A pandemic of worries

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Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a worrywart. I would often redo my homework in a bid for perfection, and I’d repeatedly study for tests. (Although this resulted in reasonably good grades, it was no help when it came to getting a decent score on the math SAT.)

Excessive worrying followed me into adulthood – which is why I started going gray in my 20s. And with that kind of a track record, it’s easy to imagine how being in the midst of a pandemic has intensified my worrying.

My concerns include many of the issues we’re all dealing with, and these will be the topic of today’s column, which I call “COVID-19 Pandemic Worrying 101”:

• Virtual versus real-world living: As I wrote last month, I tried to make the best of it when a favorite road race and major charitable event were forced online. They turned out well enough, as I pushed myself in the 5K despite running alone, and the virtual Relay For Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society featured many aspects of the in-person relay. Yet both events left me with an empty feeling –they weren’t nearly as spiritually or emotionally fulfilling as the live events they had replaced. That’s because people thrive on human interaction at such events.

Races are meant to be both athletic competitions and a chance to socialize, while the strength of a fundraiser such as the Relay For Life is its human connections.

Watching videos of survivors and luminaries dedicated to cancer victims and survivors can be inspirational, but the experience is infinitely more meaningful if you are actually there, watching survivors circle a track lit up by the luminaires.

But, of course, that would fly in the face of government and health officials’ repeated warnings that we must adhere to “social distancing” as the “new normal.” These officials’ lack of empathy for what we humans are missing is why I’m extremely worried about our future – especially when I hear so-called experts speculate that handshakes and hugs will become history. Such an outcome would strip us of our basic humanity.

• Eating out: I worry whether the new restrictions will ever be lifted so we can once again feel at ease while eating at restaurants. The current rules for dining out in Rhode Island and Massachusetts might be necessary, but they’re still too severe to let most people feel relaxed. That’s why I still prefer getting take-out food and eating it at home.

• Attending concerts, shows and sporting events: I wonder whether these events will ever be the same. In order to attend, will we all be required to have a smartphone (I still own a “dumb” flip one) that reveals, Big-Brother style, our personal medical data? Will we be unable to sit next to anyone, depriving us of companionship and conversation? Will large gatherings be off-limits to people older than 60 as ageism becomes both acceptable and encouraged in a society where senior citizens are not viewed as part of the general population? Will wearing masks become permanent as government bureaucrats try to impose even more control over our lives; will we be told to wear them constantly in an attempt to reduce the spread of the common cold and the flu? That may sound extreme, but all bets are off these days.

• Travel: My wife and I will soon be mostly retired, and we had planned on traveling, especially to warmer climates during the winter. We also wanted to take some big trips, such as visiting Alaska. But now – between the rules in other states, on airlines and at hotels and resorts – I wonder if this is feasible.

Even taking a short vacation has become problematic. Going to Maine, for instance, where we’ve spent a week in past summers, wouldn’t be possible now as the state has a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for all out-of-state tourists, except for those from Vermont and New Hampshire, unless you can produce a negative test result taken within 72 hours – which isn’t practical considering the lack of testing for those who are asymptomatic.

The bottom line: Traveling has become so restrictive that staycations appear to be the only sensible solution for the foreseeable future.

• Schools and colleges: I worry that too many academic institutions will fall back on offering virtual instruction or a mix of classroom and online learning. That approach may be deemed necessary, but it will unquestionably cheat today’s students out of what they deserve: a well-rounded education that includes participation in extracurricular activities and sports. Trying to be excessively cautious is one thing, but at what point does that approach become harmful to students?

Although different eras can’t be compared, it’s telling that when I started school in the late 1950s, I did so without a polio vaccine (in my early elementary years, I received both the Salk and Sabin vaccines). In addition, in this era when it seems that large swaths of the American public are unaware of history beyond what can be found on the latest social media posts, it’s instructive to remember that before immunizations became routine for chicken pox, mumps, measles and German measles, students were expected to get these diseases, and to “share” them with their siblings. The Boston schools were never closed to protect against the spread of these diseases; I got them all.

Finally, I worry about whether we’ll ever get back even part of our “old normal” lives.

LARRY KESSLER (larrythek65@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro.