This Is What “Pikuach Nefesh” Looks Like Right Now

COVID-19, Jewish Values, and Flattening The Curve

These are strange and scary times, y’all – no doubt about it. We are all wrestling with unprecedented challenges as Coronavirus, or COVID-19, alters daily life. A global pandemic is a perspective-shifting, heart-twisting reality. As a social worker and communications director at a Jewish nonprofit, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on how the anxiety we’re all feeling, the steps we can take, and how core Jewish ideals dovetail with the recommended response to COVID-19.

First, it’s okay to be anxious. These are unprecedented circumstances, and there’s no clear guidebook for any of us. It is completely normal to experience waves of worry. Let yourself validate those emotions. Realize others are feeling them, too. Then, as best you can, take stock: I’m anxious, but I’m safe. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, my basics are met right now. I have food, shelter, and more. Uncertainty is awful, but RIGHT NOW, as I read these words onscreen… I’m not experiencing immediate harm. Be gentle with yourself. Anxiety is a legitimate reaction to these strange circumstances.

Take action based on knowns, not unknowns. As noted above, taking stock of your *current* situation rather than projecting too far down the road based on information that simply isn’t available… isn’t helpful. Planning as best we can using information that *is* available is a smart move. Utilize trusted sources like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and base your actions and planning on those sources rather than quick-circulating but not necessarily vetted sources.

What we know: social distancing will flatten the curve. This is sound science. If we stay where we are—safe, secure, well-supplied—and limit our interactions, we can flatten the curve. You can read the full explanation of flattening the curve here – and even see an amazing custom-each-time simulation of how the disease spreads— but the basic idea is that we *slow down* the spread of the virus so that we never overwhelm the medical system. That way everyone who needs treatment, will get treatment. It allows for the most minimal damage to society possible.

That means staying home. All non-essential travel should be avoided. Some cities and states are moving toward fully-enforcing this, but even before it’s enforced, the socially responsible thing to do is to stay put. The virus is transmitted easily and live for hours on surfaces. You can be an asymptomatic carrier and spread the disease just by going from place to place. So the easiest and most meaningful action we can take is limiting our contact beyond our family units.

We still need connection. Personally, I’d avoided Marco Polo until this week. But now, it’s in my connection toolkit, along with Zoom, Hangouts, Facetime, texting, and even (WHAT) phone calls. Virtual playdates are helping my kiddo cope. I’m strategizing now for how small-seder celebrations can still be shared, interconnected experiences… and realizing that Judaism has wonderful built-in mechanisms for acknowledging and navigating Diaspora. And the situation we’re in now really is akin to millions of small diasporic moments. Our community is truly built to last, even when socially-distanced. Schedule those digital social gatherings, eat dinner and raise glasses with people over video conference platforms, read, stress-clean, feel all of the feelings—but remember that this will pass most quickly, and least dangerously, if we all do our part and practice social distancing starting NOW.

Pikuach Nefesh, y’all. Pikuach nefesh is the Jewish value of saving a life. In order to save a life, almost any other commandment can be cast aside; it is the highest of mitzvot to protect the life of another. Indeed, we are even told that to save one life is equivalent to saving the entire world. Limiting our interaction, staying where we are, slowing the spread of this disease— we know this will help. It’s absolutely our duty to do what we can to save lives. For the time being, that means social distancing.

Truly, this is what pikuach nefesh looks like today. There are, of course, a number of other ways to help—through donations to first responders, volunteering if able to do so at call centers, meal distribution venues, and so on—but on a fundamental level, right now: following CDC preventative health guidelines and practicing social distancing will absolutely save lives.

Thank you for doing your part, and be well.

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