In 1751, George Washington’s diary entries stopped for 24 days because he was ill with smallpox. Forty-two years later, the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia forced President Washington to relocate to Mount Vernon. Disruption due to disease was frequent and expected.
This pattern continued with other epidemic moments as well. When influenza hit in 1918, Kansas, like many states, canceled all group meetings and conferences, closed businesses and schools, and prohibited public loitering. The University of Kansas canceled all classes and mandated quarantine. Even though students were stuck on campus, they were not expected to continue their studies. Healthy male students practiced drills and smuggled cigarettes into the makeshift hospital for their ailing friends. Female students cared for the sick, but were also encouraged to go on hikes and roast hot dogs.
In the midst of an epidemic, historical precedent suggests that life dramatically shifts to revolve around the outbreak itself. We are in that moment. For months, we’ve seen it coming. Videos and images from other countries have been showing us what will happen, how bad it will become.
I’m not advocating that we completely shut down working from home, online learning, or virtual activities. However, we do need assume that everything we do, task we assign, and decision we make is shaped by the current and future reality of this global pandemic. Our expectations in our normal, pre-social distancing world do not directly carry over.
Even if we are fortunate to not be sick, the current situation dramatically influences all of our routines. A month ago, this was my typical Friday morning: Wake up, care for dogs, make breakfast, wake up kids, get kids and husband off to school, exercise dogs, do some writing or other work, drive to campus, hold office hours, teach, stop at the grocery store, eat lunch. Now my Friday morning consists of juggling parenting, attempted home-schooling, attempted online teaching, and attempted writing. Added to the mix are my worries and concerns unique to this time: Will the kids get to see their teachers or friends? Am I doing enough to help them through this? And then, the questions plaguing all of us: Will the stores have milk? What about people who are less fortunate than we are? How will local businesses survive? What will happen to the economy? Does it make sense to plan anything in the next 6-8 months?
At the same time, our face-to-face outlets for dealing with stress and working through situations have been cut-off. Without lunches with friends, gym workouts, or (gasp) in-person meetings, it’s hard to emotionally process it all. I’m glad that we can have online classes, connect over social media, and take virtual karate. But let’s not pretend it is the equivalent of the real experiences that we all crave right now.
My point is that we need to adopt a communal understanding about this time. Our standards and goals, even for daily productivity, should not be the same because our lives are not the same. What we do now will inevitably affect the future, but it doesn’t mean we are setting the bar (or lowering the bar) for next year and beyond. In other words, we need to asterisk * the things we think, decide, do, and communicate with the pandemic grain of salt.
This * is already happening for many people. If you are sick or care for someone who is, or if you work in healthcare, you are already there, where the details of a pandemic are all that concern you. A month into the yellow fever epidemic, every article in the Federal Gazette mentioned disease–even those that talked about a local fire. Every poem and parable printed focused on the epidemic. Ads only addressed “remedies” and other related goods and services. Even if we are lucky enough not to be in this place and can play with the kids, teach our online classes, and do “regular things,” we need to remember that not everyone shares our fortune.
This is a strange time full of uncertainties. Enjoy the moments that feel a bit normal, especially if they bring hope and optimism. But let’s also give ourselves permission to take a breath and just try for average, not exceptional, since every accomplishment is extraordinary right now. If Washington could ease up multiple times because of disease, then so can we.