July 05, 2021

Emerging From the COVID Cocoon

Janis prince innissBy Janis Prince Inniss

Should I sit inside or pool side? Wear a mask or not? Hug people? Fist bump? Elbow bump? These are some of the questions I am mulling more than a week before attending a Fourth of July party. This is a significant event because it marks my return to visiting friends since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year.

  • The last time I went to a grocery store was March 16—of 2020!
  • I’ve dined in at only one restaurant since the pandemic—only a week ago.
  • It was May 21 of this year before I ventured into a department store for a few minutes.
  • I have not had a massage since about February of 2020; before the pandemic these were monthly “needs.”
  • For the first time in decades, I have not been to a gym—other than the one I created in my home—since last March.
  • I never had regular beautifications at the salon but I enjoyed going probably about five or six times a year. I have not entered the salon since early last year.
  • For the past several years, this is the longest I have not flown: 18 months!

My mother turned 90 on March 19, 2020.  This is as the numbers of COVID deaths and infections were beginning to skyrocket. A couple weeks before the big day, a telephone consultation with her doctor confirmed that I should cancel the party I planned for her. After going to the grocery store on March 16—making sure to get groceries for both of us—I stayed at home, hoping that I would not pick up the virus before I visited Mom on her birthday.

Today, we know that was not a long enough time to cover the incubation period of this virus, but at the time I did not. I didn’t want to risk exposure to the virus by visiting another store on her birthday, so I baked her banana bread muffins, and a cake which I iced; the biggest feat was probably trying to ice the cake using only the supplies on hand as I had forgotten to shop for frosting ingredients. I spent her Mom’s birthday with her, cooking lunch and dinner for her instead of dining out. And that was the last time I visited her in-person for three months!

The news of elder deaths was frightening; I did not want to be the person who gave Mom COVID-19 so I used FaceTime and the phone to connect with her. Of course, it was not the same! The lack of touch is what I found heartbreaking, and like many elders in this pandemic, she felt lonely. I was unsure about allowing home health aides to continue working with her, but given her need for their daily assistance, I decided that I would. However, I took over her laundry so that her aide would not have to be in a potentially crowded laundry room. Of course, I have no idea what the aide did in her 21 hours away from Mom, but I controlled what I could.  Wearing a mask and gloves, I would swap laundry bags with an aide every weekend; Mom would wave at me from her floor to ceiling window on the 13th floor.  And sometimes she would sob.

When this pandemic began, I was on a semester long sabbatical so I was already, in a sense, working from home. I kept doing my research and writing, created a home gym, ordered groceries from stores that would deliver and settled into a life without massages, manicures, or pedicures. I cooked and baked foods I missed from favorite restaurants. I discovered new items that I could acquire by delivery including plants, enormous plant pots and soil!

Once the vaccinations became available, Mom got her shots with relative ease. This development made me less anxious for her, but I remained concerned about my own health. I am not elderly nor do I have an underlying health condition, but racial minorities have been dying from COVID at younger ages. This virus has wreaked havoc: More than 600,000 people in the U.S. are now dead because of COVID-19, while the global death toll is approaching 4 million people. As of June 26, 54.1% of the U.S. population had taken at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 46.0% were full vaccinated.

As a sociologist, I ponder where we get answers to the kinds of questions I posed about attending the party or resuming activities such as those I stopped. If you’ve had the virus, or lost at least one friend or family member to COVID, you might feel more cautious, despite recent CDC directives for vaccinated people to drop masks for indoor gatherings.

Agents of socialization influence our attitudes, perceptions and behaviors; sociologists consider family, mass media, peers, religion, school, and work critical agents for our socialization. Do our decisions regarding COVID-19 reflect socialization from these agents? Are family and friends, medical authorities, favorite politicians, or newspapers our best source of this information?  Socialization does not take away our ability to make autonomous decisions; but it is powerful.

In other words, these agents of socialization make clear what is right and wrong from a particular perspective and use a variety of measures to keep us believing and behaving as they do. For example, advice columns during the pandemic have been filled with questions from people bewildered by pandemic behavior of family and friends, and examples of how they hope to control it. 

Individuality and freedom are among the core American values identified by Sociologist Robin Williams; factor those into this mix and you recognize that our choices are shaped by many factors. Sociologists focus on how social—external—factors impact our lives. The pandemic is an extraordinary example from which to we might recognize such forces at work. Of course, we can make choices, even in a pandemic, but these experiences are a good example of how much societal issues can impact our personal choices and how agents of socialization help guide those choices. 

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