New Yorkers and Trauma: From 9/11 to Corona Pandemic
Many New Yorkers going through the coronavirus crisis also lived through the terror attack of September 11, 2001. If you are one of them you are probably asking yourself why these two traumatic events feel so very different. Both events are essentially terror attacks: one by Islamic extremists and the other by a virus. Both have killed thousands of New Yorkers. But there is one critical difference: on 9/11 Americans were drawn towards each other. We saw one another as a source of comfort, camaraderie, commiseration and security. The coronavirus causes us to see each other as potential threats; as carriers of a deadly disease. We do not see each other as a source of comfort or safety, but rather see each other as potential murderers. This blog will discuss the consequences of this difference for individuals and society.
Implications for the Individual
Isolation. During 9/11 we healed and recovered by congregating. We wept together. We prayed together. We held each other. We protected each other. Coronavirus requires that we go it alone. We must stay in our homes. Our churches and temples are closed. Our schools are closed. We have been warned to stay away from our parents, friends and even our children. We cannot touch each other. We cannot even touch what another has touched unless we sterilize it first or us after. If we see someone while walking down the street we shun them. We cross the street. We avoid eye contact because we are afraid to be breathed on. We are hyperaware of the health of others and we shudder if they cough or sneeze. We no longer gain comfort from each other. We fear each other. And sometimes we resent each other. Those that wear masks in public resent those who do not. Those who maintain social distance become angered at those who don’t.
Trust. We have lost almost all trust for our fellow citizens. In most cases this is not due to the presumption of malfeasance, but rather, due to the concern that others are not careful enough and that they might be spreading virus because they do not know they are sick. In some cases there has been malfeasance. Individuals have been observed being around others knowing that they are infected. In some cases individuals have lied about being infected in order to get some sort of service. For example one individual lied about having been exposed because the person knew their elective surgery would be cancelled. So the person lied about it and then, after the surgery, informed the staff. Our leaders are not helping with trust. They publicly express their distrust of each other’s actions and motives. Our Governor has been accused of hoarding resources. Our president has been accused of apathy and incompetence. Our two parties do not trust each other with emergency funding. Even the medical professionals seem at odds with each other on topics such as public use of masks, hydroxychloroquine use for coronavirus, and when we can return to work.
Blame. Press conferences have been turned into blame fests. Occluding the efforts of some to convey information and hope are others who seek to blame politicians, municipalities, institutions, other countries, and even the World Health Organization (WHO) for not acting correctly or quickly enough. When humans are put in situations that they perceive to be helpless, where they have no control, they often blame others. While this may provide some short term emotional relief for some individuals, it generally serves no long term purpose and comes at a very large price: the breakdown of our social structure.
Implications for Society
The structure of our society is in jeopardy. 9/11 brought people together and strengthened society through solidarity. The coronavirus pandemic causes isolation, distrust and blame, resulting in conflict and alienation. These feelings are amplified by the daily increases in sickness and death that are reported with concerns about limited resources available to treat the sick. This rapidly accelerates the alienation and society moves towards its breaking point. This is where individuals come to prefer isolation to participating in society. Does that seem hard to imagine? The pandemic has raised the cost of participating in society as high as it can go. You put your life on the line. As fear increases, so does the perception of risk. Once the risk exceeds the benefit, most people choose staying alive. Even before the pandemic, there were forces pushing us apart: political strife, racism, income inequality, immigration, etc. And then came coronavirus. Technology increases and encourages isolation and alienation. The trend toward being homebound was emerging through the explosion of internet gaming and entertainment, employer support of working from home and the growth of services designed to bring everything outside of the home to your door (e.g. Amazon.com, Grubhub, etc.). The pandemic has supercharged the progression of these trends. We also have lost the marketplace; a critical structure for social gatherings and trade since early times. We lost our restaurants, which serve as meeting places and venues for celebration. This further drives us apart and pushes us to society’s breaking point. We must do something now.
What we can do
Change in attitude. First, despite the current need for social distancing, we must view each other as comrades. We must understand that we are all scared and we all want to survive. We cannot provide physical comfort to each other right now. We cannot hug and we cannot shake hands. But we must develop an alliance based on a primary commitment to take care of each other. We must demonstrate that in every way that we can including, but not limited to, the following:
Take responsibility for the safety of others. This is paramount in order to reestablish trust. Here are some ways you can do this:
You must self-quarantine. Being around others when you are sick is seen as a betrayal.
Wear a mask in public. Do this to protect others, even if you don’t think it will protect you.
Give people space. Do not crowd them while waiting to get into supermarkets or other public areas.
Take responsibility for the comfort of others. This involves respecting that everyone is frightened now and many individuals are desperate. They fear for their lives. They fear for their lifestyles and many fear for their jobs and businesses. Here are some ways you can increase the comfort of others:
Respect the fears of others. Do not encourage others to do things that do not feel safe. If they don’t feel comfortable with take-out meals, do not try to coax them. If they are afraid to go to the supermarket, do not try to get them to go. Meet their fears with kindness and understanding.
Don’t ridicule others for trying to protect themselves or their families. Do not grimace at them when they express fear that they are sick or getting sick because they saw someone cough or touched a surface without a glove. Show them compassion and understanding.
Reach out to others when possible and offer to get them groceries or supplies if they are afraid to go out or if delivery is unavailable.
Take responsibility for the maintenance of society. We will return to our community and our society when it is safer to do so. We must prepare for this by preserving our social structures. Here are some ways that you do this.
Preservation of the family structure. This is the most important social structure we have. For family members that you are quarantined with, show tolerance and understanding for the plight of others. Children have suddenly lost access to their school, their friends and their routines. This is not the time to increase discipline and obedience. For family members that are at distal locations, it is important to maintain frequent contact and whenever possible to congregate as a family. This can be done with audio and video conferencing as well as use of the US mail. Send pictures and videos back and forth.
Preservation of other family structures. Clubs, associations and affiliations should be kept active from afar. Chat groups among congregants, parents, even poker buddies will keep these structures active so that they can readily be reengaged as soon as it is safe to do so.
Preservation of the community. We must try to maintain connection with our neighbors by showing respect for the survival and well-being of all of your fellow residents. Do not hoard food or supplies. If you have a good supply of toilet paper or hand sanitizer, share with others less fortunate. Hoarding is a natural tendency when people perceive scarcity but it is toxic to our sense of community. Show respect for public areas. Do not litter or crowd. Whenever possible support local businesses, government and municipal employees, such as police, ambulance and fire, and the front line health care workers. These are heros that are risking their lives to keep you safe and well. Let them know that you appreciate their service. Offer gratuity where possible and appropriate.
The above suggestions for preserving our community are general principles of healthy social functioning that have been adapted to the current pandemic. This is especially urgent at this time. The principles themselves, of preserving community and social structures should be practiced whether or not there is a pandemic.
Be safe and keep others safe. Be well and honor the wellness of others. We are stronger together even when we must avoid physical contact.