledge, help deliver food to those affected, and support each other emotionally.
We can mitigate fear and build better inter-community relationships so that we are more resilient to overcome future challenges both infectious and otherwise.
Yana Garger is a clinical endocrinologist practicing in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J.