Internal Medicine, UCLA
Los Angeles, CA
This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
The other day, I was out running before a night shift at the hospital. Near the shuttered Santa Monica Pier, a cry from across the street caught my attention.
A seventy-something woman lay sprawled on the sidewalk. She had clearly tripped. Just as I was about to call out, a passing jogger instinctively reached down to help.
Slashing an elbow at him, she snarled, “Get off!” Her eyes bugged out.
The jogger backed away to six feet, his hands raised in contrition. Shaking her head, the woman got up and moved on. After some moments of stunned silence, he did too.
In other times, the woman might’ve welcomed the jogger’s attention, even embraced it. But this is the time of coronavirus. His instinctive concern provoked instinctive fear. His offer of help immediately became an act of endangerment. This is our new normal.
Running along the oceanfront palisades, I thought about how the pandemic has deprived us of the most basic gestures of care. We have lost hugs and kisses, handshakes and handholds, fist bumps and playful tackles, shoulder pats and cheek pinches, intimate caresses, and unmasked smiles. Our opportunities to converse face-to-face, lean in to listen, or just sit side-by-side have thinned out. The basic kindness of a helping hand has become suspect.
Some version of this new normal – fear, masks, intentional distancing – will continue for months, if not years. It may take that long to ease the burden of disease from COVID-19. But what if it takes even longer to reckon with the loss of love?
Physical distancing inevitably curtails everyday expressions of solidarity and affection. It eliminates treasured forms of togetherness with family and friends. It may deprive the cognitively impaired of the interactions that anchor them to our shared reality. For some people with disabilities, it can cut off meaningful social contact entirely.
In the hospital, too, chasms have opened between the suffering and those around them. I rarely touch patients these days; when I do, it’s always through a layer of purple gloving. No longer do I shake hands or sit at the foot of the bed to chat. For patients afflicted with COVID-19 and their families, pandemic measures have often meant saying goodbye without a last embrace or squeeze of the hand.
If (as the psychologists say) each of us needs four hugs a day to survive, eight to sustain ourselves, and twelve to thrive, how do we compensate for the hundreds of millions of hugs going missing every day? How do we connect to other humans desperate for support? How do we find new and creative ways to express our care?
When I raised these questions, friends offered an outpouring of inspiration. A pregnant woman and an obstetrician talked about their complementary experiences of prenatal visits, full of imaginary embraces, elbow bumps, and attentive listening. A colleague shared her solution to the dearth of chumminess at work: foot-fives. Others noted that even the basic courtesy of pedestrians moving aside for each other had taken on a new poignancy. Some described herculean efforts to bring ICU patients and their families together through video calls.
As a therapist friend pointed out, such measures are just a stopgap; ultimately, nothing can take the place of physical connection. But until we figure out how to live the long pandemic, we have to recover some of what we’ve lost. As I learned from my friends, creative ideas for expressing care exist all around us.
As I walked into the hospital workroom after that disquieting run, a doctor and a custodian broke into boisterous laughter. They had both paused their toil for an intense conversation about hot wings. Their smiles were hidden, their words muffled, the fist bumps and backslaps of better days supplanted by head nods and bows.
But in that moment, in that room, the subtext of their exchange reverberated clearly: I care about you. And somehow, we’ll get through this together.
Utpal Sandesara is a Los Angeles-based physician-anthropologist and co-author of the book No One Had a Tongue to Speak. His abiding anthropological interests include health inequalities, the culture of medicine, and the behavior of imaginary dinosaurs (specifically his toddler’s). He looks forward to the return of profligate hugging.