Since mid-March of this year, my family dinner table discussions have been dominated by one topic: the coronavirus pandemic. I imagine this is true for most families in the U.S., especially given the recent surge in cases in states across the country.
Unlike the dinner table discussions of most families, though, our discussions center mostly around data and healthcare systems. Terms like “R0” (pronounced “R naught”) and “vector” are thrown around regularly. This is because my parents are both medical professionals.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread rapidly throughout the U.S. population, making headlines daily and taking lives just as often, I’ve realized that I have a very different position in relation to the virus than my parents do.
My mother is a primary care provider through the Veterans Association, while my father is a medical director at a local boarding school. Though they work in different settings, both are extremely well versed on the ins and outs of infectious disease.
Meanwhile, as a college student, I have experienced the virus mostly through the lens of the deep toll it has taken on our country. First, there is the emotional distress of witnessing disastrously poor leadership compromise hundreds of thousands of lives, disproportionately those of Black people, Indigenous people and people of color. There’s also the feeling of powerlessness as an individual to stop the spread of a rampant disease.
Many are also experiencing the very immediate loss of family members, friends and loved ones, as well as jobs and livelihoods. Additionally, almost everybody that I know has had to adjust to the serious life changes that come with staying home, reentering spaces that may not feel entirely comfortable or figuring out how to be social in new contexts.
In discussing the coronavirus crisis with my parents, though, I have also had the opportunity to take on a more scientific perspective; though they certainly feel the consequences of the pandemic just as deeply as I do, my parents also understand the coronavirus in different terms.
I remember, sometime in March, having a conversation with my mom about the potential consequences of a global outbreak, when the seriousness of the pandemic was beginning to set in for most Americans. Despite my anxiety, she spoke calmly and explained that serious epidemics come around every 80 years or so. In other words, we were due for one.
For me, the idea that a pandemic might come around every so often and ravage the human race was deeply striking. For my mother, who watches people age, get sick, get healthy, get sick again and inevitably die, it was another fact of life, another cycle to be observed through scientific inquiry.
As time went on, I became more comfortable with the new lifestyle dictated by mask mandates and stringent social distancing guidelines. I was privileged enough to have a safe place to stay, at home, with enough outdoor space to comfortably exercise and breathe fresh air. I finished up my online college classes and started work on Zoom.
All the while, my parents continued to discuss the coronavirus constantly, noting the president’s most recent false claims about testing, debating the most effective ways to control the spread of the virus on campuses and studying case counts and hospitalization curves.
And still, largely due to my privilege, the virus felt very distant to me, until one evening in May when I overheard my mom on the phone with a mildly symptomatic patient. The patient was worried about the possibility of being unable to breathe because of their asthma if symptoms worsened. As my mother calmly instructed them on the best way to obtain an inhaler without contact, I felt a deep anxiety creep in. The virus was more than just a subject of intellectual curiosity. It was real and dangerous and frightening.
Perhaps it is the very frightening nature of the coronavirus that prompts my parents to take such a scientific approach to discussing the disease and interpreting headlines. They have seen people at their worst in terms of mental and physical health. They have learned to prepare themselves for the reality that patients may die on their watch.
Since my mom works with an older population, sometimes she has multiple patients die in a week. Both my parents seem to have learned to view sickness and death through the lens of reason with clear heads, separating fact from emotion.
I should note here that I am telling a story, not the story. I do not doubt that my experiences at home and with my family would be very different if my parents were first responders or doctors or nurses in the ICU.
I have had the privilege of not having to worry too much about my parents’ personal health, given that my mom sees the majority of her patients on Zoom and my dad will not be in contact with people who have potentially tested positive for COVID-19 until the fall. And even then, stringent masking, distancing and disinfecting measures will be in place. My parents also work in well-resourced communities where finding masks, hand sanitizer and other PPE has never been a problem.
Still, by having regular, detailed discussions with medical professionals in my family, I have learned to think carefully and critically about COVID-19. Are deaths due to the virus entirely preventable? Yes. Do we have an obligation as a nation and a world to prevent them? Absolutely, especially given that the virus has even further exposed the deep racial and socioeconomic inequalities that have always been present in the United States.
Similarly, through my understanding of the pandemic in terms of the more scientific and somewhat emotionally distant perspective of my doctor parents, I recognize that COVID-19 is a force with which we are prepared to reckon. But unlike other medical issues, which can be treated with medication or therapy — scientific responses, let’s say — this global crisis requires the organizational and creative work of more artistically minded people, like myself, as well.
During discussions with my parents, I have come to believe that controlling the pandemic will take the involvement of the whole community and our range of skill sets, as well as some core medical commitments — commitments to wearing masks, to social distancing as much as possible, to investing money in testing, PPE and contact tracing and to thinking seriously about our impact on the greater population every time we act.
To end this, it will take the scientific, rational thinking practiced by medical professionals, along with an understanding of emotion and human nature that humanities majors like myself study. It will take data and innovation alongside organization and empathy.