Wednesday, April 29, 2020

COVID and Consensus

Everyone is under a lot of strain and uncertainty these days, as we hunker down to avoid being swamped by the oncoming wave of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Although stress is by no means falling evenly on everyone (does it ever?), we can make some broad observations.

1. Restraints on Mobility and Limitations on What's Safe 
Most of us are at home much more right now, both because of job layoffs or job directives, and because of what is allowed or perceived to be safe. While home is meant to be a haven and a place of sanctuary, that's not always how it plays out. If there are unresolved tensions at home, or a delicately negotiated balance of time together and time apart, a sudden surge of more time together does not necessarily land as an unalloyed blessing. (Something that's perceived as precious in limited doses can turn sour when there's rarely a break.)

Where there are cracks in the foundation at home, the added weight of quarantine can increase the friction. Unsafe places become more unsafe (domestic violence is up), and marginal situations become more iffy. Fuses are shorter and we all get a first-hand chance to appreciate the wisdom of the adage that familiarity breeds contempt.

To be clear, if dynamics are good at home, then more time there can work out well. I am not predicting that extended time at home will turn a sound situation discordant, but I am positing that it is likely to worsen whatever is unresolved or fragile.

2. Anxiety about Finances
Over 26 million US workers have filed for unemployment in the last five weeks. While Congress has provided a short-term lifeline for many of these folks, it is by no means certain how long these funds will last or whether there will be job to go back to when the pandemic subsides.

It has been eye-popping how many have reported having to choose between paying rent and buying groceries because they don't have enough funds to do both after missing one paycheck. That's the short-term scramble. Beyond that there is considerable unknown about what jobs will exist after quarantine orders have expired. 

It's not as if a switch will suddenly be thrown and everything will go back to the way it was in January. Just because restaurants have reopened doesn't mean people will feel safe enough to patronize them, or financially secure enough to spend the money. And if restaurants have limited business they can't reasonably be expected to hire everyone back, or not at full hours. You can see the problem. It's going to take the economy much longer to ratchet back up than it took to slide down.

3. Anxiety about Health
This exists both for self and for loved ones, and we're still struggling to get a handle on its full dimensions. While we've been able to do a fairly good job of slowing down the advance of the virus to the point where health care facilities have been mostly able to keep up with the demand (thank god), it is worrisome that:
•  We still don't have enough testing capacity to tell who has contracted COVID-19.
•  As many as one quarter of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic.
•  It's turning out that people who contract COVID-19 may suffer serious organ damage (kidneys, liver, digestive tract) in addition to respiratory problems.
•  While younger people generally tolerate COVID-19 better than older folks (especially those north of 70), there is evidence of increased risk of stroke among the young.
•  It's not yet clear whether antibodies (evidence of having contracted COVID-19) provide immunity against reinfection, which complicates the search for a vaccine.

Each of us will need to make a personal assessment of what we are willing to risk once society reopens. Here's what needs to be weighed:
—How bad it will be for you if you get infected: how likely are you to survive or avoid organ damage?
—What do you think your risk of infection is if you are out in public, given the availability of testing, the reliability of testing, and the degree of compliance in the general public with recommended safety precautions?
—What constitutes prudent behavior on your part to minimize the risk that you are unwittingly transmitting the virus?

This issue is made even more complicated by the dynamic of a vocal minority of misguided yahoos (egged on by the President, whose lack of discernment defies credulity) who claim the pandemic is a hoax and are defiantly not practicing social distancing while demanding that stay home orders be rescinded. If you were in a high-risk category for surviving the virus, would you be willing to venture out in public where these selfish rogue elements are rolling the dice for you?

4. Being in the Same Zoom Is not the Same as Being in the Same Room
Given what is understood about how the virus is transmitted, via water droplets from infected people, it made sense to promote the concept of social distancing. By asking people to separate by six feet or more, it's been possible to undercut the transmission of COVID-19 through sneezing or coughing, and the US has largely dodged a bullet: our health care facilities and personnel have mostly been able to keep up with the demand for their services.

A consequence of social distancing is that face-to-face meetings are much more limited. Yes, three or four people can make it work if they're in a good-sized room and everyone just talks louder, but mostly we can't safely do meetings where everyone is one place. In consequence, groups of all stripes (including communities, book groups, and congregations) have been experimenting with video conferencing—with Zoom in particular (though Slack and Discord are also getting some play).

On the one hand, it's a blessing that we have so much technology available to help us cope (think of how this would have landed in 1985). On the other, there is considerable nuance to this shift in communication. Zoom is like a meeting with everyone in the room, but it is not the same thing, and it behooves everyone to be clear about that.

In particular, there are two major things going on whenever people meet: content and energy. Content includes ideas, concepts, and problem solving. Energy includes feelings, connections, and the degree of harmony in the group. To be clear, not everyone is comfortable acknowledging or working with both of these elements and it's not unusual for there to be dynamic tension in the group over whether these two elements can play nice with each other (this tension is often characterized as "product versus process").

Zoom works pretty well for content; not so well for energy. When reading energy (which everyone does, whether you're conscious of it or not) we depend a lot on nonverbal cues (body language, facial expressions, where the eyes are directed). While Zoom allows us to hear tone and volume, and we can see the speaker, it doesn't give us a good read on how the speaker's words are landing with others.

Thus, Zoom represents technology that's slanted toward the product end of the product/process spectrum. That doesn't mean that energetics aren't happening; it only means you have a sharply limited ability to read them. While that's not such a big deal when the group is operating in laminar flow (that is, when there isn't much turbulence), but what happens when you hit a rough patch?

While every group has its own quirks and challenges—and therefore moments when a rough patch might emerge—I want to zero in on a dynamic that I believe is almost certain to be hard for communities to navigate right now: risk assessment.

5. Anxiety about Dealing with Anxiety
On top of the four-layered cake of misery I've just baked for you above, community adds another layer: the compounding complication of interwoven lives (take the concerns of the first point above and imagine how much more challenging it is to take into account the needs and concerns of a couple dozen households instead of just one).

Independent of whether there's a pandemic playing in a theater near you, there will always be a spectrum of how group members relate to risk, with the risk tolerant at one end and the risk averse on the other. In a normal group, people will place themselves all along that spectrum and one of the major challenges of cooperative group dynamics is recognizing that this spectrum exists (news flash: everyone isn't like you), that there is no "wrong" position, and that healthy groups have to figure out a way to balance group needs with respect to risk—without running anyone over, or out of town on a rail.

One of the reasons this is hard is that each end of the spectrum tends to be especially triggering for the those on the other end. Unfortunately, with coronavirus added into the mix, the stakes are ramped up considerably. The risk averse are afraid that the risk tolerant want to decide for them what amount of risk is acceptable, and that scares them to death—they feel neither safe, nor respected. They thought the community was committed to providing baseline safety for its members and the proposed laxity of the risk tolerant violates that understanding.

Going the other way, the risk tolerant are irritated that the risk averse want to shut everything down out of fear, limiting activities beyond what’s prudent in their eyes. They did not join the community with an awareness that their personal liberties could be so severely limited by the fears of their neighbors.

Note that I am studiously avoiding taking sides; I’m merely trying to anticipate what I expect to be the lay of the land. The important thing is not whether I have that exactly right, but that communities have a constructive idea about how to respond to the emergence of this dynamic. Taken all together, I expect that many communities will experience a surge of reactivity for the reasons I've spelled out above (in fact, I've been approached by three groups in the last week who have been going through some version of this).

Once significant reactivity enters the picture, then it's imperative to acknowledge it, and clear the air as a prelude to developing a group response to the question of acceptable behaviors during the pandemic. (Attempts at problem solving prior to unpacking the feelings are pretty much doomed—listening is poor, relationships suffer, and solutions are brittle.) Sadly, this is exactly the kind of situation for which Zoom is not a great tool… yet that's the tool we have.

My sense is that communities need to create an opportunity where everyone can state how they’re doing right now and what their fears and concerns are. Everyone needs (and deserves) to feel heard and accepted for what they’re feeling before any attempt is made to determine the community’s response—and the degree to which individuals can make their own choices.

While we’ve all been dealt a shitty hand (sorry), we have to play it nonetheless. Managing the differences in where people fall on the risk spectrum is especially delicate in this dynamic because the stakes are so high, but we have to try nonetheless. The group may well need to be reminded that there are no illegitimate positions along the risk spectrum and you are all in this together. The worst thing that can happen is fighting over what’s the “right” amount risk to take. You need to scrupulously avoid tug-of-way dynamics.

One of the basic tenets of community is that members agree to take into account the potential impact of their actions and statements on their neighbors. One of the key questions here is how far to take that in the context of COVID-19.

Did I mention this was hard? Well, it is. The good news though, is that it's doable. In fact, it's exactly what community aspires to be good at—a humane and loving response in times of stress.

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