Strange Times

The past week has been one of the strangest and most fluid in recent memory. We had a national emergency, a roller coaster stock market, travel restrictions, and the World Health Organization declared a global health pandemic. We even got in a full moon, time change, and a Friday the 13th for good measure. But it wasn’t just strange in an abstract way; witnessing panic-buying behavior and empty store shelves, coupled with news of school closures and rippling nationwide event cancellations drove the potential catastrophic impact uncomfortably close to home for many.

The threat of the coronavirus, at least to me, has felt much more personal than abstract, especially because as an immunosuppressed person I fall into the high-risk category. Sadly for me, I also spent about nine days since late February sick at home with some kind of cold – coughing, sneezing, stuffy, and aching. (I recovered and am OK now.) I was more annoyed than scared, but it was disconcerting given the broader context and optics of “looking sick.”

Other factors magnified the personal effects of the health crisis for me, too. The streets of northern Virginia and DC are emptier than I have seen them since the Snowmageddon of 2010. My social media feeds are full of anxiety, confusion, and anger. I just had four of my five remaining trainings before we move to Mexico cancelled, postponed, or moved online.

And a couple nights ago after work, I spent almost three hours across five different stores looking for toilet paper. I did eventually get some, but only because V – the usual grocery warrior of our home – was down with a fever and I was determined not to fail. These are strange times, my friends.

This past week, I was lucky enough to be in the Basic Leadership Skills course (PK245) where we explored leadership and management principles, feedback, emotional intelligence, influencing up, and challenging conversations. I really found some of the practical tools and methodologies helpful and hope they will make me a better leader and manager in my upcoming assignment, where I will rate and help supervise several entry-level officers.

Despite being busy and engaged in my course and details of my upcoming PCS, I could not help but notice that FSI was like a ghost town. The cafeteria honestly looked busier the day after Thanksgiving, despite the fact that both A-100 and Civil Service orientation were in session.

As recently as a few weeks ago, I don’t recall ever having heard the phrase “social distancing,” but it’s already become a household term. My only recent social meetings – lunch with a former Tashkent colleague who now works in the El Paso area, and a dinner we hosted last weekend after I used Lysol wipes on every doorknob and surface in our apartment – already seem kind of ill-advised.

Speaking of distancing, I have tried harder to limit my mindless scrolling through social media too. On one hand, social media provides a “socially distanced” forum for support, information, entertainment, and laughs. It can help us check on faraway loved ones and avoid social isolation to some degree.

On the other hand, social media can also be a platform for polarizing discourse, misinformation, and echo chambers.

The majority of people in my life are emotionally intelligent, thoughtful, and well-informed. But a few rants from stubborn, self-righteously indignant people who just. don’t. get. why things are being cancelled and that it’s not all about them and their inconvenience – and the ensuing comments – struck a chord. In particular I was frustrated by some ignorance about basic epidemiology and each person’s role in flattening the curve (or not).

I do believe it is valid to criticize long-term school and work cancellations on the basis of their inherent social and structural inequities, though. For example, not every family has a parent who is available to homeschool their children for weeks or months on end at the drop of a hat (as many diplomats quarantined in an overseas context must suddenly navigate). Not every job is telework-ready or appropriate, and most of the jobs that aren’t also have no paid leave benefits. And not every person has the privilege of staying home and reveling in their newfound gift of “free time” without losing their small business or worrying about where their next meal is coming from. Instead of posts that reek of privilege, I wish I saw more acknowledgment and concern about how our neighbors are doing.

For example, a post I saw admonishing grocery shoppers to avoid contact with others by ordering in all of their food did not seem to take into account the fact that – right or wrong – some low-paid wage worker in the service industry has to go to work to facilitate those deliveries. The answers have to go beyond grassroots. We have few solutions, and even fewer listeners.

While I am more likely than the average person to catch the virus due to my underlying health conditions, I can also protect myself to a greater extent with my own financial and healthcare safety net, while many others cannot. And some of those people, ladies and gentlemen, are why we all need to stay home to the extent possible in the near term. You can in fact be both simultaneously contagious and asymptomatic, and your minor illness could be another person’s (or my) hospitalization.

Some people are just disappointed about letting go of things they looked forward to, like a trip or concert, and venting. But what worries me is that in other cases there is a demonstrable failure to grasp that our medical system is not equipped to deal with the damage they could cause with the “stay home if you’re worried, let the rest of us live our lives” mentality. They are the people who, for example, ignore evacuation orders in a crisis and drive their cars onto a flooded road. Then they get stuck, cry for help, and require finite public resources and others to endanger themselves to carry out a rescue.

And the memes about toilet paper and hand sanitizer shortages continue, a bit of dark comic relief, while the death toll mounts. The self-indulgence and vapidity of society never surprises me, but the willful lack of empathy and refusal – or even inability – to leave one’s own bubble stings unexpectedly. The strangeness of the veil of civility dropping, the fault lines between those with privilege and access and those without, our animal instincts laid more and more bare each day.

On a more outward-looking and positive note I recommend the March 13 edition of the Death, Sex & Money podcast Alone Together: A COVID 19 Call-In if you want to hear nuanced, diverse, and smart thoughts on this topic.

Spring is starting to appear around the Foreign Service Institute

Thinking about leadership for a moment, if there is an easy-win outcome I hope for out of the pandemic scare, it would be reframing how we think of U.S. work culture vis-a-vis our health. In the leadership course, I sat by an A-100 colleague who handed me a throat lozenge after I coughed. I sat unconsciously flattening the wrapper against my pant leg, and then noticed there were little sayings on it. “Nothing you can’t handle.” “Go for it.” “Impress yourself today.” “You can do it and you know it.” “Put your game face on.” “Buckle down and push forth!”

Foreign Service Problems Tumblr

What about… “The work will still be there tomorrow.” “Take care of yourself and those around you.” “You don’t have to be the hero today.”

Or, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”

I generally refuse to let coronavirus fears get the better of me, and I also refuse to fearfully tinker with my investment portfolio strategies. For someone who isn’t retiring for at least another 25 years, Buy Low and Sell High is my mantra.

The feeling of buying right before the market regains its footing

Buckle up friends, and let’s ride out these strange times safely together.

Sarah W Gaer

Author, Speaker, Thought Leader

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