By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
We have been waiting for a long time and it is feeling unbearable. We long so much for the normal. We feel that we are ready to take risks to feel it.
Since March, we have watched the numbers tick higher and higher – the number of infections, or the less intimidating “positive tests”; the number of hospitalized tribal members; the number of recoveries; the number of members lost to COVID-19. Day after day, week after week, month after month. At first, we were glued to the COVID-19 counts. All of us wanted to know how the community was doing through those counts. Now, for many, it is becoming a reminder of a disease that has not changed our lives for the better and feels like it is never going away.
We have experienced over half a year of some level of isolation. Many of us are hearing health recommendations and following them. Some are following them to the point where they are completely quarantining themselves in their homes and not coming out for anything. They are having things they need-food, toilet paper, other essentials-delivered and left on their porches. When they get their items, they drench them in alcohol or some other sanitizer. The only human interaction they allow is video chats, social media, or a phone call. Some are choosing this as a way of life on their own. They feel it is the best protection for them and their families. Others are instructed or directed to do so because they have been identified as having been in contact with someone who had a positive test.
Those who have been quarantined for cause have the additional worry of not knowing. Not knowing if they are infected with COVID-19. Not knowing whether they have infected friends and family in the interim between being exposed and being notified. And because quarantine is a form of isolation, those who are told to do it have plenty of time to think about all the possibilities. “Will I be one of those who gets by with no or mild symptoms, or will I be one of those in an ICU or on a ventilator?” The people that you have been in contact with start filing through your mind. “Have I infected my friend or loved one, and will they be okay?” The guilt and fear can set in long before you have answers.
When you are notified that you were in contact with a person who may be infected, you immediately want to be tested. You want to know now what you are facing. Instead, you may have to wait three to five days because of the incubation period of the virus that may be in your body. You are scared because of what may be in your body. You are afraid of what it may do to you. You are frightened that you may have put your family or friends in jeopardy. Their names and faces flash in your mind, and you picture the worst possible outcome.
And, you are angry. You are angry at yourself that you weren’t more careful; that you took things for granted. Like many other things, you said, “COVID-19 is something that happens to someone else. It is not something that happens to me. I am too physically fit to get COVID-19. I am too smart to get COVID-19. Besides, the media is blowing it all out of proportion. It can’t be as bad as they say it is.”
And, you are angry at that person who infected you. After all, they are probably a trusted friend or family member. They are the only people you allow to be close to you. And you think they were careless. And now you are sitting on pins and needles, waiting for the call that may change your life, and possibly end it. And, on top of that, they have jeopardized all those you have been in contact with before you knew that you had been in contact with a positive case. You thought, “this is my cousin or my best friend. No way would they give me COVID-19.” But, they didn’t know that they were infected either, until it was too late.
Some of us have the idea that it is okay to “roll the dice” when it comes to COVID-19. We reason that we don’t have a circle of friends or family that includes the “at higher risk” category of people. We think it won’t be a problem foregoing a few visits with grandma and grandpa until this is over so that we can spend time with our circle of friends. They are young and should be able to stand up to COVID-19 if they, or we get it. One of the problems with that thinking is that you can’t look at someone and tell if they have diabetes, and you can’t always see when someone has a compromised immune system or respiratory issues. And those are not things even your close friends may share with you about themselves. They may look young and healthy, but when exposed to the COVID-19 virus, it attacks them viciously. Young people are not known for getting regular physicals and are reluctant to go to the doctor even when they are sick. They think their youth and fitness will conquer any illness. And then they get COVID-19, then end up getting very sick, not being able to breathe, then on a ventilator in an Intensive Care Unit, and then they are gone. All because we thought we could “roll the dice”.
And, then there is mask hate. Some people hate those who wear a mask. They see it as a sign of government control and of a political agenda to force people to submit. They think it is all smoke and mirrors. They think masks don’t work and openly refuse to wear one. And they think you are just a “sheep” if you advocate for wearing it. If they are required to wear masks due to regulations at Walmart, for example, they will wear it to get in the door, then roam the aisles with it in their pockets. And they will dare you to say anything to them about it. Some people hate those who don’t wear a mask. They think those who don’t wear a mask only care about themselves and are either ignorant or uncaring about who they might infect with their behavior. Those who wear a mask want it mandated that those who don’t be made to, even if it means prosecution and fines. Those who don’t wear a mask are ready to fight to keep from wearing it. The argument devolves from what is right to do to what is it my right to do. And once we get angry at each other, it doesn’t matter what the science or doctors say, we just want to win the argument. And that is a shame, because we are putting our need to feel right above the possibility of preventing our loved ones from experiencing all the bad things that come with contracting COVID-19. We childishly say that because of the minor discomfort of wearing a mask that we will be stubborn at the cost of our own health or that of a loved one. If there is even the slightest chance that a mask might block a single infection, isn’t it an ethical and moral imperative to wear it?
We are tired. We are tired of COVID-19. We are tired of seeing information about COVID-19. We are tired of putting our lives on hold because of COVID-19. We are tired of the battle to get people to help save lives. Our hospital and public health workers are tired. Our tribal leaders are tired. They know that they are doing things, and having to mandate people to do things, that are unpopular and that they will take abuse for. But there is no option to give up or give in to COVID-19 and those who are uncomfortable with the process of overcoming this virus.
Our public service workers on the Qualla Boundary have remained steadfast in their care for us. They are weary, but they continue on. We have responsibilities too. They have given us a path to health and to minimize the impact on our loved ones and friends while medicine catches up to COVID-19. Simple, common sense things, that, if we will get past our pride, are so easy to do. Most of us have a habit of washing our hands even pre-virus. It just makes sense that with an increased risk of infectious germs that we would do that routinely anyway. Many of us look at our personal space (that space between us and another person that makes us feel safe around them) as a three-foot area around our bodies-arms; reach if you will. If you add my personal space with yours, that is six feet. And they are telling us that six feet can be the difference between health and a stint on a ventilator, or worse. Simple choice.
And, then there is the mask. Doctors say that if you cannot “social distance”, then this is the next best thing. They are not saying it is a magic solution to COVID-19. They are saying that it increases the likelihood that you won’t catch it and you won’t transmit the virus to someone else. It aggravates me to wear a mask. It makes it harder to breathe. It won’t stay on me right. It irritates my ears. I have to run back to the car to get it when I forget it. It is something else I must remember to wash. And I feel like people wearing masks are making faces and sticking their tongues out at me and I can’t tell it.
But, every time I get frustrated about the joys of mask wearing, I remember that there are people right here in Cherokee who are infected with COVID-19. Some are struggling for breath. Some are dying. And the reason that they are in a bad way? Because someone like me didn’t care enough to wash their hands, or social distance, or put on a mask. And I ask myself, “Is my unwillingness to experience a temporary discomfort worth the lives of members of my community or family?” And then I quietly, humbly put on my mask.