Driving along to work one day last week, I caught a broadcast of our city officials talking about the COVID-19 response and what they'd like people to do: stay home, practice good sanitation and distancing, and stop panic-buying. One caller wanted to know: we've been hearing for years about the long-term dangers of the overuse of antibacterial products and hand sanitizers. Should we really be using them this much?
The response was: now is not the time to worry about overusing hand sanitizer.
At first I was annoyed, because if you let people do a thing in an emergency, then pretty soon every Tuesday is an emergency. But what lies behind that is this: you must do the things you do for the long-term health of the planet and the species when you can, all the time, because there may come times when you have to set them aside. This is one of those times.
There's a lot of reason to avoid overusing that little bottle of sanitizer you keep in your purse. On a regular basis, especially if you buy the fancy kind with the special antibacterial label, you can contribute to a dangerous buildup of resistant organisms.
There's a lot of reason to go to the store yourself instead of having the groceries delivered, and to make fewer trips for larger purchases. It's more expensive to get things delivered, and a twice-weekly grocery store habit contributes to the use of fossil fuels.
There's a lot of reason to choose social interactions over isolation. In the long term, it makes you feel connected and builds relationships to rely on.
Myself, I spent a little time last week worrying about the amount of water that goes down the drain while I wash my hands for 20 full seconds several extra times a day. As someone who's turned off the tap to brush her teeth since she was in elementary school, that amount 'wasted' really started to weigh on me.
For every responsible, reasonable choice, there is a very good explanation for why we should do it all the time, but the best possible explanation is this: sometimes we have to stop doing it for a while. Sometimes we have to let that water run. Sometimes we have to spend what's in the savings account. Sometimes we have to pull an all-nighter to get an important task done.
If you've been practicing those conservation-minded habits all along, then you have reserves for times like these. If you usually carry your own straw and cutlery, you don't worry about three weeks of single-use disposables. If you've been diligently setting your HVAC to minimize usage when you leave the house, you don't need to worry about a couple of weeks of not changing it because no one is leaving the house. If you get enough sleep and exercise, and eat healthy foods, you will be more physically able to withstand the lack of them.
This is not a matter of "Well, don't you feel like shit for not 'doing better' all along?" No guilt, no shame, no judgment here. This will end and we can 'do better' then. It does, however, bring two points to mind.
The first is that if you're stressing or feeling guilty because once shit hit the fan all the things you believe in and your personal ethics seem to have become malleable and all your healthy habits start shifting: don't. This is an extraordinary situation, and for extraordinary situations we have much shorter-term priorities. Anything you're doing right now that decreases the likelihood of you catching and especially spreading COVID-19 is the correct priority, as is anything you're doing to make sure that others have the resources and support they need (without endangering them). When things begin to return to normal, we will have the luxury of more choices.
The second is this: the stress, panic, fear, and scarcity that many people are experiencing in ways they had not before, that is some people's daily reality outside a pandemic. Some people never have the option of doing the conservation-minded thing because their priorities are always shortened to immediate survival for themselves and their families. Some people can never save for a rainy day because it rains every day for them. Remember, moving forward, how it felt to not know what your world would look like next week, and retain some of this empathy. Remember how much you learned to appreciate what your children's teachers do, and how important the truck driver and the shelf stocker are, and that medical professionals (not just doctors, but every single person down including cafeteria workers and janitors) literally risk their lives and the lives of their families to fight for other people.
We can come through this having given way to fear and selfishness and blame, or we can come through it having gained an understanding of the importance of community support, a respect for the work and needs of others, and a willingness to look at our own lives to see where we can build our own resilience.