COVID-19 is undermining our human nature, but following the “Three W’s” can protect us

Mark Neumann
Wisconsin Farmers Union
Mark Neumann is a retired pediatric critical care doctor and a member of Wisconsin Farmers Union.

The COVID-19 virus is cruel.

It causes illness and death. It disrupts our economy, leaving families with strained finances. It leads businesses to appeal for bankruptcy protection. Families don’t know what to do about children returning to school. Stress levels are high. This is all hard.

It’s possible we don’t even pay enough attention to the cruelest aspect of the pandemic. In order to fight the disease in our midst, we are asked to cover our faces. When our health experts ask us to do this, it seems inconvenient, uncomfortable and it fogs our glasses. But far worse than that it makes our social distancing even more painful because we can’t easily read each other’s emotions.

We are social, emotional creatures. We thrive by communicating and by sharing our emotional state with those around us. Facial expression is central to our interactions. With a glance we share feelings before even saying a word. Now that sharing is blocked by a damn face cover.

Remember how our children began communicating with us as infants through facial expression before they even learned to speak? That facial communication did not stop with infancy. It is the foundation of our communication, and it leads to subconscious release of hormones: oxytocin for love and peace and epinephrine/cortisol for the fight or flight response.

To make things worse, this virus causes us to keep our distance and halt touching. We are primates for God’s sake. Look at how much our evolutionary cousins enjoy touch. The grooming reflex is soothing. It releases a vagal nerve response. It assures us that all is good in the world. Now the virus deprives us of soothing one other: that firm or limp handshake, the gentle pat on the back, a hug to confirm shared joy or sorrow. Amid COVID-19 we miss emotional communication and suffer immensely from its loss.

What can we do?

Our human species is under attack by this virus that has found a home in our population. Without us all together, the virus would have no place to live, dying unless it could find another species to live in. We need to take away the virus’ home: us.

Our species is known for our ability to band together with shared intention to get things done. We can collaborate to achieve things, and this is what makes us the most capable species on Earth. We can deprive the virus of a place to live by working together to get the job done.

It isn’t easy. In fact, it is going to be downright hard. The first thing that we need to do is to stop fighting with each other, one group against another. One group not trusting the other. When we fight amongst ourselves, we undermine our greatest strength to collaborate. Then the virus is happy to keep living in us, in our communities, in our living space.

There are still many uncertainties about the biology of the virus. We hope for a vaccine, but there is no guarantee that it will work. We hope for herd immunity, but that too may not work if individual immune responses are unable to develop long-term protection after infection.

What we do know is the ability of the virus to pass from individuals is blocked by adoptable behaviors. I call them the three “W” behaviors: Wash our hands and stop touching our faces, Watch our distance to keep more than 6 feet apart and Wear our face cover whenever in the presence of others who are not part of our safe household circle.

Wash hands, Watch our distance, Wear face cover.

If we do these things, all the time, and without interruption, we deprive the virus of a place to live.

Doing these three behaviors is hard. Our hands get raw from washing, and we love touching our face. It seems rude to back away from others to protect our safe space of separation. It is hard to cover our face because we cannot easily read one another’s facial expressions and enjoy that window into our emotional communication.

Besides the three “W” behaviors, we need to do a couple other things to get through this. We need to be gentle with one another. We need to give extra emotional benefit of the doubt. We need to realize that our normal emotional cues are being deprived to us. We need to be sure to hug one another in our household space and to be appreciative of emotional cues that we receive there. We need to pay extra attention to one another’s eyes as we seek cues not otherwise available behind our face cover.

If we adopt the three “W” behaviors, our public health experts will help us win this war with the other creature that is living off of us. We can kill the virus from our living space. Our public health experts ask us to test for the virus in our bodies when we have symptoms and ask us to help with contact tracing and isolation of cases that are found. The better we practice the three “W” behaviors, the fewer cases of infection we will see and the fewer isolation experiences we will need. Then we will be able to get back what is ours, a place where we can live as thriving human beings, hugging, touching, and sharing our emotional experiences. We need to band together to get the job done.

Neumann is a retired pediatric critical care doctor who lives in La Crosse with his wife, their teenage son and "wannabe" cow dog. He is a member of Wisconsin Farmers Union and believes that our personal good health depends on living in healthy communities. To this end, he devotes his time and effort to political engagement for our future and for those who will follow us.