In the early 1970s, I watched the British series Upstairs, Downstairs—the original, which was called the best depiction of the effects of World War I on the upper and lower classes that had been produced up to that time.
In one episode, James Bellamy’s wife, Hazel, contracts the Spanish flu. A brief synopsis of the next episode, published in the TV section of the newspaper, said James and Hazel would leave London for a quieter life in the countryside. At the end of the show, however, Hazel dies.
I cried for a half-hour. Maybe the shock value was worth it to the producers, but I felt betrayed by the false publicity.
That was my introduction to pandemics. At that point, I was protected by both a television screen and time.
A hundred years later, the world faces another pandemic. Experts said ten, twenty years ago that we were overdue for it. There’s no vaccine. We’re told to wash our hands, disinfect surfaces, and avoid contact with other people.
But we see from the experience of other countries that personal measures alone aren’t sufficient; governments have to take action. The U.S. lags far behind in attempts to delay the spread of infection.
What to do? Keep Calm and Carry On. Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands.
One psychologist says—I wish I could remember who and where I read it—that instead of Keeping Calm, we should feel some fear, because fear can prompt action, such as admitting the gravity of the situation and acting on the advice of medical experts.
And if you’re elderly, recognizing their advice as a warning.
My husband and I are elderly—I don’t know when that happened, but the experts say we are—so we have soup, tuna fish, TV dinners (for junior citizens, frozen entrees), canned everything, frozen fruit and vegetables, orange and cranberry juice, and other non-perishables in the pantry for self- or government-mandated quarantine. And Cheetos, of course.
We’ve also stocked up on medications and other necessities.
We’re not hoarding. We’d have trouble if we tried: David, the shopper, says shelves normally housing toilet paper and hand sanitizer are empty.
We canceled a trip to Florida. We’ve reduced—practically ceased—our out-and-about. I’m sorry about Florida, but we can reschedule. I’ll hardly notice the out-and-about; it’s not like I get out much anyway (lazy). Maybe I’ll finish that eternally-budding novel.
There is a certain irony in being more concerned about a contagious disease than about cancer. The cancer belongs to me alone; I continue treatments; I’m in remission; I don’t worry about my husband contracting it; I can be in a crowd without catching or transmitting it. At some point it will recur, but I don’t often think about it. Uncertainty exists, but within limits.
With this virus, uncertainty has no boundaries, for any of us. It’s everywhere.
But about fear: We need to smile, too. It’s good for the immune system.
Dr. Murray Grossan, an ENT-otolaryngologist in Los Angeles, says that smiling has been shown “over and over again” that happiness boosts the body’s resistance.
“What’s crazy is that just the physical act of smiling can make a difference in building your immunity,” says Dr. Grossan. “When you smile, the brain sees the muscle [activity] and assumes that humor is happening.”
In a sense, the brain is a sucker for a grin. It doesn’t bother to sort out whether you’re smiling because you’re genuinely joyous, or because you’re just pretending.
“Even forcing a fake smile can legitimately reduce stress and lower your heart rate,” adds Dr. Sivan Finkel, a cosmetic dentist at NYC’s The Dental Parlour. “A study performed by a group at the University of Cardiff in Wales found that people who could not frown due to botox injections were happier on average than those who could frown.”
And there are plenty more studies out there to make you smile (or at least, serve as reference for why you should).
And then there’s laughter. From WebMD’s “Give Your Body a Boost—With Laughter”:
Immune response. Increased stress is associated with decreased immune system response. . . . Some studies have shown that the ability to use humor may raise the level of infection-fighting antibodies in the body and boost the levels of immune cells, as well.
When I was in chemotherapy, I tried to maintain a smile (a beatific one I like to think). That may be one reason I’ve done better than my oncologist predicted. It at least seemed to make him feel better. My radiation oncologist appears genetically programmed to smile. She made me feel better.
Anyway, I take the advice of these experts as seriously as I do the epidemiologists’: We’re washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, stocking up, staying out of crowds, and laughing as much as we can.
For anyone too young to remember, Pogo was a comic strip by Walt Kelly, featuring a possum and his friends, who lived in the Okefenokee Swamp. Children enjoyed the animals and their adventures; adults enjoyed the“layers of political satire.”
To see why Pogo said the enemy is us, click here. The strip ran on Earth Day in 1971.