TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — A Wake-up Call

It’s suddenly become vital to all of us: The need to practice “social distancing” to “flatten the curve” of a now out-of-control pandemic known as COVID-19.

Admit it. Two weeks ago, most of us wouldn’t have had a clue what any of that meant.

Way back then, I was mostly worried about putting up a new big screen TV in our basement, improving my bowling average, making tough decisions about who to draft in my upcoming fantasy baseball pool.

Oh, I’d like to think I’ve been a fairly decent human being for most of my 67 years. Finished college. Got married. Worked hard to support my wife, two kids and three dogs.

But, really … what kind of adversity is that?

A lot has changed in just a few days. These scary times made me think back to an event long ago.

In 1971, I was a long-haired, wide-eyed college kid at the University of Minnesota. In high school, I’d practiced my own form of “social distancing” without even knowing it, avoiding parties and dates primarily because of a painful shyness that was only then beginning to wear off. I had my small circle of close friends. But sports were my main outlet and when I wasn’t playing them or watching them, I pretty much kept to myself.

All that began to change when I reluctantly agreed to join a fraternity. But first it was necessary to survive an initiation … which meant we pledges had to respond to sometimes unreasonable demands for a couple of days. Every time the brothers wanted our undivided attention, they rang a loud bell and we had to race into the living room to face bright lights and a variety of challenges.

We all survived and our social lives eventually blossomed. But even weeks later, I remember walking on campus and experiencing momentary fright when a bell rang out as we strolled past Marshall-University High School. Temporarily learned behavior.

Fear can be a strong motivator.

Fast forward to a couple of nights ago. Watching a Netflix movie, on that big screen, in my man cave quarantine quarters, I nearly fell off the couch as an actor began to sneeze in 75-inch living color. Without hesitation, I felt compelled to wipe down the screen, wash my hands and avoid touching my face.

Such is life in March 2020. So many things we’ve taken for granted can suddenly seem secondary to a coronavirus that is killing more and more people every day:

In the midst of a highly contentious, fragmented American political scene that has occupied our attention for months, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders held another seemingly significant debate a few days ago. But this time, there was no audience. Little attention paid afterward. Choosing a presidential candidate to battle Donald Trump, while still important, will need to wait.

When an NBA star tested positive for COVID-19, the dominos began to fall for sports fans. Every professional league on every continent, began postponing or canceling events or even, entire schedules.

Schools closed. Churches closed. Businesses tried to survive solely on takeout or drive-up services.

Soon, it began to hit home, as well. A good friend and former teaching colleague died of natural causes in early March. Fellow instructors and family members gradually made the excruciating decision collectively to forego his funeral and avoid contact. Most of us are in that age bracket now considered most vulnerable to the virus.

Although semiretired, I’ve recently been thankful to work for a company that assists in assessing K-12 standardized testing for a number of states in a number of disciplines. My specialty is in writing. But Friday, with schools facing uncertain closure lengths, the Trump administration announced the nationwide cancellation of standardized testing for closed schools. Just as our busiest season was approaching.

Nursing homes and memory-care facilities are wisely keeping visitors out, for obvious reasons. Only medical professionals and brave employees are entering those facilities for the time being. While I heartily endorse these drastic measures for their residents’ safety, it has been heartbreaking for those of us wanting and needing to see our loved ones. My 96-year old mother doesn’t answer her cell phone anymore.

Yet, my inconveniences pale in comparison to the suffering of so many others. Worldwide, the death toll approaches 15,000. Over 334,000 coronavirus cases and climbing. Italy has been especially hard hit. Americans brace for the worst ahead, particularly amongst largely populated areas. Quarantines, lockdowns and “shelter in place” restrictions are everywhere.

Can’t learn together. Can’t worship together. Can’t work together. Can’t even mourn together or visit loved ones together.

At least that’s what I thought, as I hunkered down at home and entertained thoughts of hoarding toilet paper and frozen pizzas.

Turns out, I could never have been more wrong.

Once again, it seems that when we all feel we’re about to hit rock bottom, the triumph of the human spirit makes us more aware than ever, how much we need each other. As I’ve sat alone doing jigsaw puzzles, reading and watching hours of coronavirus coverage, I’ve had far more time to slow down and pay attention to what really matters:

  • Seeing bickering rivals putting aside partisan politics to create a trillion-dollar stimulus package for Americans suddenly in dire straits … because they HAVE to.
  • Watching often greedy corporations now stepping up to provide goods, services, medical supplies, anything that’s needed … because they HAVE to.
  • Admiring local and national leaders tirelessly seeking solutions to problems we never had just days ago … because they NEED to.
  • Blown away by courageous medical experts and health-care givers, unafraid to do whatever it takes to find a vaccine or protect others even when their own lives are in danger … because they WANT to.

It’s ironic to think that the same social media that can divide us and sometimes discourage socialization and civility is now absolutely necessary to our survival against this insidious pandemic.

Businesses are having employees work from home on their computers to avoid the large group settings that help speed the virus. Restaurants offer online specials that even include food pickups without any human contact. Churches have created virtual worship services.

And maybe, most importantly, vital information and education about this ever-changing COVID-19 is readily available to be shared far more quickly and efficiently than it would have years ago.

Sure, I’m scared. After all, it’s unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. There are still so many unknowns about the possible mutations ahead and the length of time we will need to create a vaccine. Not to mention the potentially catastrophic effects it will have on our economy.

This much is certain: Our lives, as we know them, have already changed and will continue to change in the coming months.

But maybe that fear will help us all become more loving, caring, thoughtful folks who are in this thing together.

I’m watching more news now and attempting to learn as much I can about the coronavirus, instead of mindlessly dialing up my favorite ballgame. Sharing emails and social media posts that might allay those fears for friends, as well. We’re texting, messaging and Facetiming our kids more frequently, just to see how they and their families are doing. Looking for ways to help in the community, if doing nothing more than patronizing local businesses that are hurting. Incredibly grateful for my wife, Laurie, whose work as a pharmacist now seems more important than ever before.

Hang tough and be patient. Wash your hands, follow the experts’ advice and keep believing. At a time when “social distancing” is a must, it’s important to remember how much we need to pull together.

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