I Was Scared in March 2020. Here’s What Happened and What I Learned.

There is no question that I was scared in March 2020.

As Covid-19 began to spread out over the world, I was scared of the suffering and dying that could take place from this awful virus. I heard the reports from Italy and saw how quickly it could take over a community. What would happen if, or probably when, it came here? I thought.

I was scared at would happen to our economy. As March went on and people began to stay home, what would it mean for our way of life? Would it lead us to a Great Depression? A friend told me it was unclear what was going to happen to our banking system because nothing like this had ever happened. So, what was going to happen?

I was scared for our communities. As Covid-19 began to spread, the leaders in our church made certain decisions that we believed would protect our community. Not everyone agreed. Covid-19 became a significant source of controversy and got entangled in our political polarization. This was an issue that cut through people on the conservative side of the spectrum. What would be the result? I wondered. Would this tear our church and other churches apart?

I was scared about what our political leaders would do. Would they take it seriously? Would they take measures to stop the spread? What if I and my church leaders thought we should take measures to stop it and the political leaders disagreed? What would life look like?

All this made me anxious. For me, my anxiety manifested itself in a way that fits with my personality. I spent as much time researching Covid-19 as I could. I followed every new development and every new argument. I looked around the world to see what was happening in different countries.

Some of this research was good, and I learned a lot. I’m thankful for the knowledge I gained. However, I have also come to believe that a veneer of cool rationality is often a way of managing anxiety. It’s is an emotional reaction that seeks to balance out intense emotions. My focus on this topic was often driven more by anxiety and a desire to be in control than I would have liked to admit at the time.

Looking back on my journal, a significant turning point for me was on March 29th, when President Trump extended his mitigation guidelines to April 30th. That took a lot of the pressure off of me to try and figure it out or defend my position. At that point, our nation was in basic agreement that we needed to take measures to stop the spread of Covid-19.

After April 30th, other things began to fall into place. The economy did not collapse. Unemployment increased in a way we have never seen before. However, the nation began to recover in the second part of the year. We were able to find some people who needed help but not as many as we thought we would. The hardest hit group was our immigrant community who did not have the same access to aid that American citizens did. As a church, we were able to help some of these folks.

In our part of the nation, most things began to open up in May and, by summer, we had found a way to continue our lives while still taking precautions. I was personally convinced that this was basically the right course (see my article here).

In regard to the spread of the disease, it became clear that surfaces, which had been a great concern, were not a source of spread. The source of spread was through the air. Fortunately, in outdoor environments, the spread was also minimal. It was close contact indoors in poorly ventilated rooms that was the cause of the spread. Thus, ironically, masks, which the government had originally told us not to use, became one of the chief means of continuing our lives and keeping safe.

In regard to the severity of the disease, it became clear that the original appearances of the severity of the disease were not as bad as forecasted. The death rate in a general community spread was probably around 1%, but this statistic was heavily weighted toward the elderly (see some of my early calculations and data on this here.

The more people I knew who had Covid, the less afraid I became. For example, one rural county in our region was one of the first areas in our region to have a major outbreak. Over 300 tested positive in a couple of days. However, there were no deaths because this outbreak was concentrated in the relatively young immigrant population. This confirmed the concentration of the severity of the disease in the elderly.

By summer, various companies and health professionals began to figure out treatments for the virus. This and other factors probably reduced the lethality of the disease (the basis for that conclusion is the data here). In addition, new treatments such as antibody therapy were brought on line. By fall, to the surprise of many, vaccines had completed safety trials, were shown to be efficacious, and were made available, all in record time.

As of this spring, nearly 75% of the most vulnerable population had already been vaccinated. During a slight uptick in Covid-19 cases, this group had only a small percentage of the new infections. The vaccines were protecting the most vulnerable.

In regard to my own personal life, my church held together. I recently read that 86% of people were happy with their church’s response to the coronavirus. Most churches held together. Our church kept going. Once we got together in person, starting in May 2020, the division did not seem anywhere near as great as it did online. People of different perspectives were able to come together and fellowship just fine. We worked together to keep going in spite of our differences, rooted in our common faith.

That’s not to say that there were no hardships. I have known people who were very sick and some who continue to struggle with long Covid. My grandmother lost several of her dearest friends to Covid. People lost businesses. Kids are struggling to catch up with school work. Many still struggle with depression and isolation.

All that said, most of what I feared the most did not come to pass at least in the form in which I feared it would. We stand here nearly at the end of the pandemic, and we have not seen anything like the worst case scenarios come to pass.

So, in light of all that, how do I process my original fears and the intense emotions that surrounded it? I don’t think it was wrong for me to be afraid. Fear is a God-given emotion that enables us to respond to threats. The question is, what do we do with it? Does it lead us to injustice, paralysis, or mental health struggles? That is the question.

I think I was able to keep going in spite of my fears, but I think I could have done better. Here’s a few ways my response could have been better.

1. Look wide for solutions. People are more resilient and creative than we give them credit for. Our whole society has shown this. Businesses, churches, and individuals have all come up with creative ways to keep going and overcome the pandemic. Our tendency is to only see extremes, i.e., total lockdown or totally open. There are usually other options besides the extremes. If I had kept this in mind in the beginning, I would have been less committed to particular outcomes and given myself greater flexibility to think through creative solutions.

2. Worry less about what people think. Note: I said worry less about it, not don’t care about it. Here’s why. It’s not just our own emotions that cause us to struggle, it’s all the emotions of other people, especially those close to us. If I had it over to do, I would have worried less about people’s opinions. I spent too much time worrying about what people thought of me, the church, and the situation and where I stood with people. If I had just done what I thought was right, done my duty, and kept connected with people, then I don’t think the outcome would have been very different from what it was. In fact, ironically, I might have served people better if I was less anxious about their anxiety, and I would have preserved a lot of energy.

3. Be connected more and sympathetically engage. At times, I avoided certain people or would not engage in this the Covid-19 topic out of my own anxiety about their disagreements with me (on both sides of the issue!). However, looking back, when I engaged people sympathetically and with genuine curiosity, it was almost always profitable and healing. So, I would have engaged more. I would have avoided difficult subjects less.

Of course, we are all a mixed bag. I think I did some things right as well as wrong. Here’s what I think I did right.

1. When I got stuck I asked for help. I did not just stay there. I sought out friends and mentors who could help me move past the times when I was debilitated. I am so thankful for them.

2. I tried to notice the good. In the midst of the fear, there were also good things. I tried to notice them and write them down. At the beginning of April, I tweeted this: “I’m literally watching the progress of the leaves coming out on the trees each day. It’s a lot more rewarding than I might have guessed before the stay at home order.”

3. I had written down basic principles to help me deal with struggles, and I used them in the midst of the crisis. You can read how I applied them here. I was glad I had spent time analyzing my emotions and thinking about how to deal with the challenges they bring before the pandemic. This helped me keep some stability in the midst of an anxious situation.

As you look back on 2020, what lessons have you learned? What did you do well? What would you have done differently? If you haven’t thought about it, I would encourage you to do so. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss” (The Conduct of Life, 1087).


Photo by thom masat on Unsplash


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