Victoria Ekstrand

So how dry are your hands?

Mine are showing new wrinkles and crevices, but I don’t care. I’ll wash them more than two dozen times today if it means combatting COVID-19 in North Carolina.

Because it’s not about me.

It’s about my elderly parents. And some of my students. And my family members in healthcare.

Because each one of these groups faces significant risks should COVID-19 grow in our community the way it has in Italy, China and elsewhere.

My parents have had a heck of a year. My 85-year-old father had open heart surgery last January that got complicated. Still, he battled back with help from his doctors and is doing well. My 80-year-old mother, whose mobility is limited, was hospitalized this past fall with pneumonia and COPD. She, too, battled back.

I have several students with compromised immune systems who self-quarantined days ago. They live in fear of stepping outside, visiting a doctor, and simply getting groceries.

I have relatives who are doctors in New York, Florida and Ohio. They are uncertain about what the coming days will bring to the hospitals and clinics they manage and work in – not to mention their own health status as they work to help others.

It is for these people and not necessarily ourselves that we see the response around us and the requests for us all to do our part.

But probably like you, I’ve witnessed two very different responses to these pleas to prepare. First, there are those who are listening and following the science: They are washing their hands, stocking up and helping others prepare. And then there are those who are largely discounting the concern.

They are blaming the media and health officials and others for overreaction. The chasm between these responses to COVID-19 is hard to miss. It has had me asking some hard questions about two communities I care deeply about: those North Carolinians with disabilities and those in North Carolina working hard to report the virus’ impact here.

About a quarter of North Carolinians have some kind of disability. While not all of those citizens have a disability that will put them at risk of contracting COVID-19, many of these individuals are people with COPD, asthma or similar. According to the CDC, about 700,000 North Carolinians have COPD. According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, nearly a million have asthma. More than one and a half million North Carolina residents are over the age of 65. These are all individuals who face higher risks should they contract COVID-19.

With that many of our fellow citizens at risk, we cannot talk about COVID-19 as posing a serious threat “only” to old and sick people. These “only” people are our parents, our co-workers and our friends. They are our neighbors. And they are the healthcare workers who take care of the people we love. That’s a lot of people, and we owe them our vigilance.

In terms of following the news about COVID-19, I can say only this: Make sure you are following the most reliable sources that help to explain and report the science. Avoid your social media echo chambers and your cable news programs. Instead, seek out reputable sources from local media, your state agencies and your libraries. These include sources like the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services page and resources at UNC’s Health Sciences Library. And call your doctor first if you need help yourself. UNC has set up a Coronavirus hotline at 1-888-850-2684.

And, then, if you haven’t already: Prepare. As my colleague Zeynep Tufekci recently wrote, preparing is one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to the disruptions ahead. As she wrote, “you should prepare because your neighbors need you to prepare—especially your elderly neighbors, your neighbors who work at hospitals, your neighbors with chronic illnesses, and your neighbors who may not have the means or

the time to prepare because of lack of resources or time.”
Time’s a wasting. Get to work. And wash your hands.
Victoria Ekstrand is a member of the Board of Directors for Disability Rights North Carolina and an associate professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC.

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