La Crosse Tribune Opinion Page, 7-19-2020

The COVID-19 virus is cruel.

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

Possibly we are not even paying attention to the cruelest part of the pandemic. In order to fight the disease, we need to cover our faces.

It seems inconvenient, uncomfortable and it fogs our glasses. But worse than that it makes our social distancing more painful because it is harder to read each other’s emotions.

We are social, emotional creatures. We thrive by communicating and by sharing our emotional state. Facial expression is central to our interactions. With a glance we share feelings before even saying a word. And now that sharing is hidden by a damn face cover.

Our children began communicating with us as infants through facial expression before ever saying a word. Facial communication is a fundamental part of human connection. 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 makes us keep our distance and stop 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. The virus deprives us of soothing one another: that firm or relaxed handshake, the gentle pat on the back, a hug to confirm shared joy or sorrow.

What can we do?

Our human species is under attack by this virus. Without us, the virus has no place to live. We need to take away its home: us.

Our species is known for our ability to band together with shared intention to get things done. For this we are the most capable species on Earth. We can deprive the virus of a place to live by working together.

It is going to be hard. The first thing to do is to stop fighting with ourselves. Groups not trusting each other. Fighting with ourselves blocks our greatest strength to collaborate. The virus just keeps living in us, in our communities, in our living space while we fight.

We have more to learn about the virus, but this we already know. It is blocked by three actions. I call them the three “W” behaviors: Wash our hands and stop touching our face, Watch our distance to keep 6 feet apart and Wear our face cover in the presence of others who are not part
of our safe household circle.

Wash hands. Watch our distance. Wear face cover.

Do these things, all the time, and we deprive the virus of a place to live.
These three actions are not easy. Our hands get raw. It feels rude to back away from others entering our safe space. Face cover is no fun because we miss seeing expressions and enjoying that window into our emotional communication.

Besides the three “W” behaviors, we need to do a couple other things to get through this. Let’s be gentle with one another.

It helps to give emotional benefit of the doubt. We must recognize that normal emotional cues are blocked. Give hugs in our household space and appreciate more the emotional cues that we exchange there. Pay extra attention to our eyes as we seek those cues not otherwise available
behind our face cover.

If we adopt the three “W” behaviors, our health experts will help us win this war with the virus creature that is hurting us. We can kill it from our living space.

Our health experts ask us to test for the virus when we have symptoms, and they ask us to help with contact tracing and isolation when it’s 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.