COVID-19 and Changes to our Behavior

Salene MW Jones, PhD, MA, LP

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented stress to nearly everyone in the United States and around the world. From closure of businesses and events to shelter in place orders, the disruption to our social, economic and physical health is enormous. However, I try to remain hopeful that once the pandemic is controlled, some positive changes will be sustained.

The prolific use of video conferencing and virtual conferences during this pandemic is something I have not seen in my more than 15 years working in this field. These technologies help increase accessibility for people who are unable to travel or travel infrequently due to medical or economic reasons. Traveling carries costs including risk of infections, difficulty caring for chronic conditions and monetary costs. Even for regular meetings, people considered me strange for always including a video or conference call option even though all the attendees were expected in-person. For one of my meetings, it seamlessly transitioned to a video meeting from an in-person meeting during the pandemic because I had included the conference call option. People can get sick or their children can get sick and they still want to contribute. Including a conference call option for every meeting communicates to people that I value their contributions and that they are welcome to participate however they can. Providing a virtual option even after the pandemic passes, for both attending and presenting at conferences and for meetings, means our field and our science can be more inclusive.

The shelter in place orders and other public health measures have also highlighted our responsibility to others. Many of the people I have worked with have weakened immune systems and the most common sources of infection are contact with other people. The shelter in place orders are meant to prevent these infections. However, staying home when one is sick is not an option for many people. As supervisors, we can be understanding about people being people and needing to take sick time. As a society, we can advocate for sick leave policies at all levels (trainees, faculty, staff) as well as for all working people.

Another part of our responsibility to others extends beyond just shelter-in-place. Washing our hands frequently and correctly, means we not only keep ourselves healthy, but also help reduce the risk that we will make others sick. Wearing masks when sick so we do not spread the illness to others is potentially a positive that might come out of this pandemic. Covering our coughs with our sleeves is another. Standing six feet apart may be difficult to maintain going forward but giving people more personal space could help reduce the risk of making someone else sick when we do not even know that we ourselves are ill. Although these behaviors do not always benefit the health of the person performing them, they are health behaviors and hopefully will continue going forward.

While these behaviors might continue, I am still cautious. Cautiously optimistic. Nevertheless, carrying all these behaviors forward means a more accessible world for everyone. Having reasonable sick leave policies and making sure we are not informally communicating that taking leave is unacceptable are two things everyone can take forward. Providing virtual conference options as the default is also important. Having to ask for accommodations and being reactive takes up more mental space then simply providing alternative formats proactively. Now that we have seen that we can do it, we should not stop making the world more accessible when the pandemic is controlled.