During the initial pandemic wave of the spring and summer, we were lucky not to have anyone within our family and social circle get COVID-19. But during the current wave, our social circle has been breached as infections have happened.
I would like to share their stories to show how stealthy this virus can be. Their stories are anecdotal, but cautionary nonetheless. I have changed names for privacy reasons. Minor details have also been changed if they are not material to the story.
In a previous essay on the cultural challenges of staying healthy and Covid safe, I mentioned six admonitions by health professionals on what we can do to avoid the COVID-19 virus. Avoid the 3 C’s: crowded places, closed spaces, and close contact.
Practice the 3 W’s: wear a mask, watch distance, and wash hands. As with many prescriptions from healthcare professionals, our own personal predispositions, as well as cultural habits, often pose challenges to compliance with these admonitions.
For a predominantly immigrant community such as ours, social gatherings with family and friends is an important aspect of our culture. They are especially meaningful because as immigrants, we had to abandon the social networks that we had established growing up in the Philippines. The social networks that we have since re-created involving close friends and family, including adopted uncles, aunts, and cousins, have been strengthened by social gatherings like birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, and anticipated events like baby showers. Coming together has a special significance for immigrant communities; they reinforce cultural practices around food, humor, and values. Social gatherings are comfort food writ large.
The pandemic has forced us to rethink some of these behaviors. We now know that these gatherings increase our risks of getting sick with this deadly virus. But changing our behavior has been difficult requiring us to be very intentional about our family and cultural traditions.
We assist in the homeschooling of our granddaughter. A month ago while hanging out the front doorsteps, my wife noticed a young mother taking a walk with her young son, so she strikes up a properly distanced conversation. It turns out the little boy is in the same zoom class as our granddaughter. So they exchange contact information. Later that day, we inform our daughter, even suggesting that she invite them over at some point. Our daughter very wisely turned down the suggestion, saying: “We are trying to limit the number of folks in our pod.” Reaching out, as we had suggested would have been a lapse in our social distancing, and assuming the worse, possibly introducing the virus into our family circle. But our social circle has been breached, and these stories are cautionary tales.
Holiday celebrations are in full swing despite under stay-at-home orders even as hospitals are beginning to report a shortage of ICU beds for COVID patients. I wrote at the beginning of this pandemic (This is World War III, AJ, April 4 2020) that we are the front line troops in this struggle. Our role is to prevent the community spread of the virus into our social and family circles. Our weapons are the 3 Cs and the 3 Ws, and we have to be very intentional in adopting changes to our cultural practices. I hope these stories will re-invigorate our wellness practices against the virus and make us more intentional about our cultural practices.
1. Jose who works in food service must have been struggling with the depressed state of restaurants and food-service establishments under operational restrictions under the pandemic. On his weekend off, he went on a boat trip to one of the Channel Islands, and then goes out with a group of friends afterward. Jose is not sure which of these possible exposures gave him COVID. If I had to guess, it would be the gathering with friends. Most ferries to Catalina are open to the ocean breezes. Having gone that way myself I have had to bring a warm jacket against the early morning cold. On second thought, even with good air circulation, going on a ferry ride involves grabbing on to many, many high touch surfaces during the ride. This is why we are cautioned to wash our hands frequently when we have to be in such situations.
2. Linda and John wanted to get an estimate for a repair job on their house. The contractor who was tested for Covid the day before may not have been feeling well when he came to do the estimate. When his tests found him positive, he informed Linda and John. Too late; they ended up with Covid, too. Linda noted that they wore masks, and presumably so did the contractor; what they failed to do was disinfect/wipe off the many surfaces that the contractor touched to develop the estimate; of course, they probably were not scrupulously distanced as they pointed out details to the contractor. If a person is infectious, surfaces that he touches become vehicles for infection. I was at a sporting goods store last week and noticed how the sales clerk, aside from being behind a plexiglass barrier, diligently wiped off the many surfaces that each customer may have touched during check-out. I now appreciate this practice after hearing about Linda and John’s story. Which brings me back to the risk of infections at social gatherings, even when everyone is conscientiously wearing masks. It is difficult to know who is infectious, for many who are, are asymptomatic. At a party, everything around becomes a high touch surface: chairs, tables, ice chests, food and drink dispensers. Hand sanitizers provide a measure of prevention, but party hosts are probably loath to have them handy for guests to use. But in the age of Covid, they should probably become common party accessories, as lumpia and pansit are common fares. It might also be helpful for the host to point out these sanitizers and encourage everyone to use them—often.
3. Paula had a sister who wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving with family members. We know how large extended families can get with adoptive uncles, aunts, and cousins. Paula declined since she worked as a caregiver for an elderly person. The gathering turned out to be a spreader. As Paula looks back, she feels that if she did not work as a caregiver, she would have brought her husband and kids to the gathering. Without her excuse as a caregiver, her absence would have been taken as a snob.
4. Marina works as a cleaning person, cleaning other people’s houses. One of her clients, a husband and wife, decided to go out of town to celebrate an anniversary. They got infected on that trip and infected her in return as she cleaned the house for them. Marina says that she tries to wear a mask while on the job, but sharing an enclosed space over a prolonged period with infectious and asymptomatic folks proved that the mask alone is inadequate to keep her from getting infected. She might have needed more armor, masks, gloves, face shields, etc., when the virus is in the air and on the many surfaces that she had to touch.
5. Raul sensed while talking over the phone with his best friend from college, that Fidel did not sound well. Fidel’s mother had just passed away. Raul decided to pay him a visit to cheer him up and help get him over the hump of a loss in the family. Upon arrival he noticed that Fidel looked rather sick, so he offered to drive him to the hospital for a checkup. The hospital was about a half-hour away; they arrived without incident, using the ride to catch up on each other’s lives. Fidel tested positive for Covid. Raul has since gone into self-quarantine. He says that he has been tested twice since then, both with negative test results. In the meantime, Fidel is on the path to recovery, thanks to the timely intervention of Raul, and health professionals. Raul admits that he has dodged a bullet, and attributes this to the fact that he has kept his mask on, all the time he was with Fidel, even in the confines of a car with a sick Covid patient. He now an enthusiastic mask advocate.
The data from family gatherings for Thanksgiving is now in. It is showing what experts have feared: a statistically significant spike in cases that can be attributed to Thanksgiving weekend gatherings. The approval of two vaccines is light at the end of the tunnel, but the virus is among us now. Pogo, Walt Kelly’s memorable cartoon character, might well observe again: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.
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Enrique de la Cruz is Professor Emeritus of Asian American Studies with CSU Northridge.