Bell tower in spring
Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Higher Ed, Public Health

The pandemic rages, days blend and springtime is sweet in Chapel Hill

May 13, 2020 |4:52 min read

Finding inspiration and connection in dark times

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global disaster that has pummeled the world with the ferocity of the strongest winds, and the wreckage will last for years if not decades.

It has killed hundreds of thousands, sickened millions and left even more unemployed. In the face of that devastating toll, all over the world, there are inspiring stories of people reaching out to one another, celebrating small victories, and supporting health workers and others who are risking their own lives to help. In Chapel Hill, we have been enjoying a beautiful spring that, though paradoxical, is a balm for the soul.

Watch this video, created by Branson Moore, MA, our digital communications specialist, from clips submitted by Gillings School faculty and staff members and students. It’s a day (April 17) in the life of Gillings during the pandemic. The video shows ordinary moments experienced by extraordinary people; how life goes on, and individuals, families, parents and children make memories during this time — featuring dogs, cats, nature, exercise, food and ever-present computers — not just in days that blend, but in days with vivid exclamation points. Watching it allowed me to experience the ways that people achieve peace and continued balance even in dark times, even when worried about their own health and the health of people they love. The video, with its intertwined stories of Gillings people, reinforced how much I care about each of them, and how their everyday moments represent a collective commitment to excellence, equity and compassion. The collection of brief stories reminds us, too, that excellence results from how we live each day, even days in lockdown. As Booker T. Washington said, “Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.”

Focus on equity and evidence

The pandemic has hit vulnerable populations, including low-income and minority populations, especially hard, exacerbating already growing inequities. Growing lines of unemployed people at food banks, unemployment centers and similar places put the impact of the pandemic in sharp focus. Disasters always hit the most vulnerable hardest, and this one is no exception. In this one, too few of our national leaders seem to feel the pain of the people suffering from COVID-19. They should spend time with medical professionals and see the deep pain in their eyes as they talk about caring for people with COVID-19 and the impact of this work on their colleagues and families. They should listen to people in the service industry who have been out of work for two months. These are tough times.

The ravages of the pandemic, our lack of preparedness for it, and government’s often too-late and inconsistent response remind me how important science and evidence are to good decision making. Some states, like North Carolina, rich in public health and medical expertise, with leaders from both parties willing to listen and communicate, are adopting policies tempered by data and informed experts. In many other places, leaders are rushing to placate those who would sacrifice lives to recreate as quickly as possible what they remember as normal. The old normal is no longer possible and must be redefined to include health and safety for all people.

Read the recent opinion piece on equity during the pandemic, “An ‘essential’ lesson from COVID-19,” by our faculty members, Kauline Cipriani, PhD, assistant dean for inclusive excellence, and Jim Thomas, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology. For additional context, view recordings of recent webinars on issues of equity and ethics related to COVID-19.

Altered perceptions of time and space

Being isolated day after day — interacting only in two-dimensional space, through Zoom and other programs, with flesh-and-blood people whom we know and care about — shifts our experience of the world. Never, since childhood, have I experienced — nor heard so many others talk about — the phenomenon of losing track of days and time. Those of us who are privileged to be employed and working from home can go days without interacting face-to-face with anyone besides our family members, if we are lucky enough to live with them (and live happily together), or housemates. In Zoom meetings and webinars, we are surprised to see people in bedrooms, kitchens, family rooms and other spaces that are so inconsistent with our usual meeting places. We see family members, including cats and dogs, on screen, and that somehow strengthens our human connections. These departures from the usual have leveled playing fields and emphasized a common humanity.

Yellow tulips in front of Old WellI move from bedroom to study and back with no boundaries, and sometimes find it is midnight or later, and I am still working, hardly even aware of what hour it is. Not having to get in my car to return home, I just keep going. (See a May 26 New York Times opinion column by Charlie Warzel about the need to set boundaries and prioritize balance when working from home.) The virtual backgrounds people adopt on screens for Zoom calls add to the surreal nature of interactions. Is my colleague at home or in Hawaii, out on a lovely trail or skiing in Vail? Still, however unnatural these Zoom meetings can seem — and there has been a lot of appropriate social criticism of them — still, they are far better than phone alone, as far as I am concerned. (I will admit that I often am tempted to turn off my camera because I see all the flaws when I look at myself on screen. But I realize that part of the social contract involves sharing one’s video.) In these meetings, sometimes, if we try, it can almost feel as though we are in the same space. Then, the sense of loss feels less acute, and the intimacy more alive. It does not just happen though. We must work at it, ask people how they are, scan faces for signs of stress, and celebrate both the unusual, when good, and the everyday. Being healthy and alive is a privilege not to be taken for granted, especially during this dark time. Spring flowers are a welcome change from bad news.
Be well and be safe,

Want to leave a comment or contact us?
The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.