Pandemic reflections on a bus, a letter from an Island medical health officer

Pandemic reflections on a bus, a letter from an Island medical health officer
Dr. Sandra Allison reflects on the thoughts she's had while riding the bus in this pandemic

As a public health physician in the middle of a global pandemic, some people are surprised I still use public transit to get me to and from work.  Public transit is responsible, efficient, safe, climate aware, and provides medium quality alone time. I usually listen to podcasts or loud music to gain some therapeutic advantage over the day’s busy schedule.

The pandemic is such a stressful time for everyone. Riding public transit is a good test of the community’s fear and resilience and it is overall enjoyable with so much to see on any given day. I live in a temperate climate on the west coast of Canada, on Vancouver Island in a midsize city, and lots of people are still riding transit, heeding and disregarding precautions in their own way. And on this particular day, I sat on the bus, bobbing my head to Black Sabbath, I watched the masked man across from me curiously.   

It wasn’t raining that day, and while I was unzipped in my layers, I was feeling warm in my rain jacket and fleece, glad the window on the bus was open for ventilation; I was enjoying a bit of a breeze. This masked man across from me, looked a bit like Kenny from South Park.  He had his rain gear on, hood up, buttoned tight, with his N95 mask, and his nervous eyes, darting side to side.  He looked from his phone to the window, furtively, looking around the bus, at each rider.

It’s still pretty easy to space yourself six feet by six feet on the bus and most people are wearing a mask. Only a few people wearing only a chin or mouth mask, with their nose particles flowing freely unimpeded. We have all seen them and wondered why they even bothered wearing a mask, probably just to ride the bus, I bet. 

But the man with the hood seemed nervous, darting eyes, fully zipped. Afraid. Coronavirus is a tenacious virus that readily infects people who don’t heed the basics. Those that spend time with someone who is infected, closely putting heads together, without masks, eating, talking, loving each other, like humans do. You could tell this wasn’t happening easily with the man in the hood. He was ready for anything, overprotected in an N95 mask, nothing was penetrating his defences.

While he sat there with eyes darting, he seemed to startle himself as he caught his reflection in the window. He began to unzip his layers:  Rain Gear, Hoodie 1, Hoodie 2, all removed. I was surprised to see a young, university-aged man, with a brown ponytail, still N95 masked. He fixed his hair in the reflection. He settled his multi-layers and hoods. And he smiled with his eyes at himself. I was smiling. I wonder if he saw.

During times of fear, we can turn into people we don’t recognize. Hopefully, if you glance at yourself and find someone else, you will take another look to see what you are afraid of, what you are baring your teeth at, zipping up to protect yourself from. If you find that during these terribly difficult times, that you are reacting in ways you never thought you would, lashing out, consider how fear is playing into your life, and how you might be responding out of fear, and what you could do differently.

Being afraid at a time of uncertainty is not unexpected and being empowered with your own agency is important and healthy.   Defeating this virus comes with some certainties. You can protect yourself by washing your hands and keeping your social contacts limited to those that are within your bubble. Keep a safe distance from everyone else. Wear a mask when you are out in public, and especially if you cannot maintain safe physical distance from others. Please recognize that we sometimes don’t know other people’s circumstances, there may be good reasons why they are unable to follow guidelines. We need to be generous with others in these difficult times. If you are finding your fear is overwhelming you and taking simple action seriously is not enough, consider whether anxiety is becoming something you should discuss with your primary care provider. If you are in crisis, call 1-888-494-3888 anytime.  

Fear, anxiety, uncertainty and loss of control. Sounds about right for the midst of a pandemic. Remember that fear makes us act differently, sometimes you may not even recognize yourself or your family members. You just might startle yourself when you look in the mirror.  If that happens, take a moment to ground yourself. Peer carefully at yourself and your values. Are you aligned or are you afraid? Peel off those layers of defence and return to yourself and your core values.

I hope the bus rider saw me smile with my eyes at him. Connection in society is protective, and with our current defences of masks and distancing, we may feel even more disconnected and fearful of each other. I have started to give a smile and a nod.  Hopefully, we can feel safe with each other if we all take our basics more seriously. We can control some of the fear that changes us for the worse and negatively affects our health, even if we don’t catch the COVID.

In health,

Dr. Sandra Allison

Dr. Sandra Allison, Island Medical Health Officer

Dr. Sandra Allison, Island Health Medical Health Officer

Dr. Sandra AllisonDr. Sandra Allison

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