Last year was rough. And to be honest, I am not sure that this year is going to be much better. Usually at the dawn of the new year, I feel a sense of relief. There is a perception of having a clean slate and being able to begin again. This year I feel none of this. The messes of 2020 continue to follow us into 2021 in no small part because of decisions we make as individuals and as a larger society.
While writing this commentary, my brother called to tell me that my dear sweet mama died alone in a long-term care facility in Ohio. She had COVID-19. She hadn’t been able to hug her children or grandchildren for a very long time, but she was able to see my brother moments before she passed. And while he didn’t think that she was conscious or knew that he was there, I am certain that she was waiting for one last bit of physical contact with one she loved as permission to go.
This isn’t just me writing as a daughter who has lost her mother, but also as a scientist. I am well acquainted with the vast body of research that demonstrates the physical and psychological consequences of the deprivation of emotional and sensorial contact. In 1942 pediatrician Harry Bakwin wrote about the fatal effects of loneliness in infants. Psychoanalysts John Bowlby and Rene Spitz studied the living conditions of children who were orphaned as a result of WWII. Psychologist Harry Harlow conducted controversial research on social isolation in non-human primates. All of this research, decades old, demonstrates how touch and connection are essential for the physical and emotional well-being of human and non-human primates.
Being present, physically and emotionally benefits not only the dying, but also those who they leave behind. Touch increases levels of the hormone oxytocin which in turn lowers stress, decreases blood pressure, and heart rate. But perhaps, more than the medical benefits, touch is the most powerful form of communication. It can say I love you, I care about you, and I am here for you.
I am glad that my brother was able to be there for my mom when she needed it most. But I can’t help but think of the hundreds of thousands of other Americans who have been deprived of the touch and presence of their loved ones because of our collective inability to think beyond what we want to do as individuals.
I wonder what my mom would have said about the state of our world today. An educator for over thirty years she cared deeply about all of her students. She was observant and soft spoken, but when rattled would tell you what she really thought. I think she would have looked at the 3.1 million Americans who have lost a close relative to this virus and said,
“Stop being a selfish jerk. Wearing a mask, not eating out, or gathering with friends and extended family is a minor inconvenience compared to the pain and suffering of dying alone.”
My mother is one of the over 354,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 to date. It is important to acknowledge that public health recommendations are not political, they are scientific. It’s like gravity. You can argue against it all you want, but it still exists.
Look, I get it. Although I am not an overly social creature, I miss my sisters, cousins, and friends. I miss being able to greet them with hugs and kisses. I miss going to yoga class, museums and art galleries and sitting at a bar with a bunch of strangers with a glass of wine. But the restrictions, despite what Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary claims, are not “Orwellian.” The restrictions are simply asking us to think about others instead of only ourselves. Our failure as a nation to do so, shows just how selfish we are. Every time I venture out to the store and see people refusing to wear a mask, I am reminded that despite the recent good news about the vaccine, the next few months are going to be simply awful. Mask up people and find the resolve to do what is right for everyone, not just yourself. Remember, at a time when humanity needs physical comfort and contact more than ever, our actions as individuals literally result in whether those around us may live or die.
This commentary is dedicated to Nancy Jane Ulrey McIlvaine. Born October 15, 1941, Died January 5, 2021. A loving sister, wife, mother, Oma, educator, and the strongest fighter I will ever know.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.