Italy’s nightmare is making me rethink life in rural Iowa

Halley Georgeson had been set to make a family road trip to see a good friend going through chemotherapy in North Carolina. Concerns over coronavirus ended those plans.

Everyone catches onto the enormity of this pandemic at his or her own rate. Here in rural Iowa, some people are further down the road in their understanding and are canceling events, declining to hug or hold hands, and stocking up on enough groceries and medicine to weather several weeks at home, while others are angry at disruptions in their lives and canceled travel plans over something they see as overly hyped up.

I fall somewhere in between them, though the difficulties facing Italy have been a wakeup call for me. I’m digesting the news that social distancing and self-imposed isolation can slow the spread of this disease. Because of that, and because we don’t have a lot of extra ICU facilities waiting around empty, I think it makes sense for us to start limiting our face-to-face contact. I want medical facilities to be available when people need them. I don’t want us to run out of ventilators.

To stock up for an extended period of staying home, I drove to Omaha and ventured into unusually crowded grocery stores. Most of us in America are inexperienced in going long stretches without resupplying.

Even people who can afford to gather six weeks’ worth of groceries and other supplies might not readily be able to understand just what they should be purchasing. Checking the expiration dates on ultra pasteurized milk, and contemplating relying on frozen fruits and vegetables rather than fresh requires us to think about our consumption and shopping habits, in a new light.

I admit to being somewhat guided by seeing what other people were buying, and noticing which shelves were nearly empty. When I saw there were only two cans of garbanzo beans left, I decided to grab them. Dried fruit seemed like a good option. Extra coffee, oats, grits, eggs and rice made sense to me. A friend told me she spontaneously bought a large package of cream cheese, something she has not purchased in years. Of course, toilet paper is on everyone’s mind — and in scarce supply.

I’m lucky that my work doesn’t require me to report to a physical location. Because of that, I’m less likely than others to be hurt financially. As a cautionary measure, I canceled a flight to another state to visit my daughter and her family. I’m hosting an event at my house on Saturday, and I’m debating with myself about canceling it. It’s an optional event, but it’s also something that supports people’s mental and physical health. A week ago I would not have had any qualms about hosting it. But if the spread of this disease in the US follows the trajectory of other countries, by this time next week I probably wouldn’t dream of hosting an in-person event.

People in Washington state or New York City or areas of California where there have been outbreaks might shake their heads at those of us who are just trying to get our heads around the recommended lifestyle changes.

We haven’t been directly impacted in my community. I live in a very rural county, with only one stoplight. People here seem to pride themselves on not overreacting. Some of my neighbors are posting on social media about their disgust at what they see as media hype. Others are offering to be the ones to go pick up groceries or other supplies for any neighbors who are at extra risk of complications because of their age.

Today, things feel palpably different in the US. I honestly don’t know if it was President Trump’s address to the nation, or the fact that Tom Hanks has been diagnosed with coronavirus. For me, it was reading about the inability of the medical community in Italy to respond appropriately to the crisis. If our medical system in the United States is completely overwhelmed because we all get sick at once, the facilities that usually respond to heart attacks and car accident victims won’t be available. For some, the widespread cancellation of sporting events, or the Blake Shelton concert in Omaha on Thursday might get their attention.

My own attitudes and my grasp of the situation are changing rapidly. Because of that, I don’t judge people on either end of the spectrum. Is there another part of me that has thought this was overly hyped up? Yes. Is there a part of me that thinks we should close all the schools and figure out how we can help everybody in non-essential jobs stay home for the next several weeks? Also, yes.

Today I heard several people say that they were “taking a media fast,” or that they were just turning off the news because it is too depressing. But because this is a contagious disease, we all have a part to play. There are a lot of indications that people can carry the virus to others while feeling completely healthy. All of us, even those who still have to go to a workplace, can make behavior changes that might slow the spread of this virus.

Consider how you can support people who cannot work remotely. If you normally get a massage but are foregoing that because of the virus, consider paying your massage therapist anyway. If you are reducing how often you go out to restaurants, start doubling the tip that you leave for your server. Hand a grocery store gift certificate to the cashier at your grocery store. Check in on people by phone. Let’s keep talking about it. Let’s not roll our eyes at people who are seeing it differently than we are.

And if my neighbor needs a can of garbanzo beans, or runs out of coffee, I’m happy to share.