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Confronting the fear of coronavirus

Last week, the markets fell and so did my 88-yearold mother. She had a spell of vertigo and went down on the bedroom floor of her apartment in New York. She remained on the floor for hours, how many, nobody quite knows. Her neighbor noticed her newspaper hanging from her doorknob. The paper was still there late in the afternoon. The neighbor banged on Mom’s door and that’s when she heard my mother calling for help. Newspapers and neighbors save lives.

Until now, my mother has enjoyed overall good health. Sadly, her husband (my step-father) passed last September. I have not seen Mom since John’s funeral. Six months is too long between visits. So, I’m in New York, having flown here from an empty LAX to a ghostly-quiet JFK. Is this an “essential” trip in the age of COVID-19? I asked myself that a lot before boarding my flight.

My sister lives 50 miles from my mother. She drove immediately to the hospital but they would not let her in to visit as we try to “flatten the curve,” the only tool currently in the tool box to stop the spread.

Mom was lucky. She did not break anything. Still, she is weak, wobbly, and it is no longer safe for her to live alone. While my sister searches for an assisted- living home closer to her, I am in Mom’s apartment making the changes that she requires before she returns home even on a temporary basis. So, back to my dilemma.

What if I picked up the virus while flying? What if I infect my mother? I could kill her. I can’t rule out that possibility. Still, the paramedics who got her off the floor could have infected her. So could a hospital staffer or another patient. Every move we make comes with some risk.

The planes are empty. I have Clorox wipes and gloves. I’m not using public transportation. I’m seeing no one but the clerks in the hardware stores while I pick up safety equipment for Mom. The odds are in my favor. But the odds are not zero. It’s still a gamble.

Not going is also a gamble. My mother needs my help. These are the stressful decisions all of us are making.

It has happened before. Many times before. A hundred years ago, a worldwide influenza killed about 50 million people. It also caused tremendous economic disruption. Check that, economic devastation. Disruption is when we lose WiFi for half-an-hour.

When that flu subsided, we roared into the 1920s, a decadelong orgy of excess that ended when the bubble burst and we plunged into the Great Depression.

Sound familiar? We have endured many plagues. We will survive coronavirus. But it won’t be soon, and it won’t be without real pain. We look to our leaders to lead, but trust is in shorter supply than toilet paper. So, what are we to do?

Wash our hands and wait, neither of which is easy for a people as impatient has we have become in the cyber-age.

“Twenty-seconds of scrubbing?!”

“Where’s the vaccine already?!”

One of the many changes coming our way is a recalibration of priorities. Maybe this downtime will give us a hiatus from hurrying, a moment of cultural introspection to ask if we really need all the things we’ve told ourselves we can’t live without.

If the virus continues to spread and the quarantines become more draconian, new habits will become old habits. We may learn we don’t need $4 coffees or $700 basketball tickets. We may rediscover our backyards, talking to neighbors over the fence, maybe even books. We may return to a life more in sync with the cycle of nature rather than chasing pixels across the cloud.

Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Right now, I fear for my mother’s well-being so I am gambling I can help her.

I also fear I might be wrong.

Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sunday. He can be reached at:

Doug McIntyre


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