Sometimes I feel like I’m living in two worlds tugging each other in opposite directions as we careen down a hill. Maybe others feel the same way?

Just take a look at what’s been in the newspapers the last week. On one hand, I read some are disturbed about the indoor gathering limit being reduced in Maine from 100 to 50. On the other hand, many are tiptoeing around and being careful to get groceries and other staples delivered or from curbside pickup so they can avoid stepping into indoor public places. Many are attending religious services online to assure a safer way to worship.

I read that people are upset about youth hockey and similar sports being canceled, impacting their children’s emotional as well as physical health. Yet, I also read that others are upset about outbreaks caused by sports and some school closures because of student athletes who test positive. (One positive tested athlete, if exposing a team, means that students from different grades and cohorts have been exposed, thus sometimes resulting in a school closure).

I read about protests against masking. Some seem to feel their rights are violated. Others say masks make them feel uncomfortable. Yet others don’t believe they work.

Sometimes I’m reminded of my parents, who in the 1970s disliked the emerging seat belt recommendations and laws. Having taken driver’s ed, I had seen films about the need for seat belts and pestered them about it. My mother said seatbelts always felt too tight and constraining. They questioned if they were effective, given the circulating misinformation about internal injuries from seatbelts.

However, it didn’t take many months for their minds to change. Perhaps it was the pestering from their teenage daughter. Maybe it was them realizing how many people they actually knew who had died because they didn’t weren’t wearing a seatbelt. Or maybe it was the irritating high-pitched dinging noise their new car made, reminding my parents to buckle up.

They didn’t think twice about wearing seat belts after making it a habit. I’m sure if they were alive today, my parents would not relish wearing a mask. After all, none of us do. But I believe they would agree mask requirements do not take away their freedoms any more than seatbelts do, and that any discomfort and inconvenience are worth the costs. And one major difference — masks are not permanently needed.

Hopefully in a few months there won’t be a need for us to wear them.

The challenge of course, is that unlike the transition to seat belts, we don’t have months for people to adjust to masking. Especially now that winter is bearing down on us, so is the pandemic. I am reminded daily of our heroic nurses and other health professionals who are wearing tight-fitting N-95 masks with face shields or hoods, gloves, and full protective outfits for more than 12 hours per day. They tell me they often find it easier to and choose to work an entire shift without a meal break because of the time and effort it takes to don and doff this protective equipment. I know some of them are anxious, because they see a steady increase of very sick patients showing up on hospital doorsteps, desperate for help.

I read that people feel the pandemic cannot be too bad, since they don’t even know of anyone with the disease, or if they do, the person recovered. And if it were so common, then why don’t they know of anyone who has died from it? As grim as the data are, it’s often hard for us to realize how severe this pandemic is until it hits us close to home.

However, it may be helpful to look at the other leading causes of death — cancer, heart disease, or unintentional injuries (car crashes, drug overdoses). Most of us probably know too many people who have tragically died of each of these. However, in any given eight-month period, it’s not uncommon that we don’t personally know someone well who has passed from each of these.

For instance, I know plenty of people who have tragically died in car crashes or of cancer over the years, but (thankfully) no one I know very well has died from either of these the last eight months. The same may be true with COVID. We may or may not know someone well who has passed from it this last eight months. But that doesn’t make it uncommon.

I read that people feel the pandemic is not too bad, since mainly old people are dying from it. It may help for us to be reminded that this is true of most of the leading causes of death. Older people are much more likely to die from these diseases than younger people are. This is true of cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Yet I believe all of us think these diseases deserve our collective attention — including how to prevent and treat them — even if they strike older people more than those who are younger.

This last week we honored those serving our country by observing Veterans Day. The origin of this day was at 11 am on Nov. 11, 1918, when the armistice between the Allies and Germany went into effect to end World War I. President Woodrow Wilson remarked how a diverse coalition had come together and were victorious, and how the armistice “foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of common interests.”

However, as is somewhat the case now as well as with the original Armistice Day, there were two wars. The world had not only been at war against each other, but also against the 1918 pandemic with influenza. In fact, 85% of the 53,000 American military personnel who died in World War I died of the pandemic.

As is the case today, there were also efforts to de-emphasize the pandemic and to keep life as normal as possible. But the data from those times are clear. Several studies show those communities that recognized the science and pulled together to help each other, recovered sooner and better than those that did not.

When we’re in the same pew, the same team, and the same side working for the common good, we can, as the hymn says, rise together on eagle’s wings and shine like the sun. We need to keep faith — in science, in our common humanity, and in the universal Golden Rule of treating others as you would want to be treated. But it’s not enough to keep the faith, we also need to spread it by working together. Indeed, working together, we are stronger.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills is the chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth and former head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.


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