Guest Column Andrea Ayvazian: ‘Let’s have a virtual love-fest during this crisis’

Let’s Have a Virtual Love Fest 
by Andrea Ayvazian 
published in the Hampshire Gazette, 3/11/20

As a former nurse, I hold germs in high regard and have a healthy respect for viruses and their ability to spread with rampant abandon.

I have been watching the evolution of the coronavirus outbreak as it has gone from a localized problem to an epidemic to a pandemic to a sense of panic, and I understand the risks and the fears.

One of the consequences of the coronavirus crisis is the implementation of what experts are calling “social distancing.” Social distancing is the term applied to certain actions that are taken by public health officials to stop or slow down the spread of a highly contagious disease. Social distancing is now being prescribed by government leaders and health officials, and is being self-imposed by worried citizens.

Social distancing is a way to keep people from interacting closely or frequently enough to spread an infectious disease. Schools and other gathering places such as movie theaters may be closed, sports events and religious services are being cancelled, travel is being curtailed and meetings and conferences postponed.

Social distancing is necessary to keep people safe, and so of course we must heed the warnings and recommendations of public health officials. This is, after all, a way to protect ourselves and each other during the duration of this crisis.

But I want to make a strong case for intentional, strong and compassionate social engagement during the coronavirus crisis. Safe social engagement is an antidote to the negative side effects of social distancing we are all now experiencing.

Now is the time to be cautious and to keep a distance from others to avoid the spread of the illness. But that is only on the physical level. Now is also a good time to pull in close to others emotionally and spiritually: We need safe social engagement, and we need it now.

Whatever vulnerability a person or family has been living with before this crisis will be exacerbated during this pandemic. If a person has been feeling lonely, they will now feel lonelier. If an elder has been experiencing a sense of isolation, they will now feel more isolated. If someone has been living with depression or anxiety, they will now feel more depressed and more anxious. If someone has been living close to the bone relying on tips for a large part of their income, they will now feel poorer. If young families have already been struggling to juggle work, day care, babysitting schedules, and play dates, they will now be more stressed and frazzled.

Any area of vulnerability that a person has been living with before this health crisis will be exaggerated during this time — whether it is experiencing fear and a sense of being alone, feeling secluded and forgotten, being gripped with worry and dread, or feeling consumed with anxiety about finances.

As a close and caring community, I believe we need to counter the medical necessity of social distancing with intentional acts of social engagement to show those most vulnerable that they have not been forgotten, that they are not alone.

Small gestures that show an isolated and frightened person that we are thinking of them are needed now. There are many steps that each of us can take to care for our community during this time.

This crisis, which is forcing us to keep one another literally at arm’s length, is a good time to connect heart to heart — and there are so many ways to do that.

Without seeing a person and exposing him, her, or them to illness, we can — if we can afford it and feel safe doing so — leave a note, food, or flowers at someone’s door — someone who is now self-quarantined due to fear.

We can call an elder or someone we have not seen in worship or other community settings for a few weeks, and express our concern about their well-being. We can write a note and rely on the good old U.S. Postal Service to carry our words of caring to someone’s door in a safe manner.

If we do go out to eat and can afford to be generous, we can leave our server a large tip to make up for lost wages as this crisis drags on. If downtown becomes less and less traveled, we can give more dollars to those asking for money on our streets.

We can also very intentionally thank people who are at work during this time — those individuals interacting with the public every day who are exposing themselves to airborne contagions. Thank the cashier at the grocery store, the bank teller, the police officer walking the beat, and the letter carrier delivering our notes of concern to friends and family.

Health care providers are on the front lines of this crisis. This is a good time to bring them flowers, chocolates and notes of appreciation, thanking them for their good work in the face of this coronavirus outbreak.

We are being asked to distance ourselves physically from others to protect ourselves and others. But I think it is also time to pull in close, emotionally, to keep the fabric of this community healthy. It is a good time to do an errand for someone who is shut in and leave whatever is needed at their door, to convey by phone what occurred at a religious service or meeting that someone could not attend, to let someone know you have your eye on them and are caring from a distance.

I know that some people reading this column may dismiss my calls for emotional closeness as naïve and unnecessary. I am happy to be considered naïve, and, as a pastor, I believe increasing our emotional connection to one another right now, as we maintain a physical distance, is a necessity.

Whoever was vulnerable in our community before this health crisis is more vulnerable now. Whoever was hurting before this health crisis is hurting more profoundly now. So I say we think of creative ways to open our hearts and reach out emotionally when we cannot visit, hug, or share any close spaces together. We can write letters, leave surprises, contribute dollars, make calls, bring food, say prayers, and reach out in any number of safe and creative ways.

We are a strong, caring, and connected community. Let’s have a virtual love fest during this crisis. And then, when the crisis is over, we will be an even stronger, more caring, and more connected community. This crisis is an opportunity to love up our neighbor. And there is no limit to who is our neighbor.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership, which offers free movement-building classes from Greenfield to Springfield.

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