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The Tunnel

"There's light at the end of the tunnel!". How many times have you heard that? Especially as it relates to the pandemic of 2020-2021?

However, as of this posting, late February 2021, there really is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. The vaccines are starting to make their way into people's arms, and at least in California, restrictions are beginning to relax a bit as we move down in tiers. New cases of the virus are decreasing, as are deaths and hospitalizations, both in acute care and ICU beds. Businesses and related activities are starting to open back up. There are more cars in business and shopping center parking lots, more traffic on city streets and freeways, and more people out enjoying walking and biking trails, some of which have remained closed and unused for over a year.

All of this is a welcome relief to bring life back to 'normal'. But is normal where we want to be at the end of all of this?

Was normal such a great place to begin with?

I was on a walk the other day and the wind was blowing and the air was crisp. I was all bundled up in a sweater, jacket, hood pulled up over my head, scarf wrapped around my neck and my sunglasses were on. The only part of me exposed to the outside air was my lower face. So I decided to put my face mask on. It felt so warm and comforting! I had never thought of a face mask as anything but a nuisance, a slight pain (at least in the ears) and a deterrent to visual social interaction.

It really hit me about how your perception of something can change so drastically depending on what context it is in and on how it is viewed.

Something I have noticed over the past couple of years, pre-pandemic, is how few people actually look me in the face, say hello or even acknowledge my presence when I have been out on walks in my neighborhood, or along local paths and walkways, or even in stores.

Immediately after the initial pandemic shutdowns, when people were only getting out for essential activities, I could almost feel a palpable tension in the grocery stores as people grabbed for what they felt were essential items and were taking as much as they were allowed. Even without being able to see a person's entire face, you knew that no one was smiling. It was an 'everyone for themselves' way of thinking.

Over the past few months I have felt a difference in the air when I am at the grocery store. I have noticed people making way for others, I've heard "excuse me" and "after you" and seen people hold open the doors of the dairy display cases for others.

I have seen a change when I am out on walks as well. Where people had been passing others as if they weren't even there, now I notice nods of the head in my direction as well as people greeting each other, even with just a simple "hi". I am noticing more interaction now than I did even before the pandemic. It makes a huge difference!

I think back to when there was confusion and some desperation regarding purchasing and stockpiling supplies; including food and one item that we all were familiar with as 'scarce', which is toilet paper. I think you could also put face masks and disposable gloves on that list as well.

But along with that, I was also exposed to the other side. Of friends and neighbors helping each other. If a friend went to the store and found a particular hard-to-locate spray cleaning product, she would buy two. One for herself and one for me. And bring it to my doorstep. If I was out and noticed that a local grocery store suddenly had bags of flour for sale, I would buy her one along with the one for me. If she saw that a store was stocked with yeast, she would call and tell me about where to find it.

When a neighbor heard that a local hospital was low on PPE, she gave half of her mask supply that she had been able to find early on. When the call went out through different groups I am connected with for cloth face masks for essential medical personnel, directions for sewing were disseminated and whatever supplies we could find at home were shared, after 1/8" elastic became scarce, as did cotton fabric as well as some colors of thread. I even had one friend make surgical gowns for nurses out of her old nightgowns.

After the initial first-few-weeks period of sheltering in our homes was coming to an end, people started getting out, little by little, to take walks, or just step outside their front doors to get a little fresh air. If I saw someone coming down the sidewalk, I would scurry back into my house, if I had been out watering or just getting some air myself. After a while, more people were out and I would stay in my yard but not say anything. Eventually we would both nod at each other which before long turned into waves and then hellos and then, actual short conversations; from a socially acceptable distance of course, while wearing masks. Some have even taken to going on walks together, while maintaining at least a six-foot distance.

I think we have turned a corner where we aren't so 'me'-centric when it comes to getting through this pandemic. Now that getting the vaccine is starting to become more widespread, I have friends and neighbors helping each other know when and where to go to get inoculated. I also see it on social media. People are helping each other. They are sharing useful information. They are looking out for each other.

Is this 'normal'? I don't think so. I think it's better than normal. I think people had gotten too busy at times in the past to really be thinking about others. I believe we all had gotten so caught up in our day-to-day lives that we didn't take time to even consider what the needs might be of anyone else. Or really put much thought into how we might make a day easier for another.

I think in the big picture we all are being made aware of the inequities in healthcare. That is not something that can be ignored now that we have such stark data in front of us. Changes will need to be made at all levels, and now that more of us are cognizant of the disparities, more of us can help. The awareness is something else that I believe is better than normal. Good things will and can come out of this pandemic. The key will be to make a promise to ourselves and each other to be better than 'normal' going forward.


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