Pandemic shutdown, week 1

One week ago, the schools around Richmond closed. Most businesses prepared workers for telecommuting from home or had to let them go. The healthcare industry and governments ramped up for a big wave of Covid-19 cases on the near horizon.

We had all heard about the novel coronavirus outbreak in China by the start of 2020, and we marveled at the Chinese government’s response, quarantining millions of people in the Hubei province and shutting all public gatherings down as hospitals were overwhelmed with cases showing pneumonia-like complications, mostly among older residents. Then the virus spread to Thailand, South Korea, Australia, Iran, Italy, the United States, etc. As of now, more than 300,000 around the globe have been infected.

What I reflect upon after this first week is how quickly everything changed in America. Kids went to see school plays last weekend. This weekend, we have stocked our pantry in preparation for months of isolation. The virus is scary, but so is the prospect of huge swaths of the economy failing, and millions of service and travel workers losing their jobs overnight.

My own job as a faculty member at VCU changed very quickly. All on-campus meetings were cancelled, including in-person classes. I cleared out my office of all essential class and research materials and brought them home. I had an extra week after spring break to reshape all my courses this semester for online delivery. I am comfortable enough with digital tools, but it has been surreal thinking about how best to engage my students going forward. Roomfuls of students – will we get to meet in person again? Are they all ok? What should I try to teach them? What will things look like on their end?

On Thursday, I participated in an online meeting with about a dozen faculty and community members engaged in the East End Cemetery Collaboratory, the members of which I have grown close to over the past several years. We were touching base to figure out how our programs will need to be adjusted going forward, even into the fall semester. We also talked about what work is possible for the volunteers at the historic cemetery.

There was fear, and concern, and a great deal of support in that meeting. All of our work looks differently, refracted through the prism of the pandemic and shutdowns. I remember two moments in particular – one, when an older, highly committed volunteer stated simply and correctly that there were other concerns right now than the conditions at the cemetery. And the second moment, right on its heels – when it dawned on me that all that grass and brush is just going to grow up this summer over the places where volunteers had so lovingly tended and cleared for seven straight years.

Tomorrow, in my first online class meeting with my students, I’ll point us back to our first reading of the semester. It was written by a historian in 1934, near the very bottom of the Great Depression. That historian, Verne Chatelain, conveyed a message of hope about what the government had been able to accomplish around him while people were scared for their lives. It looks so much more manageable to us in 2020, knowing how the Depression would end for them a few years later, and that the subsequent war would be won.

We don’t know how all this is going to end for us in 2020. The best advice I’ve seen comes from a fellow faculty member at VCU. Dr. Michael Southam-Gerow, chair of the Psychology Department, gave an interview to Brian McNeill at VCU news. The article is worth a read here. Dr. Southam-Gerow says “Most humans do best with predictable and controllable stressors. COVID-19 and its effects are neither of these.” His main advice? “Stay connected. Reach out to friends and family using voice or video connections. Check in more often than you normally would, especially to those in your life who are the most isolated. Use any forms of communication that are not face to face. Make a point to reach out to someone every day. Establish and maintain a new routine. Create predictability and controllability in the new reality of social distancing and self-quarantine.”

So here I am, offering a blog post as part of my own routine. We are all pushing forward in our own way.