Waite: Will we be a generation of germaphobes?



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For a few weeks at the very start of the pandemic, my wife and I disinfected all our groceries before bringing anything into the house.

At the time, fear of a mysterious virus outweighed any health concerns about eating apples that we’d varnished with a fresh coating of Clorox.

Kathleen and I wondered aloud if this intense germaphobia would follow us throughout our lives, prompting future grandchildren to ask us about our paranoia and inspiring sit-down conversations about the pandemic the way our grandparents informed us about growing up during the Great Depression.

I no longer think my wife and I – or the vast majority of us – will forever exist as hyper-vigilant hypochondriacs. After all, Kathleen and I have long stopped scrubbing our groceries with chemicals, and, by and large, many of us have resumed gathering indoors without masking or social distancing.

Still, the persistent nervousness around recent family holiday parties and the fact that we’re now entering the fourth calendar year living with COVID-19 makes me fearful of the ways in which we’ll be forever marked by the pandemic.

History tells us we aren’t likely to become a generation of germ worrywarts. Take the Spanish flu as an example.

“The major question historians are asking about it is why no one seems to care about it. The perception is that it left as quickly as it came,” said Jennifer Delton, a Skidmore College history professor who has been teaching about plagues and contagion since the current pandemic. No doubt, some Spanish flu survivors have talked about traumatic devastation, with entire households of family members lost, but the overall record is that “very quickly life went back to normal,” Delton said.

Still, other health crises have led to monumental changes, Delton said. Cholera is a good example. It was during the Cholera epidemic in the mid-19th century when people realized the harm of bacteria, Delton said. As a result, people stopped disposing of waste in the streets, and sewer systems were developed. 

Yellow Fever is another example during which fears of infection eventually led to social engineering aimed at repelling mosquitoes. Then, there was polio, against which people were overwhelmingly willing to take a vaccine invented in the 1950s to stave off a virus that can result in paralysis.

“So for those types of diseases where there were outbreaks and there were efforts where people could see that they could stop the spread of the disease, people leaned into it, and they did change their behavior,” Delton said. “Anytime there is a concrete engineering or public health solution, people want to do that. But with COVID, the lines are so blurry.”

What it comes down to, it seems, is that our national systems are ultimately able to mobilize when there appears to be a tangible solution to a clearly identifiable threat. Meanwhile, people will similarly adjust their behaviors when they have a reliable antidote to a formidable foe.

People embrace measures of control.

This is in line with what Max Levine, chair of Siena’s psychology department, has studied. His work looks at the connection between physical symptoms – specifically nausea and other gastrointestinal issues – and the mind. What he’s found is that people can prevent symptoms when they believe they have the chance to control them and when those symptoms have some predictability. For instance, when people know certain foods are likely to trigger symptoms, they can lessen nausea. The food may have a physiological effect, but so does knowing that diet can impact the way a person feels.

“We think about what’s happening in our minds as far as emotional and cognitive influences, but then we also see what’s happening in the body and how they work together in interesting ways,” Levine said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the earliest days, we felt a collective loss of control and had little information – and misinformation – about the virus, how it spread and what it would do to us. Remember when former President Donald Trump told us the virus would magically disappear by Easter? It’s no wonder many of us resorted to disinfecting our groceries to feel as if we had some type of control.

That uncertainty and helplessness contributed heavily to the widespread anxiety now afflicting our nation – and could very well have ramifications that last lifetimes. This uncertainty has also been exploited by politicians and other public figures who use fear and lies to deepen our political divides.

What’s interesting is that for all the division that endures surrounding COVID-19 – about lockdowns, masks, vaccines – more than 80% of all Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 shot, according to the CDC.

Sure, many did so because of workplace mandates, but that number suggests we were largely willing to adopt a public health strategy that could make us safer and reinstall freedoms, whether that meant going to work, seeing family or going to the stadium.

In other words, against a serious threat and with a proven solution, the vast majority of Americans are ultimately willing – however begrudgingly – to reach the same conclusion.

As the virus has mutated, though, and as newer vaccines have failed to prevent people from getting sick – and as the severity of cases has mostly diminished – the percentage of Americans receiving doses has dropped off precipitously. Only a little more than a third of us are boosted. Far fewer have received the updated Bivalent booster.

And so our divisions deepen. The most cautious among us still refuse to leave home and worry that every cough is a sign of COVID, while others are hardly giving COVID a second thought.

Our family felt this during the holidays. When someone developed a cough and runny nose, some family members didn’t feel comfortable coming to a party where every attendee was vaccinated and boosted. The sick person tested negative for COVID and promised to wear a mask the entire time, but that still wasn’t enough reassurance for some. When it comes to individual risk assessment, it’s hard to fault anyone, since so much comes down to personal characteristics such as health, age and how significantly they or their loved ones were affected by the virus.

But it’ll be problematic if the norm going forward is to continually turn our own personal risk assessments into public battle lines.

We’re now living in a “tripledemic,” with COVID, the flu and RSV circulating simultaneously. Would we really be using this language if we hadn’t just dealt with the pandemic? Wouldn’t we have just called it a bad cold season? We’d have taken precautions like staying home if we were really sick, but wouldn’t we otherwise have continued business as usual?

Surely, there’s benefit to being cautious – and hopefully masks become an acceptable and widely used tool to help blunt the force of future cold and flu seasons. But, at a certain point, an intense focus on illness leads to greater peril.

Obviously, we must remember and mourn the nearly 6.7 million lives lost as a result of COVID-19. But we also have to acknowledge that in this country we’ve reached the point we wanted to get to; our public health system has responded with vaccines and other medications designed to give us some control over the threat of the virus. Yes, more work is needed. And experts will continue to monitor the spread and develop vaccines and other strategies that can hopefully leave us better prepared to cope with future outbreaks.

We should come to understand, though, that unless hospitalizations and deaths soar again, and unless new boosters prove to be a strong match against any new and deadly strains, we aren’t going to have 80% of Americans getting their shots.

Going forward, COVID vaccines are likely to be akin to flu vaccines, which year after year are taken by about half of all Americans. Half of us will agree to it, and half of us won’t. We’re split down the middle, like we are in so many ways.

But just as our public health system continues to do what it can to provide some amount of control over COVID, it’s within our control to not let public health continue to divide us. If we can do that, we may all feel a little less anxious, and, as a result, we may just mitigate the symptoms of our ailing society.

Notable to me is that the Spanish flu was largely ignored by history, in part, because it was overshadowed by World War I. This is despite the fact that the two-year pandemic killed at least 50 million, while the total fatalities in World War I is believed to be about 40 million people.

I suppose this is what troubles me. History remembers the conflict. It remembers the wars. So as we continue to struggle with deep political divides, the many fault lines that formed during the pandemic – from differing opinions about whether wiping down groceries was crazy or good sense to feuds about how long schools should have been closed – have only widened pre-existing cracks.

While we may not be remembered as a generation of germaphobes, I’m all too afraid we’ll be defined by a pandemic-exacerbated conflict that is yet to come.

In such a world, I fear the extreme tactics that people use to gain some semblance of control.

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 


By Andrew Waite

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