Editor’s Note: Submissions are edited for clarity and length. 130 students read Dr. Joan Ferrante’s “How to Respond in a Pandemic” as part of a Health Innovation grant. Dr. Ferrante shared the award-winning essays with The Northerner. These essays detail how students used the book to cope with the pandemic in their lives.
This pandemic has had an impact in ways I never thought possible. Being interested in history, I was familiar with the devastation caused by the Spanish flu pandemic toward the end of WWI (1918–1920). With all of the advancements in our society, I never thought we would see something like that in my lifetime. Sure, the threat was there, but you never really think it can happen to you.
I was fortunate enough to work for a company that was deemed “essential,” so we kept working throughout the pandemic. I had a place to go every day and people to interact with, so what a lot of people who were quarantined faced did not affect me. I cannot imagine being cooped up at home for weeks or months like other people.
The pandemic prevented me from seeing my family and friends in Columbus, my hometown, for many months. At first, the governors asked people to not cross state lines, so traveling across the Ohio River seemed like a bad idea. The last time I had seen my siblings was last Thanksgiving. That was difficult because my family is very close. I had to rely on social media and texting to stay in touch. I finally broke down in November and went up to Columbus for a weekend. Gone were the large, noisy gatherings of the past. Now everyone was in groups of no more than four people. Most of the time we wore masks, especially in public. I hate the idea of not being able to see my family over the holidays, especially Christmas. However, if we all stay healthy, then it is worth the sacrifice.
The hardest part of the changes has been seeing people who still refuse to take the pandemic seriously. In my work life, the most difficult thing I have had to do is enforce the mask mandate and social distancing in our plant. Masks are not fun to wear and they cause glasses to fog up, but as I tell my coworkers, “I would rather wear a mask than a respirator.”
It is frustrating to see people resist the requirements and recommendations when they are so simple compared to the alternative. I think had our president and political leaders taken a stronger stance, more Americans would have followed the guidelines, and it would not have become such a political hot-button topic. It is aggravating to have to watch the behavior of these hardworking adults turn them almost into defiant teenagers. We didn’t want to remove the picnic tables in the smoking area or put up plexiglass barriers in the breakroom, but when people constantly ignored the warnings and requests, it had to be done.
I believe that the way I have responded to the pandemic very much lines up with the responses in the book. In “Know That Things Are Not What They Seem,” (sociology), the authors tell of the pandemic’s anticipated and unanticipated consequences. The authors ask readers to think “to create more possibilities,” (p. 3) which we had to do when it came to figuring out a work event. In the past, we organize a big summer event for employees and their families. That obviously was not going to happen under COVID. My manager and I decided that the company would buy tickets for each employee to take their families to a fall festival/pumpkin patch. That way it was still a family-related event, it was outside, and people could arrange to go with coworkers if they wanted. It was a tremendous success – more employees participated in it than in our summer 2019 event.
In “Understand that Crises Can Be Managed” (organizational leadership), Arthur-Mensah writes about how leaders must guide behavior and action. My own personal philosophy is to lead by example. The pandemic hit two months after my boss had been fired, leaving me as the only human resources person for the entire plant, the person that others looked to for answers and guidance. I knew that the eyes of 175 people would be watching my every move.
Arthur-Mensah also writes about the importance of the five pillars of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. I employed all of those, every day. I kept my personal feelings and beliefs out of the conversations with employees and gave them just the facts. I made sure I was following company guidelines, because how could I expect others to do so if I wasn’t? I put in extra hours to get everything done and then went home to deal with my classes. I showed empathy when it came to layoffs because our production was temporarily scaled back. It was a very trying and exhausting three months until they hired a new human resources manager, which lightened my load.
Another thing I took away from “Understand That Crises Can Be Managed” is to get ready for the “post-crisis phase.” I know COVID-19 will slowly come to an end, and we will focus on life after COVID-19 in the plant. We will evaluate what we “overlooked, neglected, or carelessly dismissed” so that we can be better prepared should this happen again. There are those who will finger-point and cast blame onto others, but this will be an opportunity for our plant leadership to really reflect on what we did well and where we fell short. Hopefully, we will not have to face a pandemic again in our lifetime, but we need to be prepared for it and for it to drag out longer than expected.
From “Look to Science for Answers” (Biology), I learned to look to the scientists and experts more, because this “virus will not simply disappear” (p. 9). The more we can learn about the virus and how it spreads, the better we can prevent it. Had we listened to the doctors and experts more when they first recommended things like handwashing, social distancing, and mask-wearing, we might be in a better position than we are now.
“Don’t Blame the Bats” (Environmental Sociology), really emphasized how humans have negatively affected our environment. It really made me think about my daily activities. When COVID-19 began making the news, I heard the stories about how it had originated in bats, or then pangolins. But the reality of it is, the main drivers of a pandemic are “loss of animal habitat and biodiversity.” I had never considered how much humans encroaching on animal habitats led to zoonotic virus increases, or how much the damage done to the environment would impact our ability to recover from a virus such as COVID-19. Knowing this is a respiratory-related illness, the poor air quality in some areas only exacerbates those symptoms and causes longer recovery times or even death.
This assignment has helped me protect my own mental and physical well-being as well as those around me. It has allowed me to reflect on the type of leader I want to be and showed me I stepped into a leadership role without giving it a second thought. I learned that I am an adaptive, authentic leader. The type of leader I want to be is transformational, and I think given the opportunity, from what I have learned over the last seven months, I can be. According to Arthur-Mensah, a transformational leader “recognizes the strengths of the people they are leading” and if put into an “official” leadership role, I now know how valuable that can be.