Personal Health or PPE?

The Hidden Truth of Battling Coronavirus

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Take care of your health, it could save your life.

The number one factor to successful interaction with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that precludes COVID-19) is health. A healthy immune system, healthy cardiorespiratory function, and the absence of obesity, diabetes, and other complicating variables are essential to successfully overcoming infection.

But even being young and healthy cannot eliminate the risks of coronavirus. Although they are not common, tragic stories like the sudden passing of 30-year-old Ben Luderer make the nature of risk uncertain.

The only absolute way to not die from coronavirus is to not contract it.

To limit the likelihood of contraction, the CDC recommendations of social distancing and mask wearing (assuming proper mask hygiene) should be followed. While there is popular debate regarding the effectiveness of these methods, the research currently suggests that this is the ideal practice.

These ideas can be true at the same time. A healthy body can be the best way to fight off the disease and masks and social distancing can help limit the spread of the disease.

Still, a debate is building which sets “personal health” enthusiasts at odds with “masks are a must” devotees.

One side says personal health is the key to staying safe in the pandemic. In some cases, gyms are pushing back against local government, insisting that fitness matters more than supercilious government guidelines.

At the same time, those who are adamant about mask-wearing have given rise to the phenomenon of mask-shaming. Those public-health vigilantes do not always recognize that the country’s multi-billion-dollar obesity epidemic is a complicating factor that cannot be dismissed.

It’s a mess.

The trouble is that popular media has turned a discussion into an argument. One side has been unwittingly pitted against the other. Instead of working together through the pandemic it seems that journalists, Twitter trolls, and certain public figures have polarized what should have been a simple and harmonious idea: take care of yourself through personal health, and take care of your neighbor by limiting the spread.

What makes this so concept so difficult?

From a psychological perspective, it seems to fit in the realm of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance refers to a psychological state wherein “two or more modes of thought contradict each other” in a person’s mind. This is an uncomfortable position.

For example, one might believe that mask-wearing could be effective but maintain a strong emotional resistance because those in their circle are vocal to the contrary.

The “mental discord” that arises will usually force someone into a sort of resolution. Resolutions can include ignoring information which contradicts a held belief, combatting that new information, or restructuring the original belief (changing one’s mind).

The most interesting component of this debate is that no one has to be wrong. The only real concession to be made is to the recognition that both perspectives are true. It is good to have a healthy body and prevent the spread of the virus by satisfying CDC recommendations.

Again, why does this seem so difficult?

There is a more basic psychological phenomenon at play here. Fear. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. At the time of this writing, there have been nearly 800,000 deaths. Many more have suffered greatly in physical, professional, and emotional ways. This is a scary time.

In a state of fear, the sympathetic nervous system induces the familiar fight or flight response. When the enemy is not clear or the threat is as ambiguous as a pandemic or professional insecurity, then the human mind has been known to manufacture enemies. We give these abstractions a name and a face. And we fight.

The problem arises when the basic ability to differentiate becomes a rigid and polarized worldview,” notes author Ofer Zur, PhD, adding that “in this framework ‘good’ is always associated with ‘us’ and ‘evil’ with ‘them’ (‘not us’),” (Zur, 1991). We turn camps of thought into opposing teams – we look for differences instead of similarities.

At the farthest ends of this style of thinking we find war and terror. In the day-to-day version we find division and anger.

It seems that the missing component of this particular public health discussion is humility.

One could imagine the sincere need, from every perspective and in most debates, for humility. Science is mobile. In good science, all “true” statements are examined and many evolve.

The best science available once concluded that the earth was the center of the universe. That science evolved. Professor Stuart Firestein of Columbia University notes in his book, Ignorance: How it Drives Science, that “the best science can really be seen as refining ignorance,” (Firestein, 57) and notes that a thoughtful approach leads not to judgement or certainty, but to a fresh new set of questions. It evolves.

Which is why humility matters.

It is possible that masks are not as effective as the current science claims. That might come to light someday. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wear masks based on the science of today.

It is also possible that a healthy body is not as effective at staving off the virus as we currently believe. Scientists might discover that there is a specific genetic predisposition to one’s vulnerability to COVID-19 and no amount of healthy living can protect those who are at risk. But that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make our personal health a priority.

So what should we do?

The hidden truth is that we should prioritize our health and wellness, which will give us the best shot at fending off the virus, and we should do our best to adhere to public health recommendations, which will give us the best shot at limiting the spread of the virus. We should cooperate. We should listen to all credible perspectives.

Importantly, we should remain curious and humble, and be willing to adjust our behaviors as new science appears. And we should equip ourselves with a more patient and thoughtful approach to complex ideas.

Whenever emotions are involved – including fear – we should practice slowing down, gathering facts, maintaining humility, and progressing not with judgement but with curiosity.

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