Here Back East

By Lenny Ackerman

Some Lessons of Covid

The lessons of Covid are many, and the sheer numbers are staggering—of lives lost, long-term health compromised, jobs disappeared, economies ruined. It all paints a tragic picture of our age. On a smaller scale, the effects of life under Covid are more personal, yet just as powerful. My interest is in the individual. How has Covid affected those close to me, both in terms of behavioral changes and mental health—often the same thing? The answers I get vary as much as the people of whom I ask the question, though there are underlying similarities. The common theme seems to be the reduced level of human interaction and the losses associated with that.

My recent conversations on the subject with friends have been revealing. There is talk about the emotional strain of coming out of the pandemic only to be faced with the prospect of new variants, preventing any chance of a return to “normal.” The issues run deeper than having to forego a long-anticipated trip, or planning celebrations with family members. Especially now that some of the travel restrictions have eased, people are getting around more. But there is a general uneasiness and the habits of quarantine and living under the threat of a new variant linger. One of my friends said she has watched more television in the last two years than in the rest of her 70 years combined. She expressed regret that she wasn’t spending more time reading or painting or perhaps cleaning out old closets–something more active and productive. Motivation is sapped away by the endless protocols that have also protected us. Social lives have been scaled back, friendships sustained by video conference or phones, or not at all. Loneliness may be a pandemic on its own.

Last month I visited some of my oldest friends, a couple who live in New York City. The husband, a retired physician, is less active due to health issues than he was pre-pandemic but his wife of 50 plus years lamented about the lack of socializing. Her indoor tennis and card games were cancelled. Though she knows things have opened up a bit, she now spends more time cooking and cleaning, out of habit. People have gotten out of the routine of socializing. Face to face contact with friends and family has been curtailed and is only slowly making a comeback. While in the city, I noticed the restaurants were packed despite the close seating and the wet, chilly weather. Many restaurants have the enclosed, individual outdoor seating, constructed of plywood and decorated with artificial plants. There were mostly young people out and about, presumably all vaccinated–a New York requirement for indoor dining. I was pleased to be able to do my usual New York City routine: a haircut and shave at my barbershop on Lexington (everyone masked), followed by a stop at Hunter College bookstore for a slow circuit around the stacks (again, everyone masked). I vowed to keep up my old New York City routine as long as I can.

While in Manhattan, I had the opportunity to sit down with my 11-year-old grandson, Billy, to ask him about his thoughts, observations, reactions –and those of his friends— to the changes brought about by Covid over the last couple of years. “It is so, so different, Grandpa, learning at school instead of zoom class at home,” he said. “School is normal!” During quarantine, he continually complained about the lack of socializing and he spent a lot more time on his phone. Fortunately, his school recently reopened—with protocols in place—providing convenient cover for meetups with friends during lunch break and between classes. Playdates are happening more frequently now, except of course when a family member tests positive. Though he and his friends missed socializing during school shutdowns, he admitted that, “When school is closed, we can sleep in later,” pointing out one of the few positives. As attractive as it might seem to sleep late every morning, Billy said he would gladly get up early to go to school and be with his friends, rather than hanging out in bed the extra hour. Traveling to and from school on the bus is also an opportunity for socializing. Billy attends a private school on the West Side so he “commutes” from his home on the East Side. He uses the time to catch up with his friends and plan activities. School bus time was sorely missed by him during quarantine. Many of Billy’s friends from last year’s public school are being homeschooled since the parents found the school system’s response to Covid so chaotic and disorganized. Private schools were open sooner and their closures have been more limited. It will be some time before we understand the long-term effects, if any, of the Covid disruptions on children, but my talk with Billy was a hopeful one, and a reminder of the resilience of youth.

Life during quarantine is a good time to reflect on family values and relationships. Confined to a limited space for months at a time, the closeness eventually reveals who we are as a family and what we really think of each other. But what about all those missed dinners and matches and classes and coffees with friends? What about the lost jobs? A recent article in the New York Times called upon readers to leave any regret behind for the missed opportunities caused by Covid. On the other hand, the book The Myth of Closure by Pauline Boss, explores the idea of “social bereavement” and how with certain losses, closure is unattainable. We grieve as a community over the changes wrought by the pandemic. Sometimes, the loss never ceases. Loss is never perfect. We all experience the phenomenon differently. For me, I deal with the issues of loss and closure by looking beyond and anticipating impact. We rely on science for the facts, and we look to our family and friends for support and understanding, so I stay in touch whichever way I can. Even a zoom call with a friend can make all the difference.

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