COVID-19: No one is immune from the “new normal.”

Reflections amid the pandemic… By Karen Hendricks

You know the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction?” It rings true as we live through this pandemic. Nothing feels “normal” although plenty of us are referring to our new daily routines as our “new normal.”

Like last week’s trip to the grocery store—ordinarily a pretty routine task. But I don’t usually feel dread in the pit of my stomach or have to mentally prepare myself before the normally-mundane grocery trip. Maybe it was because I equipped myself with everything short of a plastic bubble—hand sanitizer, gloves, and bandana-turned-facemask. Taped arrows on the store’s floors pointed the way. I found myself involuntarily smiling at grocery store employees as they greeted me—from a safe distance of six feet away—but my smile froze under my mask as I remembered that: a) they couldn’t see it and b) the conditions didn’t really lend themselves toward being friendly. Neither one of which should be normal.

I tried following the arrows, and I tried not to judge other shoppers who weren’t arrow-followers. It was hard. I just wanted to zig-zag my way through the store, snagging the 15-or-so items on my list and get the heck out of there. One-way aisles with arrows threw a few curveballs into my plan. So did some of the eerily empty shelves.

I also tried avoiding people, which felt unnatural and wrong. Most shoppers had masks on like myself, which was honestly a bit scary. It felt like a crazy dream with a bizarre storyline about caricatured bank robbers. But then I spotted a few shoppers without masks. I didn’t know whether to feel mad or sad. But I definitely wanted to avoid them. What if they had COVID-19? It felt like fear and anxiety were lurking around every corner, every thought. And that shouldn’t be normal. I really wished it was all a bad dream from which I could wake up and shake off. None of us like living like this.

But this virus has taken hold of our lives, our routines, our culture and our country. No one is immune from being affected—the least of which are the thousands of people who have contracted COVID-19 and died as a result. I know I should feel lucky to be healthy, to be able to work from home, to have a home. We use the phrase “during these challenging times” a lot. Most of the time, I’m up for the challenge and I can keep a healthy and positive perspective, based on the facts and news, with a  healthy respect for those in our leadership and governmental roles. But sometimes the challenge and situation feels overwhelming. It hurts to see people hurting.

As a society, we Americans don’t like being told what to do. Our “normal” human habits and paths are being rerouted, detoured and cut off. The American dream is at stake for small business owners forced to close for this time of social distancing. My heart goes out to all of them, and as much as I want to encourage them to keep the faith, the likelihood is that they can’t all survive.

We also cherish our freedom in America. Freedom of religion is alive and well, as most churches creatively and ingeniously take services online. Freedom of speech is also alive—although many are questioning whether it is “well.”

Yesterday, hundreds of people rallied at our state capitol in Harrisburg. These pandemic protesters waved American flags, held handmade signs, many stood shoulder-to-shoulder, and only a few wore masks. Basically, these protesters exercised their freedom of speech. In a nutshell, drawing from the media reports, they were protesting “the new normal” and they want life to go back to “normal”—to their jobs and workplaces.

Those are all facts. But the judgments were levied on social media. And that’s when it hit me in the gut: This pandemic, for a little while, halted us in our tracks and therefore halted a lot of the hate—especially political partisanship and the great divides in American opinion. It was pushed to the background, where it’s been simmering on the proverbial backburner. We all had bigger fish to fry for a few weeks. But with weekend protests in other states, and then our own Pennsylvania protest yesterday, it feels like “the great divides” are boiling once again.

You could feel the hate, anger, frustration and anxiety through social media comments, in response to yesterday’s rally. Insults were hurled at the protesters from all directions—for their lack of social distancing, for the grammatical errors on their signs, for their “stupidity,” and there were those who said they hoped all the protesters came down with the virus. There was even one rogue comment, containing a grammatical error itself, that attacked the media for “framing” the story because the headline, “Hundreds rally at state Capitol to protest shutdown, to ‘reopen PA,’” didn’t say the opposite—that most Pennsylvanians stayed home.

Good journalism summarizes a story in the headline and tells the story in the paragraphs to follow (and the story I’m referring to, did this). Good journalism also reveals new perspectives—ones we may not have considered before—and attempts to uncover motivations. So what motivated people to rally? For many, it appeared to be loss of a job, loss of a way of life, and fear. For others, it appeared to be a black and white case of support of our president and hatred of our governor’s political party—especially his ability to affect change over our way of life. A politicization of the pandemic.

We are living in a gray area that a lot of us are calling “unprecedented.” Most of us are muddling through as best we can. I think one conclusion we can draw is that we’re all mourning the loss of control over our lives. It’s just that we’re expressing that loss in different ways.

At one end of the spectrum are those who are expressing hatred, attacking others and twisting facts and current events to suit their agendas. When people lash out, attack or insult, those actions made under stress reveal their motivation and true character.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have those being lauded by many as heroes—healthcare workers, emergency responders, grocery store workers, medical and scientific researchers, and lots of people doing good. My neighbor is one of these people—she’s baking cookies today and delivering them in cheer packages. Another friend donated dozens of pizzas to a hospital. A teacher friend is uploading daily French and Spanish Facebook lessons. Lots of friends are sewing and donating facemasks, calling and zooming to check on friends and family. These are “the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers called them. Their actions, to bridge gaps and divides, to heal and help—to reach through this time of social distancing with a human touch—reveal their motivation and true character as well.

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