The growing spread of the coronavirus — and the resulting sense of impending doom many feel — is dramatically changing normal, everyday behavior.
Panicked, some Americans are hoarding, of all things, toilet paper. Some are turning into thieves, too — stealing hand sanitizer, which has vanished from most stores, from government buildings or their own places of employment.
Forget embracing or shaking hands. Touching elbows or tapping feet is the go-to greeting of today — not an easy adjustment in a place like New Mexico, where an exchange of hugs and kisses between friends and even acquaintances is, or was, a part of life.
Just a few weeks ago, the words “God bless you” usually came after a sneeze. But these days, a sneeze or, heaven forbid, a cough, might feel like a scarlet letter.
“My allergies are going nuts (runny nose and cough), people are looking at me like I am Typhoid Mary,” a Colorado woman wrote on Facebook.
In Santa Fe, or the City of Holy Faith, scores of people would be heading to church or praying in the pews Sunday. But for the time being, most places of worship are off limits.
Welcome to the new abnormal — an era when a potentially lethal, fast-moving disease can make terms like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” part of the lexicon. In only a few weeks, what was a public health crisis is now a transformative phenomenon — reshaping society on a variety of levels and changing how people interact with one another.
“Most of us are more anxious than we normally would be because everybody in the population is being asked to tolerate a huge amount of uncertainty, and the rules are changing every single day,” said Dr. Susan Kaspi, a psychologist whose clinical work focuses on the cognitive-behavioral treatment of adults and adolescents with anxiety disorders.
“If you just imagine everybody’s anxiety is elevated, very anxious people, theirs is already high,” added Kaspi, managing partner of Albuquerque-based Behavior Therapy Associates LLC. “Now, the rest of us who aren’t normally so anxious or worried about things are much more anxious and apprehensive because none of us exactly knows how this is going to play out or how long it’s going to take to get control or for it to pass through New Mexico or anywhere else.
“I’m anxious,” she added, “and I’m an anxiety disorder specialist.”
The ripple effects of COVID-19 have been far-reaching.
Gone are the days of a quick rinse of the hands after a bathroom break. The new standard: Wash with lots of soap for at least 20 seconds.
Don’t bother taking a reusable cup to Starbucks, which is “temporarily pausing” the environmentally friendly practice.
In New Mexico, the high school state basketball tournament, a beloved tradition, went on as scheduled but without the throngs of cheering fans in the stands.
Senior centers, libraries and recreation centers will be shuttered for weeks, maybe longer.
Thousands of students are feeling the impact, too. Starting Monday, public schools across the state will be closed for three weeks.
Just about everybody is dealing with the new way of life in different ways.
At Rivera Funeral Home in Santa Fe, manager Bob Clifford said the business is presenting possible changes to grieving families, such as suggesting that only immediate family members attend services.
“The problem is: You’ve got families that have experienced a loss and people have to come in from out of town, and they want to get the services accomplished and head back home so they can go to work or take care of whatever else they have,” he said. “But it’s going to be a different world for a few weeks at least.”
At The Outdoorsman of Santa Fe, which bills itself as Northern New Mexico’s largest firearm retailer, shotguns and ammunition were flying off the shelves.
“That rack is usually full of basic pump-action shotguns — all gone,” salesman Jay Winton said last week as he pointed to an empty rack in the store at DeVargas Center. “People … want to defend their home from the ravening hordes that they’re convinced are coming, so we’re selling lots of ammunition, lots of firearms.”
Winton said a couple came into the store about a week ago specifically talking about the coronavirus.
“They wanted to have a shotgun in the house for when the infrastructure collapses,” he said. “Human beings can be frightened, darty little animals when they get scared, and that’s kind of what we’re seeing right now.”
Winton is no expert, but the professionals agree.
“I think we have an epidemic of anxiety for sure, if not fear,” said Dr. Thomas McCaffrey, a psychologist in Santa Fe. “If you look through history, you’ll see a hysteria in events similar to this where this anxiety, fear-based epidemic has taken over people who have done, as a result, both rational and in some cases irrational things.”
In the case of the coronavirus, McCaffrey said, there is not only a disease but a “viral emotional epidemic” affecting society, or what he also called a “psychological contagion.”
“I just experienced this last night myself,” McCaffrey, who is getting over a cold, said Friday. “I turned on the news, and if you’re feeling a little bit vulnerable or you have to blow your nose, you wonder what the hell is going on.”
McCaffrey offered two examples of how human behavior has changed.
One, he said, is the story of a woman who coughed while working out at a local gym Thursday.
“She was immediately surrounded by the staff, who escorted her out of the gym,” he said.
The second example happened in his own home. Since he’s been dealing with “a little bit of a cold,” he said his live-in “lady friend” who works in the medical field asked to sleep in separate rooms.
“There’s two reactions … one in my very own household, one with a known healthy specimen who happened to do something that would’ve been completely ignored a month ago,” he said.
Dr. Joalie Davie, founder and director of Health From Within LLC, a holistic health practice in Santa Fe, said it’s appropriate for people to take precautions but noted a “fear-driven” mentality is unhealthy.
“All the regular hygiene ways to take care of oneself are still in place,” said Davie, a physician for 30 years who has served on Harvard Medical School’s clinical faculty. “If people follow through with that and maybe be a little bit more cautious is important. But to isolate oneself or to be driven by fear, that raises the stress level and it increases the vulnerability.”
April Anaya, who was shopping during her lunch break last week at a packed Market Street grocery store, had a list of items she wanted to buy, including beans. But the shelves were bare.
“I have a big bag at home,” the mother of three said, adding that she wanted to buy more in case of extended school closures.
Anaya expressed concern about the potential spread of the coronavirus.
“We just got back from Dallas about 10 days ago,” she said. “We were at a huge national cheer competition with thousands and thousands of people. They say it takes about 14 days [for symptoms of the coronavirus to appear] so we’re kind of … we were on flights and everything.”
Anaya said she doesn’t want to overreact but is taking as many precautions as possible to protect her family. She said she kept her children home from school Thursday, primarily to protect her mother, who has diabetes, kidney failure and is HIV-positive.
“I just want to prevent us from getting something and taking it to her,” she said. “It’s not really about us — I mean, it is — but it’s more about protecting her.”
McCaffrey said he suspects the change in people’s behavior is a blip. He said he lived in Greenwich Village in New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis and witnessed “people behaving in nontraditional ways because of their fear of catching the virus in ways in which it could not have been transmitted,” such as walking through the park.
“I don’t think we’re entering a new era of hysterical avoidance of other people,” he said. “It is something that is with us now that has been with us before in different forms.”
Monica Rossetti, a sociology professor at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M., said the accumulation of material things is a sign of panic.
“Usually that happens when people get mixed messages,” she said. “They don’t know what to expect, which does create panic, and they will irrationally stock up on things that creates a kind of safety. It comes from a desire to control the situation.”
Davie predicted the “behavior of panic” will level off as the coronavirus gets under control.
“At that point, there will be nothing for people to latch onto, to be panicky or terrorized,” she said. “I think at some point it will improve. However, it doesn’t guarantee that something else won’t come up.”