The kind of fear and panic that this pandemic, its media coverage, and the natural human response to it is not new to me. There are people living with this kind of fear daily. Fear of contracting a disease, fear of hospitalization, fear of death.

My mom is one of approximately 50 million Americans living with a diagnosed auto-immune disease. These numbers don’t include undiagnosed auto-immune diseases (my mom went nearly 30 years without a proper diagnosis). Then there are the nearly 1.8 million Americans diagnosed with cancer every year. Such individuals undergo chemotherapy, radiology, and other treatments which weaken their immune systems and make them particularly susceptible to illness.

Let’s not forget about 17% of the US population that is over the age of 80. People with naturally weakened immune systems, deteriorating health, and a slew of heath related problems due to their age. Nor should we forget the more than 500,000 homeless Americans who have no way of home quarantining, who can’t wash their hands frequently, or practice social distancing in shelters. Approximately 133 million additional Americans suffer from chronic diseases, putting them at higher risk of health complications.

All of these numbers are staggering, but they only include folks in the US.

What I’m trying to say is: welcome. This is what daily life looks like for people with debilitating health problems. Fear of being in public spaces, fear of the person coughing beside you, fear that when you get sick you’ll have to take time off work when you can’t afford it. Fear of losing your job. Fear of another hospital stay. Fear of more hospital bills. Fear. So much fear.

I hope we can turn this time of fear into a time of compassion by recognizing the daily anxiety of folks who struggle their entire lives with this burden.

The majority of high risk individuals contract these illnesses from otherwise healthy, mobile loved ones -those of us with the energy to interact with the world. Sometimes we pass the illness on to these vulnerable populations before we even know we’re sick. Many of us are carriers -we will never show signs of illness, but pass it along unknowingly to the ones who we’re trying to project.

This is the reason we should stay home when we’re sick (not just during this new coronavirus, but all the time. Take a look at this virus simulator to understand how infections spread). Wash your hands (not just now, but all the time). Get your flu shot (every year. You’re not just protecting yourself, you’re protecting the vulnerable population, many of whom are not allowed to get flu shots due to their health, or for wee ones, their age).

If you know someone who is at high risk, reach out (on the phone, or via email first). If you’re sick or suspect you might be, reschedule your visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and other high risk areas. Trust me, the hospitalized person will be grateful for your consideration.

In short, we should always be thinking about the most vulnerable. Because long after this virus is over, this at-risk population will still be struggling, every day, to stay healthy.

I don’t want to dismiss the ethical complications of all of this. I have family and friends whose livelihoods, businesses, and lives are already directly impacted by social distancing. Businesses will close. People will lose their jobs, their homes, their health insurance -if they had any to begin with. Kids won’t eat because their free school lunches won’t be available. The ramifications are endless -we haven’t even conceived of some of them yet. None of this is easy or without consequence. If you are in a privileged position it’s more important than ever to reach out to loved ones who might be struggling -whether it’s with their health or their livelihood. We need to be kind, we need to be compassionate. We need to be there for one another. And we’re going to need to do it for a long time to come.

Wash. your. hands. (any soap will do)

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