Finding Your Key Role During COVID-19
by Danika Leigh
You work in healthcare. Or a utility company. Or at the grocery store. You are an essential worker during the COVID-19 Alert Level 4. The New Zealand government defines essential businesses as providing “the necessities of life,” including “food, medicine, healthcare, energy, fuel, waste-removal, internet and financial support.” If that’s not you, then you must stay at home and have absolutely no physical interaction with anyone outside of your “bubble” a.k.a household.
Those that are deemed vital don’t just continue with life as they know it. There are new protocols in place to help minimize (or eliminate entirely) physical interactions between staff and customers as well as establish health, hygiene, and safety regulations. For some, this may mean simply moving desks away from each other, extra hand washing and sanitizing, or taking phone orders instead of in-person inquiries; however, this is not the case for everyone. Those with close and sometimes unavoidable contact to people, such as supermarket and healthcare employees, must take drastic key measures throughout their entire day to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
My partner works at a hospital, and although they are always on top of their hand washing on regular shifts, the added layer of health and safety practices for COVID-19 means the addition of quarantine “red zones”, roster changes, and extensive PPE. Before a patient is fully triaged, they are asked the daunting questions: “Do you have a cough? Sore throat? Can I check your fever?”. A “yes” to respiratory symptoms or a fever means they are treated as a potential COVID-19 case until proven otherwise. The patient now gets to hang out in the “red zone” which requires anyone entering to don full PPE gear. There is a small room between the safe areas and the “red zone” where one person at a time may get into or out of their PPE. If someone begins to have a heart attack or respiratory arrest, everyone needing to assist must get into full PPE first before saving that person’s life. During lunch, they can’t sit within 2 meters of each other in the lounge. After work, they must shower on premises, and at home remove clothing at the door and immediately throw everything in the wash before greeting their children and spouses.
As soon as my partner leaves the hospital, his mind runs through each patient, ensuring he wore a mask every time he should have, followed every protocol, checked every box. He keeps his phone out of its case inside a plastic bag. He leaves his shoes outside. He waits each day to see if anyone he had swabbed comes back as positive, confirming if he’s had contact with anyone with the virus. Personally, I can’t imagine what it is like, I can only listen to my partner and hope to comfort him when he gets in from a tiresome shift.
The other morning, I left him to sleep in late since he worked the evening before. It had been a busy shift and following the new protocols was tough. The kinks were getting worked out as the staff adjusted to the extra protection and rules. Around midday, I went to check on him and see if he was ready for breakfast. He was sitting in bed, looking at his phone and reading more articles on COVID-19. More numbers. People are not following quarantine. States in the US are running out of tests and, therefore, unable to test his close friend in New York (he tried 4 different times to get swabbed). The weight was bearing down on him and I could see in his eyes he felt defeated.
This is the man who is already giving so much every single time he walks into work, knowing he could come in contact with the virus. He voiced his concerns about the rest of the people in the world. Countries who wouldn’t have any tests at all. No ventilators. No proper ICUs. No chance to protect its people.
I listened, and held him, as he began to fully process the gravity of the situation.
“Nothing is going to be like it was before. It’s all going to change,” he whispered. He felt helpless. But to me, he was a superhero.
“You are doing exactly what you need to be doing right now. You’re going to work, treating those that are sick, and following every single protocol they set forth. You pushed last night for others to hold up that same standard and spoke up if someone didn’t. You’re fighting for everyone to come out of this on the other end. That is your role. And in this situation, you are doing all that you possibly can already. It is more than enough.”
We snuggled in bed for a bit longer, and then I went downstairs to start breakfast. I made him a huge fluffy mocha with extra whipped cream and sprinkles on top, which brought a huge smile to his face. I made myself available to go for a walk, or read, or do art – whatever he wanted that day.
A couple days passed, and this morning he was yearning for an activity. I just sat at his feet and threw out heaps of options until he agreed he wanted to play music. We spent the afternoon jamming in the sun together and playing chess. Later, he was getting dressed for work and he looked at me with complete seriousness and said, “I don’t know what I would do without you right now.”
I must admit I had been feeling sort of useless lately. My partner and two other flat mates work at the hospital. What was I doing? Sitting around making YouTube videos. Reading books (his suggestions). Practicing my Spanish. Occasionally getting into small arguments on Facebook over quarantine rules with people who didn’t care to read the government website. The usual. But in that moment, something clicked.
I realized I was important, too. I could keep my partner above the water during this crisis. He needed me to support him. To be there for him. To hold him on the hard days. To let him be irritated when he wants to go out and see his friends but can’t. To understand why he’s frustrated with people that are still breaking protocols endangering not only his life, but now mine, our flat mates’ and others he cares about. It is my duty to do his laundry and make him breakfast so he can read and get his mind off everything before heading back into the belly of the beast.
I am essential to an essential worker. It sounds like something Dwight Schrute would say to Michael Scott, but it’s accurate. I may not be on the front lines myself, but I have an important role to play that can greatly assist those that are. I’m a Dwight to a Michael. The Donkey to a Shrek. The Mother of Memes, Shopper of Groceries, Maker of Mochas, Lady Regent of the Seven Snacks… (Game of Thrones reference, anyone?) That’s why I don’t mind being the one to go for a flat shop or do some extra cleaning around the house. It might seem small, but it’s vital. He’s quite social, and when not at work, he’s usually mingling with friends or going on adventures with them – it’s how he decompresses. It is really hard for him to go from a stressful work environment and then straight home to the confines of the flat daily, without the normal release.
After a mere two weeks of isolation, I think people have become more aware of the importance of mental health. We need to protect our minds as much as our bodies, especially those that still must go to work during the Alert Level 4. Until my partner sort of “broke down to me”, I don’t think even he realized what this might mean in the long run. Take the time to look around your home and think of some things you could do to brighten the day of the essential workers in your life. Realize the impact you could have on them. Small gestures like baking or offering to do the dishes for them on workdays means they can relax and decompress longer before heading off. It’s really just being there as a friend, flat mate, and partner.
Perhaps you have a flat mate or a neighbor that’s essential. Perhaps you don’t know anyone at all. You can still do your part to support those that are sacrificing for the rest of us stocking the grocery stores, keeping your power running, and tending to the ill. Stay at home. Follow the Alert Level 4 guidelines. Be kind, gentle, and supportive. Be silly, yet strong. Be the person that essential workers need you to be right now.
New Zealand Government COVID-19: https://covid19.govt.nz/businesses-and-employees/essential-businesses/