On being … a dose of pandemic wisdom

 By Ingrid Sapona

I don’t know about you, but I’ve really enjoyed some of the pandemic-related funnies folks have circulated. One friend of mine was a particularly diligent forwarder of Covid-humour those first few months. I have no idea where he got them all, but he sent a weekly compilation every Friday. The emails tapered off when he returned to the office, but he’s recently revived the mailings (in honour of the second wave, I think).

Three from his latest batch struck particular chords with me and – like all good humour – got me thinking. The first one was this tongue-in-cheek comment on hindsight:

Besides putting a smile on my face, the comment brought into focus a couple of realizations. First is the simple truth that back in March, few among us would have imagined that in October we’d still be missing some of simple things we once enjoyed (like the happy-go-lucky freedom of eating out). In an odd way, the joke also speaks to another realization I’ve come to as I’ve observed subtle changes in peoples’ behaviour of late. As the numbers of COVID cases have been going up again, more than a few of my friends have mentioned things they’re doing now, “before things get closed down again”. They’re going to get their hair cut, for example, and stocking up on “essentials” they fear might soon be in short supply. In other words, they’re ordering dessert while they have the chance! Of course, the reason this simple funny comment rings true is because of the life lesson at the heart of it: make the most of today because no one knows what changes tomorrow will bring.

And, for those prescient few – I’ll call them the Covid-whisperers – who might claim they realized early on that the rest of 2020 would be pretty much a write-off, consider this gem of pandemic comic wisdom:

I’ll bet it applies to the Covid-whisperers too…

But on a serious note, I imagine that for some it reinforces a belief that five-year plans are a waste. For other, perhaps it brings to mind the famous stanza in Robby Burn’s poem “To a Mouse” about the best laid schemes… What I thought of when I read it is not the folly of planning where you’ll be in five years. I say chart away and set sail – but do so knowing that the most important skill you’ll need is the ability to adapt!

And finally – this last one I love because it’s both sweet and profound:

Like many, over the course of the pandemic, I’ve reflected on how I’m coping and I’ve read about how others are coping. For folks who’ve remained healthy, it seems that how they’re coping has a lot to do with their economic situation and with the day-to-day tasks they have to juggle. For many women with families there’s a lot of pressure related to keeping children engaged and it’s a lot of work getting groceries and preparing meals day in, day out for the gang. On the flip side, some who live alone – especially seniors – are having a rough time because they feel socially isolated. By comparison to many, I feel very fortunate that I’ve not felt much stress or anxiety because of the pandemic. About the worst I can report is frustration about not being able to make plans to see my sisters for the holidays.

I loved the photo because it’s cute and clever. I think visualizing the pandemic as mud that we’re all struggling to get through is quite apt. And the depth of the mud is a good metaphor for the difficulties and challenges brought by the pandemic. The picture reminds us that that no one will be able to say how deep the mud is until we’re out of it. And even then, the depth will be relative to each of us.

But what I like best about the picture is the hope it represents. To me it shows that regardless of our size and shape, with dogged determination we can come out of the mud standing tall and strong (if a bit dirtier for the ordeal).

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … insights from a stranger

By Ingrid Sapona

Because of the pandemic, I’ve taken to daily walks to try to maintain cardio fitness. I’ve found a few different routes I like, but on weekday mornings I tend to do the same route – a nice mix of flat and hills. I go at pretty much the same time every morning and so there’s a handful of folks I see regularly enough that we greet each other.

That particular route takes me through a streetcar underpass (kind of a tunnel) and past a streetcar stop called Humber Loop. This stop is a juncture for a few different lines and a bus route. Unlike most streetcar stops, Humber Loop has a brick building that serves mainly as a rest stop/service stop for streetcar drivers. On one end of the building, however, is a glass enclosed waiting area for folks to wait out of the cold or rain. There are lights and a few very uncomfortable benches, but that’s it.

Because I walk very early, I’ve noticed some homeless people sleeping on the hard, cold benches. The building is not heated, nor are there any public washrooms – it’s strictly shelter from the elements. It always makes me sad to see them, but I figure at least it’s better than them being outside.

One morning last week, as I was passing through the Loop, I noticed a senior ambling up the hill a bit ahead of me. She was going slowly and I knew I’d end up passing her, but I hesitated a bit because I figured she probably didn’t expect to hear anyone behind her at that hour. When I caught up to her, I gave her a wide birth – not just to social distance, but so as not to frighten her. As I passed, I made sure to say good morning, so she knew I was friendly.

When she looked up, I saw she had on a face mask. She was wearing a black raincoat and I noticed a lapel pin that looked like a cross and she was holding rosary beads. When she returned my greeting, I noticed she had a charming, old-world accent that sounded Italian. When I apologized for possibly startling her, she assured me I hadn’t. She then pulled down her mask, making it clear she wanted to have a bit of a conversation.

She said she was just thinking about those poor men – pointing in the direction of the streetcar building. I said yes, it’s sad to see them. I told her that I’ve noticed three or four men there every morning. She shook her head. I said that the only good thing about the whole situation is that at least they’re not out in the cold and rain. But, I added, I know it’s not heated and when winter comes, it must be awful. She agreed but added, “Never mind the cold… that’s not the worst”

I quickly interjected, “Oh I know, where do they get food?” “It’s not just that,” she added again. Pointing to the facemask pulled down under her chin, she said, “We feel safer because of this, but what about them? Because of the virus, there aren’t even places for them to clean themselves now!” I nodded in agreement, as these are all things I’d thought about all these mornings.

Then, looking more distraught, she said, “But worst of all… they have no LOVE. There’s no one to touch them, to love them. Everyone needs love. And who loves them?” I was dumbstruck by her insight and all I could do was nod in sad agreement.

When I composed myself a bit, I confessed to her that I’d never thought of that aspect of homelessness. Though I’ve often thought about – and donated to charities that provide – food and shelter for people living on the street, I never thought about the fact that they have no one to love them. After a few minutes of silent, shared anguish, we began walking together up the little hill. When we got to the top, we nodded at each other and headed off in different directions.

The rest of that morning’s walk I could think of nothing but the conversation I had with that stranger – a woman I’ve never seen before, or since. Her innocent lament helped me realize how focused I’ve always been on people’s physical needs. Though I do believe it’s important to ease hunger – because it impacts body and mind – I’ve disregarded the most crucial needs of all – the need for love and a sense of belonging.

I wish I could end this column by telling you I’ve done something to help fill those kinds of needs for any of the homeless people I see in the morning. But I haven’t come up with any concrete way of doing that. Nonetheless, I’ve thought about that stranger’s comment so many times in the past 10 days, I felt the need to write about it.

Thanksgiving is around the corner here in Canada. I know many of us have been thinking about the fact that Thanksgiving will be very different this year because of Covid-19. But, for many homeless people, I’ll bet it won’t feel much different from any other day. My hope is that those of us in a position to ease the hunger and physical harshness the homeless face – on Thanksgiving and every other day – will do so. But, regardless of any monetary support you may be able to provide to help the homeless, my hope is that this column prompts you to also recognize the void of love and loneliness homeless people face every day and that you try to help fill that void.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... the best office

On being … the best office

By Ingrid Sapona

A friend of mine moved recently and she offered me her computer cabinet (a re-purposed Ikea closet). For about 20 years I had a purpose-built computer armoire. I originally bought it when I lived in an apartment and my dining room was also my office. I loved it and it came with me when I moved into my condo years ago. Here in the condo I have a den that I use as my office.

I loved the armoire but about eight years ago I had to give it up when I bought a monitor that was too big for it. At that point, I had to re-configure my small-ish den. When my friend offered me her computer cabinet, I had to decide whether I once again was up for re-configuring the den. After measuring to make sure her cabinet would actually fit, I decided that yes, I did want it because I like the idea of hiding away the computer so that the den looks like a den.

To get the cabinet here, I needed to rent a cargo van, borrow a furniture dolly from a neighbor, and arrange for a friend to help me with the move. The night before the move I did my best to get the room ready. That meant emptying a filing cabinet that would need to be moved over and disassembling my desk. It wasn’t until I started to actually move the desk out that I realized I needed to move a bookshelf and couch out of the way too. Luckily the couch is relatively light and once I took off all the cushions, I could stand it on one end!

The next day we picked up the cargo van and headed to get the cabinet. I texted my friends when we got there and she asked me if I could send my friend up to help them move it. So, he went up and I waited on the street with the van. It seemed to take a long time – but I figured it just felt that way, as I was nervous because the parking enforcement guy seemed to be circling and I was in a no parking zone. Eventually my friend returned and said he’d stay with the van and that I had better go “look at it”. When I asked why, he said it broke when they tried to move it, but he thought it would be fixable with a bracket or… To be honest, I stopped hearing him after “it broke”.

When I got to their condo, my friend’s husband had already disassembled 2/3 of it. They explained what happen and how it could be fixed. I ended up not taking the cabinet. I know they felt awful about my having rented a cargo van, but I didn’t mind, as it was worth a try. The way I figured it, the reason I wanted the cabinet was to make the den feel less office-like. But so many screw holes were blown out, while I might have been able to fix it and make it usable, I doubted it would ever look decent – and the whole point was to make the office more den-like.

After returning the van my friend helped me move the filing cabinet and desk back to where they originally were. Then he left me to set up my computer and return the files to the cabinet. As I was doing this, I realized that my office set up is quite comfortable. The desk is spacious, the filing cabinet is handy, and the couch is a nice place to sit if I’ve got a lot of reading or thinking to do on a project. As well, I’ve managed to store my office supplies pretty neatly, and the lighting I installed when I first moved in is great.

And yet, for years I’ve been obsessing about how to make the den “better”. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent looking at Murphy beds on-line, wondering how one might fit and whether I should get one so that it’s more like a den than an office when someone visits. And I’ve considered whether to put a door on it to make it more of a private room for when I have company.

Once my computer was up and running and I sat down to do some work, I realized why I’ve been ambivalent about the den all these years. It’s because I wanted the space to be something it’s not – and never will be. It won’t be a spacious, second bedroom or a roomy t.v. room. Though I’ve never had a problem accepting that my Toyota will never be a Tesla, or that my galley kitchen will never be a gourmet chef’s dream, I’ve accepted them for what they are and I’ve been fine with them. Why aren’t I able to accept the limitations of the den, I wondered? Once I saw it like that, I realized the route to greater contentment was acceptance.

So, though some might have chalked up the computer cabinet fiasco as a waste of time, it wasn’t. It helped me realize the problem with the den wasn’t the den – it was me. There’s nothing wrong with the den – it’s perfect as my office and that’s really all I need it to be.  

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona



On being ... scared

By Ingrid Sapona

In the U.S., fear was the main news story all week. With over 182,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 since March, it’s not surprising that fear is rising, right? But the coronavirus, which barely seems to register with most Americans these days, wasn’t the source of fear that was featured on the nightly news.

The fear that was the focus this week is fear that’s being fabricated by politicians to suit their own purposes. It’s based on mis-characterizations and outright lies and it’s meant to sow division, discord, and hatred. It’s a tried and true technique straight out of the dictator playbook. Those in power foment distrust and create havoc and then sweep in with force – whether government agents or surrogate militia – that they control.

While it’s easy to gloss over law and order rallying cries coming out of a political campaign as mere rhetoric, doing so during a time of crisis – both economic and medical – is reckless. Furthermore, not recognizing the danger of such talk adds insult to injury for people from marginalized groups. I’m not much into professional sports, but the most eloquent comments about the campaign of fear came from LA Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers in an interview after an NBA playoff game. Rivers said, “You know, what stands out to me just watching the Republican convention and they’re spewing this fear. … All you hear Donald Trump and all of them talking about [is] fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot… and all you do is keep hearing about fear.”

While the truth of what Rivers was pointing out was powerful, it’s what he said next about the shooting of Jacob Blake that really drove home the profound emotional toll that accompanies the physical violence blacks face. He said, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back. And, it’s just really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach and I’m so often reminded of my colour. It’s just really sad. … We protest and they send riot guards. They send people in riot outfits. They go to Michigan with guns and they’re spitting on cops and nothing happens. … I didn’t want to talk about it before the game because it’s just so hard. Just keep watching it. Just keep watching that video. If you watch that video – you don’t need to be black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged. And how dare the Republicans talk about fear? We’re the ones that need to be scared…”

On being … is meant to be an examination of human nature. I try to tell a story about my thoughts and feelings in an effort to prompt a reaction in the reader. My hope is that your reaction to my take on things may lead you to think about how you may be feeling or behaving.

I hesitated to write today’s column because I think some readers may be turned off because they’ll see it as being about politics. That’s not my intention – today’s column isn’t motivated by politics. It’s rooted in my deep feelings of fear – fear about the future of America. I’m scared for the future of a country where lying is perfectly acceptable, where things of consequence are written off as a hoax, where vigilantes are encouraged to engage in violence, and where invocations of the rule of law are a farce.

I’ve been feeling sadness about all these things for some time, but this week I realized my sadness has turned to fear. So, I’ve been reflecting on ways of coping with my fear. I decided I must own up to my fear and talk about it – and write about it. So, when I realized this, I couldn’t not write today’s column.

To those politicians who want to use fear as a motivator, I say bring it on. I’ve decided I’m going to let my fear motivate me to stand up against racism, injustice, and tyranny – and to invite others to join me. Perhaps by doing so, folks who may be sitting by quietly – in fear of backlash or in hopes of avoiding uncomfortable situations – will find courage too.

What about you? Are you feeling afraid these days? If so, what’s behind it? Is it based on something real, or is it fabricated fear planted by some politician? What coping strategies will you employ to combat the fear?

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona




On being ... thoughtful

By Ingrid Sapona       

I’m sure I’m not the only one tired of reading about peoples’ opinions about facemasks. Indeed, I’ve already done a column about that. So, it is with a bit of hesitation that I set out on today’s column, as I fear you’ll tune out thinking this’ll be more of the same. Honestly, though facemasks will be mentioned, I promise the context is different.

My inspiration for today’s column was an entertaining article I came across on COVID etiquette by Dorothy Woodend, a writer/editor at the Tyee in British Columbia. The sub-head to the article is really what drew me in: “The pandemic confounded the rules of how we relate to one another.” Woodend raised some interesting questions and points about how to behave in different situations. So, I thought it would be fun to share a few of her insights so that you can – as I did – compare your views to hers.

For example, if you run into someone you know and you’re wearing a mask and they’re not, should you remove your mask to talk with them? Woodend wondered whether leaving it on in such a situation might be seen as virtue signalling. Gosh, I never gave a thought to what might be appropriate in that situation. I suppose, depending on the other person’s sensitivities, you could be seen as being passive aggressive regardless of what you do in that case. Oi… how complicated social interations have gotten!

That whole question of how you react to – and feel about – other people’s COVID-related behavior is interesting. The other day I was waiting a long time for the elevator in my building and when if finally arrived, the lone guy in it waved me off to indicate he didn’t want me to get in with him. Naturally, I nodded in assent and stayed put. But, behind my mask, I was annoyed. As I waited for the lift to return, I reminded myself that everyone’s entitled to their own comfort level in enclosed spaces and that I shouldn’t judge.

Another question Woodend touches on his how to welcome folks and demonstrate that you come peaceably. It never occurred to me that the handshake might have developed as a way to show to a stranger that you don’t have a knife or other object you could use to hurt them. But now, handshakes are off limits, as even a hand empty of weapons could carry the virus that could do grave harm to others. Woodend joked that maybe we’ll end up resorting to some sort of weird social dance where we “wave, flail and contort to convey good will”. Being a self-conscious dancer, I’m thinking it might be better to opt for the silly-seeming elbow bump alternative.

The need for clear enunciation is also something we’re all going to value more, as we try to understand folks through their mask. Might elocution classes ala Henry Higgins come back into vogue, Woodend posits. At a minimum, I imagine folks will have to learn to speak louder or be prepared to repeat things. Humour aside, I have thought about how wearing masks has made daily interactions so much harder for people with hearing problems who rely – even a little – on lip reading. Maybe now that many of us are experiencing the challenge of understanding people talking through masks, we’ll understand how profoundly hearing impacts daily life. Perhaps, as a society, we’ll end up doing more to support and help those with hearing problems.

As social creatures, I think there’s something to be said for paying attention to how we conduct ourselves vis-à-vis each other. I think that’s really what manners are all about – customary behaviours that are meant to facilitate smoother social interactions. (Or, as one reader of Ms. Woodend’s article put it, however crudely: Manners are the KY of social intercourse.)

Given that COVID’s changed so many aspects of daily living, it was bound to impact our social interactions, right? And, all change requires adjustment, which definitely can be challenging. But if we approach social interactions with a bit of a sense of humour and an open heart, I think we’ll manage. And who knows, maybe increased thoughtfulness, understanding, and kindness to others will also be a COVID legacy.

What do you think? Any particular changes in etiquette you hope will become the norm in the post-pandemic world?

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … accustomed to?

By Ingrid Sapona

Though I think we’re not even at the seventh inning stretch in terms of COVID-19, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned so far during the pandemic. They say it takes something like 12 weeks to develop new habits (or is it 12 weeks to break old habits?). Anyway, I’ve been taking stock of the different things I’ve become (more-or-less) accustomed to and some of the new habits I’ve developed thanks to COVID-19.

The first habit I’ve truly become one with is hand washing. I’m embarrassed to admit that before COVID-19, I didn’t do much more than the obligatory quick rinse in the ladies’ room. Now I intentionally seek out opportunities throughout the day to wash my hands and I approach it as time to lather up and luxuriate. (I wish I could say I’ve learned to not touch my face, but sadly, all I’ve become aware of is just how much I do, in fact, touch my face.)

I’ve definitely changed my grocery shopping habits. I never realized how many different grocery stores I’d pop into in a week to pick up this or that. It’s not that I didn’t have a shopping list – I always did. It’s just that I found it irresistible to hop from store to store to save on this item or that. Now I give myself permission to spend a bit more if I can get all the items I might need for the week at one grocery store, especially if they do a good job sanitizing their carts!

Sadly, I’ve definitely not become more patient about work-related meetings. If anything, I find my meeting frustration has actually increased. Why is it that folks new to the work-from-home world insist on taking meetings from their balcony or porch? How can they be oblivious to the fact that the noise of garbage trucks and other traffic make it nearly impossible to hear them or others? I suppose it’s possible that over time I’ll become accepting of the fact that people who waste time during meetings do so regardless of the meeting format. Ugh…

I didn’t need anything close to 12 weeks to adjust to the shut down of stores, restaurants, libraries, parks, cinemas, and the like. Like others, those first couple of weeks I assumed the changes would be short lived. But when it became clear that the timeframe for sheltering in was indefinite, I made some adjustments to my daily routine and settled in with little upset.

I can’t say the same for how I’m dealing with the re-opening of things, however. In fact, I’ve been surprised at the anxiety I feel having to make various decisions again. The shut down pretty much removed personal choice from many day-to-day activities. (For example, you didn’t have to decide whether to go out for dinner – restaurants were closed.) But, with kind of a phased re-opening as we’ve had here in Ontario, it’s largely up to us to figure out what we’re comfortable doing. For example, though I was a regular in the gym, even when mine re-opens, I can’t see myself comfortable returning to it for some time. (Why take the risk of working out indoors in close proximity to others working up a sweat? So long as the sidewalks and paths are snow-free, I’ll continue with my long daily walks instead.) Another common conundrum is whether to risk a ride on public transit or just drive places in the privacy of your own car, knowing it’s less ecofriendly and lots more expensive to park.

And I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling conflicted, weighing the risks versus benefits of different choices. I’ve had various conversations with friends who’ve admitted they don’t know what to do when someone invites them over, or suggests they do something together. Just yesterday one of my sisters faced a tough decision that she didn’t think she’d have to make. Our other sister was in the hospital for elective surgery and we assumed that a post-surgery visit to her room would be out of the question. When it wasn’t, my sister had to decide whether to visit her in her room. My advice to her was to be guided by my new mantra: WWAFD – What Would Anthony Fauci Do? We laughed at the idea, but I know it was a difficult call. (Compassion ruled: she screwed up her courage, sanitized her hands, adjusted her face mask, and went to the room.)

I think it’s going to take some time for many of us to figure out what’s in our comfort zone and what’s not. Indeed, given how fluid a situation the pandemic is, I imagine stuff I may be ok doing this week I won’t necessarily feel comfortable doing sometime further down the road. But, like so many other things we’ve become accustomed to during this pandemic, I imagine we’ll easily adjust to somethings and fervently resist other things – even if we know they’re good for us or for society…

What about you? Anything you’ve been surprise you’ve become accustomed to as a result of the pandemic? Any pandemic-induced behaviours you plan on continuing post pandemic? Any decisions you wish you didn’t have to make these days?

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … motivated?

By Ingrid Sapona

Being productive has always been important to me. Indeed, it’s kind of a coping strategy I use when I’m feeling bogged down or stressed. I find that if I stop and do some unrelated task, I feel better. The key is the task has to be something discrete and that has a definite ending. Cleaning (or some other household chore) is a great productivity salve. That hit of accomplishment renews my faith in my ability and is usually the motivation I need to resume whatever I was feeling anxious or incompetent about.

Being productive is also a way I hold myself accountable for the passage of time. It might not seem like much, but when I’m feeling tired or worn out at the end of the day, I think about the different things I accomplished. My internal dialog goes something like this: “Hmm… I did this, this, this, and that today… no wonder I’m tired!”

At the start of the pandemic none of us knew how long we’d be relegated to home. (I refuse to call it being “in lock down” – that’s always seemed overly dramatic to me.) But, here in Ontario, at the outset we were told the schools would be shut for three weeks, so that timeframe got me thinking about various projects that I might tackle. You know – the kind of things you put off because they’re going to be a bit messy or maybe emotionally draining.

I didn’t actually write out a list, but a number of things quickly came to mind. I started by doing the Marie Kondo thing with my closet and drawers. (Not physically hard, but deciding what sparks joy can certainly be emotionally draining!) Feeling buoyed by culling and tidying up my bedroom, I moved on to doing touch-up painting in the living room – areas that only I knew needed touching up but that I had been meaning to get to for about a year.

When it became clear that all you could say about the pandemic “sheltering in” timeframe was that it was definitely indefinite, I realized that to get through it, I’d have to ramp up my tried-and-true coping mechanism. I needed to put some thought into real projects that – in a year’s time – I could point to as being something I accomplished during the pandemic.

A couple weeks ago I took on what I saw as the LAST project on my COVID list. It was last on my list for good reason: because it was daunting and something I’d been mulling over for at least a half-dozen years. I decided to re-finish my bedroom furniture.

I got the courage to tackle that project after a friend mentioned she was refinishing her bedroom set. In awe, I picked her brain about the process. And, when I knew they were out, I popped over to see it for myself. (I have a key to their place and I had asked if it would be ok if I let myself in to see it.) It looked terrific and she insisted that it was easy and virtually “smell free”. I did some research (read: watched lots of videos about it) and I decided to try. Besides the fact that almost any treatment would be an improvement in the way the furniture looked, I figured that in the end I’d have something substantive to show for how I spent my time during the pandemic.

As it happened, mid-project, I had a funny email exchange with another friend. When I told him I was working on the last item on my COVID list, he seemed suitably impressed, but couldn’t pass up the chance to tease me by asking, “But what if COVID goes on for some time yet?” Without skipping a beat, I jokingly replied, “Well, there’s always something else on my to do list”.

After I sent that email, the truth of my response hit me. The furniture refinishing was not the last thing I’d been meaning to get to for some time. A project I had started a few months ago but put aside out of frustration immediately came to mind. Then another project I didn’t get to last summer popped into my head. Then another, and yet another. Suddenly my head was spinning with projects I’ve either started but not continued or have been too afraid to even try.

A week or so after that email exchange, my bedroom furniture was dry enough to put back into place and to refill with my clothes and stuff. I’m thrilled to report that not only does it look great, the project gave me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. I’ll always remember it as one of the productive things that got me through the pandemic. But more importantly, it helped me realize that the only thing standing between me and those other daunting projects is the courage to stop putting them off.

None of us would have chosen to have life turned upside down by a pandemic. But I have to say, I’ve found it oddly motivating. And though not knowing how long it may go on is unsettling, that fact can be liberating too. After all, no reason to limit the items on your to-do list – just finish one and move on to the next…

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … viewed from behind someone else’s mask

By Ingrid Sapona       

The title of today’s column is an admittedly clumsy reference to the old saying about not judging someone until you’ve walked in their shoes. That adage, which is about practicing empathy, has weighed heavily on my mind during this pandemic.

Like many, I find wearing a face mask uncomfortable. I find them hot, they often fog up my glasses, they snag my upper eye lashes (which aren’t particularly long), and even my ears seem to get tired by the minor tugging of the elastic fasteners. Boohoo… right?

When I’m feeling especially annoyed from wearing a mask, I rein in my frustration by reminding myself that no matter how irksome the mask is, I’ll bet being on a respirator in the hospital is way more uncomfortable! I also think about healthcare workers who wear masks all day. Indeed, for them, masks are just the first of many layers they have to wear when dealing with COVID-19 patients. Talk about uncomfortable! And, when I’m tempted to tug the mask down or off, I think about how lucky I am that I barely have to give more than a passing thought to whether the mask is contaminated. Poor healthcare workers have to be as careful about how they take their mask off as they are when they suit up at the start of their shift.

But mask wearing isn’t the only activity that causes me to think about our heroic healthcare workers. As odd as it may sound, I think about them every time someone asks me to sign a waiver of liability before using their facilities or services. (For example, my sail club required members to sign a waiver before being allowed to launch their boat. Similarly, my condo board wants residents to sign a waiver before using the communal barbecue.) I completely understand the rationale for such waivers and I don’t have a problem with them. In fact, I think they’re a useful reminder to folks that the virus is still very real and that certain activities present higher risks. And I don’t blame businesses for wanting to limit their liability.

I wonder, however, if folks would equally willingly sign a waiver that said that if they get COVID-19 from undertaking riskier activities they’d agree to forego medical help. Every time someone quickly, perhaps unthinkingly, signs such a waiver and willingly assumes added risk, they’re also increasing the risk of burdening the healthcare system and healthcare workers, who don’t have a say in the decision that person made when signing the waiver. Maybe such waivers should include a caution that there’s no guarantee the healthcare system will be available if the system becomes overburdened as a result of folks who willingly assumed the risks associated with various activities.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was lots of talk about “flattening the curve”. The rationale behind that was the very real concern that the healthcare system would become overwhelmed if we didn’t slow down the rate of spread of the virus. The initial concerns related largely to insufficient supplies of things like N95 masks, personal protective equipment, and hospital ventilators. Those supply-chain problems have pretty much been sorted out, but the pressure, stress, strain, and danger healthcare workers face is on-going, even if it doesn’t get as much news play these days.

Though I believe that we’d slow the spread of the virus if people routinely wore masks when out and about, I get that it’s a contentious issue. And so, I understand why government authorities – and business owners – prefer to let people decide for themselves. My only wish is that when people weigh the pros and cons of wearing a mask, they think about how their decision might impact two groups: those whose health is precarious and the healthcare workers who’ll be called on to help those who become seriously ill due to COVID-19.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona