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Panic, then pivot

By CONNIE SCHULTZ

When is the last time someone told you to calm down, and it worked?

I’m not seeing a lot of raised hands.

Having someone tell us we’re overreacting is annoying and condescending. Infuriating, even. It makes you want to blind them with the whites of your eyes as you lean in menacingly close and yell, “No, you calm down,” preferably in public. (Or maybe that’s just me.) The point is that telling us not to feel what we’re feeling seldom works, and often makes it worse because now we’re angry, too, and that is not a good look on anyone.

I want you not to panic about the novel coronavirus, but I know telling you not to panic isn’t helpful. Too much is happening — and not happening — for us to pretend this is a normal March. You might be scared, and why not? Every news update feels like another cautionary tale.

Change is all around us. Just moments ago, the NCAA announced that its basketball tournaments would go on but with no fans in the arenas. Even if you’ve never cared about the NCAA tournaments, it’s impossible to hear that and not think something big is happening. All around the country, concerts, conferences and sporting events are being canceled. So, avoid large gatherings for now.

The president of the United States continues to falsely downplay this health crisis. Fortunately, many state and local leaders are refusing to play along. They are helping us understand there are things we can do in this frightening time to protect ourselves and others. This is the America I love.

We can’t say this enough: Wash your hands regularly, and whenever possible, use soap and water. Public health experts tell us we should do this every time for at least 20 seconds. They recommend singing “Happy Birthday,” twice, before rinsing.

There are plenty of other songs, of course, and whichever one keeps you washing is the one you should be singing. In recent days, I’ve been belting out Ethel Merman’s “Still Got My Health.” Sing it with me:

The hip that I shake doesn’t make people stare,

But I got such health, what do I care?

The sight of my props never stops a thoroughfare,

But I still got my health, so what do I care?

No matter how often we wash our hands, we should not touch our faces, especially when we’re out in public. This sounds simple enough until you think of all the times you’ve pulled to a stop in traffic and watched the driver in the next lane excavating his nostrils.

That would never be you, I want to make clear, but do think about that guy’s hand touching the door handle you’re about to grab. As I explained to my last class of students before the campus closed down, your face is full of portals. I repeated this to them every 10 minutes or so, after providing another update on how many of them had just touched their eyes, their noses, their mouths. Once a mom…

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, many elderly poll workers here in Ohio are opting not to work on Election Day. They are smart to avoid interacting with the public, as their immune systems aren’t as strong as they used to be.

Our secretary of state is calling for replacement workers for our March 17 primary election. Fortunately, Gov. Mike DeWine had asked that all colleges and universities close down and turn to online teaching for a few weeks. Suddenly, thousands of healthy young people are no longer attending classes. Perfect poll workers! What a great way for them to witness firsthand how democracy works and help voting be an efficient and fair process — and a safe one, too, if they remind voters to wash their hands after touching the voting machines.

That’s the other thing we can do right now: Be signs of hope.

Many hourly wage earners — such as clerks, cashiers, hospital aides and restaurant workers — have little or no paid sick leave. They are increasingly at risk of contracting the virus and spreading it because they cannot afford to stay home.

Those lucky enough to hunker down can advocate for people like them. Call and write your members of Congress, daily, and push them to take care of all Americans as we ride out this medical emergency. It’s an election year. Make them fear you.

We need one another. If we act like it, more of us are going to be OK.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. Her novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” will be published by Random House in Spring 2020.

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