Friday, July 17, 2020

The Sure Perspective we Need to Cope with COVID and Get Back to Living Normal Happy Lives

Since we have entered into the COVID-19 world, we have become fixated on death statistics as too many of us watch daily the testing and death numbers for the COVID-19 pandemic. The weather app on my phone has a daily COVID-19 update. It’s an eerie thing to check a daily death count the way you would the weather (not that I do that, but hey, someone is or it wouldn't still be there). Even if you try to step away from it, you can’t, it’s everywhere. It’s practically been the only story in the news for months. For far too many people it has altered every step they take and everything they do since it began. Never have Americans been more focused on counting deaths from a particular cause, and never in American history have we reacted to a pandemic threat in such an extreme way. With such an extreme societal reaction to address the pandemic, and a 24/7 media focus on COVID-19 infections and death counts, it's not surprising that mental health is a more wide spread side effect of the pandemic then COVID deaths. I thought about the impact COVID has had on our national mental health today when my sincere and kindly friend wrote this compassionate massage on her Facebook profile: 

“It was horrible to think, at this point with 100,000 lives cut short, if we wanted take 1 year to honor the lives of those who have died from COVID-19, we'd have to give eulogies for at least 273 lives each day. (If you just gave 5 minutes to memorialize each person, that'd be 1365 minutes, almost 23 hours each day...)” 

As critical as I have been about the way governments have handled the COVID-19 threat; as concerned as I am about the serious consequences that have come, and still await us in the future because of our collective reaction to this pandemic, I am not insensitive of the cost in lives and the fear and trauma we have all experienced during this time. We have all dealt with it in different ways, and we all worry about different components of the experience in different degrees, but we are all suffering it together.

It would be another tragedy if, in the fog of current events, the death count is the only tragedy we recognize in this pandemic. It isn’t the only thing that has been lost and COVID deaths are not the only threats we collectively face. Are 100,000 deaths tragic? Of course they are!! Every death is tragic, and the loss of 100,000 Americans in three months from a cause that has struck us by surprise is traumatizing. It carries the shock and trauma that accompanies every natural disaster that leaves thousands dead in its wake. It’s like a tsunami that hits and in a blink of an eye hundreds of thousands of lives are lost. — Lives lost — but also livelihoods and property destroyed. We should mourn, we will mourn, we must mourn — BUT we must keep living.

One important coping mechanism in tragedy is grounding ourselves in perspective. It’s hard to do sometimes, it’s like grasping for something sure to hold onto as a tsunami wave is trying to drag you down, but unless you manage it you will not survive. For me that sure perspective has come by looking at the current pandemic in historical terms and by putting the cost in lives in the perspective of the threats we've lived with everyday before the COVID-19 pandemic. For me looking at the facts in this way prompts me to ask critical questions that have resulted in finding reliable answers that have helped me to confidently gauge my reactions to the threat. When it comes to collective decisions our leaders make in reaction to this threat, its imperative that they keep this big picture perspective or the collateral trauma will be far more destructive. This is also true with individuals.

So, while we check our daily COVID numbers on our weather app, adding to the wave of trauma as we try to mourn the loss of human life around us, it may be helpful to get some perspective from the overall death statistics we rarely think about but have been living with every year. Mental health is far more likely to be negatively affected if people facing a threat like COVID don't step back and try to gain this perspective.

Here are some facts that have helped me calmly cope with COVID-19:

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a tsunami, it differs from a natural disaster in some key ways, 1) COVID is a virus that will likely be here to stay in one way or another. 2) Unlike many of the illnesses Americans deal with on a daily basis, viruses are very difficult to prevent or contain. 3) Viruses are an ever present condition of life on earth and we must continue living normally in spite of their presence. And 4) Fortunately most highly contagious viruses are less deadly then preventative illnesses.

Here are some facts about illness and death:

Around 74% of all deaths in the United States occur as a result of 10 causes. Over the past 5 years, the main causes of death in the U.S. have remained fairly consistent. 

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
  • Diabetes: 83,564
  • Influenza and pneumonia: 55,672
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,633
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173

The top 10 causes of death in the US kill over 2 million people a year. While each one of those deaths is mourned by those who love them, each one matters, we don’t mourn them collectively; mainly because as human beings we can’t process tragedy so far removed from us and if we did we would go crazy. 

It’s important to understand basic realities about common death and how COVID compares because it’s the perspective that will help return us to normal life, perhaps a bit more health conscious, but back to living without fear. 

  • Approximately 8.6% of the US population dies each year, but COVID will kill a fraction of 1%.
  • According to the CDC, the current best estimate for the fatality rate among Americans with COVID-19 symptoms is .4%.
  • The CDC also estimates that 35% of people infected by the COVID-19 virus never develop symptoms. Those numbers imply that the virus kills less than .3% of people infected by it.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2.1 million people live in nursing homes or residential care facilities, representing 0.6% of the U.S. population.
  • Nursing home residents account for 42% of all deaths from COVID-19, for states that report such statistics.
  • Flu results in approximately 40,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, nearly all of which are in the older adult population.
  • Infections related to the regular flu season and the emerging COVID virus are most often multiple morbidity deaths.
  • It is certain that deaths from COVID and deaths from COVID will overlap, vulnerable populations can die from one or the other but they can’t die twice.
  • 100,000 people have died in US from the COVID-19 pandemic, and by the time that this virus runs it’s deadly course, it could likely be double that number.
  • If COVID follows patterns of former viruses, including coronaviruses, then COVID will become less deadly in future outbreaks.

Understanding the numbers helps us understand the risks, and how COVID compares to the risks we take everyday. I live in the Midwest. I’ve had many conversations over the years with friends of mine who live on the coasts and it's funny how often I hear, "I don’t know if they could ever live here because they have tornadoes." I usually laugh and say, well we don’t have hurricanes. Sometimes fear is funny thing, our fears are often more irrational when it’s something we don't have experience with. Whatever the natural disaster threat where you live, for the most part the risk of it doesn’t stop you from living where you do. Despite some fear we might feel, we know that our chances of dying in a natural disaster is slim. We know it because we have lived through them and so have all or most of the people we know. — Natural disasters kill on average 60,000 people per year, globally. Globally, disasters were responsible for 0.1% of deaths over the past decade. This was highly variable, ranging from 0.01% to 0.4%. — That knowledge and experience is how we cope, it’s what makes it possible to live without being crippled by fear.

Knowledge about COVID and risks of death from illness in general are the sure perspective we need to cope and get back to living.

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