Marc V. Felizzi

Since March 2020, most Americans’ lives have been upended, thrown sideways, and we have experienced uncertainty, fear, concern, anxiety and an awareness of events that were previously uncontemplated. 

We have learned new words and phrases: “social distancing,” “mask up,” “flatten the curve,” Zoom, PPE (personal protective equipment) and more. We have seen organizations we took for granted — safe places to worship, our children’s schools or colleges, fun places to congregate, our favorite restaurants — alter their operations or close forever due to the current pandemic.

For the fortunate among us, we have the support of one other, our families and our friends. We are facing this radically changed — and charged — environment together. We support each other to address the world today.

Conversely, there are many who cannot provide internet access for their children to attend school remotely, cannot attend religious services, or be with loved ones. There are citizens in our community who have suffered tremendously. They have felt the unspeakable grief of losing someone to COVID-19 during these last seven months, or they have been distanced and not able to interact with loved ones.

And some in our community have lost gainful employment due to the resulting economic downturn.

In sum, all of us have been affected by the novel coronavirus, whether we’re facing minor inconveniences such as masking up at the local grocery store, or at worst, facing death, loss of income, involuntary separation from families and suffering from the trauma that COVID-19 has caused.

Think, for a minute, of those who have not been so fortunate as many of us during this extraordinary time. Trauma research often promotes the concept that stable supports — family, friends, community — are critical for one to develop resilience to disasters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Think of those who are disadvantaged economically or socially, who are physically disabled, medically compromised or suffering from debilitating mental health issues. Those of us who can depend on family, friends or community have a secure network via which we can discuss and process the anxiety, fear and stress we are experiencing during this time of global uncertainty. We are lucky in that aspect.

But what if we could not comprehend what we are experiencing? What of those of us who have no one to help process their grief over losing a loved one or those who are immunocompromised and are at risk for contracting COVID-19? What if we had no one to turn to?

Imagine, if you will, being dropped in a country, and a war breaks out. You don’t speak the language; you cannot turn to anyone to discuss what is occurring; and you may not be able to escape the war zone. To whom would you reach out? Who would help you make sense of what is occurring? What if you held no currency and could not access help?

This is the situation that many people who are marginalized, or pushed to the edges of society, feel on a daily basis now. We need to understand the extreme disadvantages those who are poor, medically impacted, or of immigrant status, homeless or alone, may be facing and empathize with them.

To understand oneself, we often have to “get out of our heads” and witness what is going on in the world around us. Yes, COVID-19 may have altered our lives in incomprehensible ways, but we need to take a minute to think of those who try to survive on a daily basis and how the virus has impacted their lives.

In many cases, repeated stress can cause a number of issues — anxiety, irritability, depression, somatic issues (headaches, pounding pulse, shallow and rapid breathing, stomachaches, etc). Coping mechanisms for the most comfortable and “well-adjusted” person can be affected. Those impacted by repeated stress (such as living in the uncertainty of a pandemic) can resort to inappropriate coping devices — such as drug or alcohol abuse — to deal with the relentless effects of the pressure, anxiety and trauma of the pandemic.

Think of your neighbor who may be alone, or in the dark, or confused and concerned about life today. Consider those who may be here in this country on their own and show them support and kindness to help them navigate through the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the resulting changes we’re all experiencing.

Sharing a kind word, showing an appreciation of their plight, offering assistance and direction can be the answers to many of our neighbors’ needs, and these actions take little effort, yet can pay off to make our community stronger, safer and more aware of all citizens’ needs during this unprecedented and historical time.

The tension created by the stress and unknown outcome of the pandemic, plus the deep divisions among all classes caused by the contentious election season — in addition to racial and social injustice protests on a scale not seen since the 1960s — can promise traumatic outcomes for many of us. Now is the time to reach out and check in on your neighbors. One small smile, or simply asking “How are you?” can make someone’s day.

Now is the time to understand and celebrate the diversity we all represent, revel in the variety and ask about differences we do not understand.

2020 has been a remarkable, scary, frustrating and anger-inducing year — simply put, a disaster. We can own the time, or the time can own us. Resiliency is developed when we work through disasters together. Acting for and with each other will help us weather the collective trauma of 2020, and emerge afterward more resilient and stronger as a community and a country.

Marc V. Felizzi, Ph.D., is an associate professor in Millersville University School of Social Work, and a licensed clinical social worker.