Kate Holbrook: How to be good during a pandemic

Signage urging social distancing is seen in Prospect Park in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York could be reaching a "plateau" in hospitalizations, he warned that gains are dependent on people continuing to practice social distancing. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

One of the most salient characteristics of today’s generations is a desire to be good and, especially, to be kind. I see it in restaurants, in popular culture, and in my neighbors. I believe history will remember today’s generations for their dedication to doing what is right by humanity and by the earth on which we all depend.

The problem of how to be good has become harder in just the past few months because we’re in a new situation that affects every one of us at the same time it keeps us physically isolated. Last fall, being good included taking reusable bags to the grocery store. Today, and for the next little while, it’s best to use the paper ones. Only weeks ago, it was good to hug the people who want your hugs, helping them to feel your love. Today, the righteous give air hugs from many feet away.

I want to be good, too. And kind. For a living, I write books about religious history. My Ph.D. is in religious studies — religion and society — and before that, at divinity school, I studied world religions, religion and society and international development. My husband is a medical researcher who also studies medical ethics. For the past weeks, he’s worked 18-hour days meeting online and by phone with researchers around the country to figure out how COVID-19 works and how to defeat it.

I offer here my own thoughts about the directions we can be good and kind today. It’s a time rife with opportunity.

Stay six feet away from everyone outside your household — much farther if they are coughing, sneezing or singing.

I’m making this point first and longer than the others because many people in our state vastly underestimate why social distancing matters. The New York Times reported that Utah County and Salt Lake County are among the worst 20 counties in the entire country at physical distancing. Some of us talk so much about death rates and the economy that we neglect analyzing the other substantial problems this virus has wrought — overwhelmed hospitals that become ill-equipped to handle the non-COVID patients. Recovery for survivors that can be traumatic and slow. The more disciplined we are at physical distancing right now, the fewer people will suffer and the sooner the economy will right itself. We will again have everything we need on our supermarket shelves and more people will have employment.

Russell M. Nelson, the president of our state’s largest religious entity, has temporarily interrupted much of the church’s work around the world to honor physical distancing, including missionary work, church services and temple work. That should be a powerful statement in favor of physical distancing for those who respect that president.

• Take care of medical professionals and blue-collar workers.

These are the people making our lives possible right now. Well, they always are, but right now it’s more dangerous for them to do so. There are landlords who, out of fear, have evicted medical workers. That’s neither good nor kind. As long as a landlord isn’t invading their living space, they are not putting the landlord at risk. Even if they were, their courage is worth rewarding with a little of our risk. What can we do to care for them better? Physical distancing is one of the best things we can do. You will have other ideas as well. In Great Britain, they applaud medical workers.

• Reach out.

Give yourself some quiet time to consider who might be feeling isolated right now. Who could use an old-fashioned letter or a new-fangled text? Whom among your acquaintances does COVID-19 put at risk? Do they need groceries or medication? A phone call? Perhaps it will give you courage to know that the virus does not live long on paper or cardboard (less than a day), though it lives much longer on plastic or other smooth surfaces. Putting something in the oven (not plastic!) at 150 degrees for 30 minutes will kill the virus. Soap is fairly also effective in breaking down the virus.

In place of “social distancing,” I prefer “physical distancing,” a substitution I heard from my pilates teacher before the CDC encouraged it. Physical distancing is something we have to do to shut down this virus before it kills millions of people and wreaks further havoc on our economy. Social distancing, on the other hand, is a choice that we do not have to make. There are so many ways to help people feel seen, connected with and cared about. The options are inexhaustible and will only improve our own well-being right now.

• Be patient.

People were already angry before this and a global pandemic hasn’t soothed our nerves. Meet us where we are and forgive us. Give us time. Try to be humble. Although criticism is crucial in scholarly work, I’ve seen how bringing a negative critical approach to all aspects of life, or using that as our only academic tool, is destructive. In addition to seeing what’s wrong, what do we see that’s right? How can we build on that?

Many of us have an insatiable desire for justice; I certainly do. Yet we rarely get justice in this world, and even when we do it generally fails to heal us. Create a silver lining for this lockdown by taking steps to repair a damaged relationship. I believe it is possible for us to move the stumbling block of justice aside and move forward toward healing by focusing on other goals, such expressing acceptance and love, working for the success of good ideas and simply letting go of the things that are not fair.

• Buy stuff.

If the lockdown hasn’t completely depleted your bank account, then spend a little money here and there. The food bank could use some, and so could your favorite businesses. Are you at risk and don’t dare order takeout? Why not just give some money to your favorite restaurants? Order some books for your friends online—or a new sweater for an older person, a gift certificate for your postal worker, or one of your favorite luxuries for a nurse, PA, or doctor that you know.

Some of the best moments my own family members have had in the past few weeks have been those in which we’ve reached out to others, six feet away, and realized they needed the outreach. That feeling of having done a little good is as good as it gets.

Kate Holbrook

Kate Holbrook, Ph.D., is a managing historian at the history department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.