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Don Cunningham: Finding a New Way and Maintaining Connectedness

By Colin McEvoy on April 1, 2020

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on April 1, 2020. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

Life as we knew it stopped last month.

As the coronavirus emerged in the Lehigh Valley, and businesses were closed and people quarantined to help contain its spread, work ground to a halt for some and reached a blistering — and dangerous — level for others.

Overnight, many were unemployed, while others had more responsibility, risk and work than they sought. It’s tough to know which is worse.

If this is a war and COVID-19 is the enemy, then health care workers and first responders are the foot soldiers on the front lines. Just like the firefighters of 9/11, they’re the ones entering homes and hospitals to test, transport, treat and bring comfort to the scared and sick and dying.

Work for them requires putting themselves and their families at risk. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, medical technicians, police officers and first responders of all types across the globe are being infected at a higher rate than the public. The crisis began here three weeks ago. It’s unknown how long it will last, but we will forever owe them a debt of gratitude.

The Lehigh Valley is fortunate to have two large, excellent health systems. Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s University Health Network have deep resources and a network of facilities that include multiple hospitals, physician offices, and testing and treatment centers. They’re the region’s two largest employers with a combined workforce of nearly 30,000. In addition, there are many other independent doctors, hospitals and health centers.

As in most of America, the crisis is pushing the limits of the health care system and its workers. Community efforts are underway to help with medical supply shortages. More health care workers are likely to be needed before the crisis ends.

There are other Lehigh Valley workers on the front lines, working long hours and risking exposure to keep supply lines open. They’re in grocery stores and pharmacies, sorting and delivering mail, driving trucks, reporting the news, picking and packing in fulfillment centers, and producing food and beverages and manufacturing critical products.

Many others, especially in the service economy, have no work. The jobs went away when the customers did. For them, the anxiety of the virus is heightened by the lack of a paycheck. Fortunately, government moved quickly to increase unemployment benefits and funding for small business loans. The hope is work returns quickly after social distancing ends.

For many of those fortunate enough to have a job, they’re adjusting to working from home, often with other family members. If it’s true that life imitates art, it’s a bit like living the 1993 movie, “Groundhog Day,” where actor Bill Murray plays television weatherman Phil Connors caught in a time loop, reliving the same day every day.

Phil: Do you know what today is?

Rita: No, what?

Phil: Today is tomorrow. It happened.

Life in domestic lockdown has created a new surreal existence of eerily similar days where work and home life blend together in one indescribable mixture. Pajamas and sweat clothes are acceptable all-day wardrobes. Teeth brushing before noon is now optional. Combing hair and applying makeup is only required for Zoom conference calls.

The day no longer has transitions like leaving for work or school, stopping at a restaurant or attending a sporting event or social gathering. Morning becomes midday, afternoon becomes evening, and the evening turns to nightfall. Day rolls into night and night into day. Wash, rinse, repeat. Showering is optional. Wardrobes are awful.

With schools also closed, young children are now part of the work-at-home environment. It may be wise to add “domestic quarantine” to future wedding vows in the better-worse, richer-poorer, sickness-health section that wraps up with “til death do us part.” Now that it’s known, it’s a fair warning — especially for women — who have long endured an imbalanced burden of childcare, regardless of employment status.

The biggest challenge for homebound professionals, particularly women, is balancing work and children around the clock in the same location, while also being asked to become unpaid teaching assistants as schools implement cyberlearning.

A week or two can work. It’s not possible for months.

Schools can help with this in realizing that employed parents of children 12 and under can’t be technical assistants, proctors and study partners. They’re not on vacation. Many of these parents are the same ones on the front lines of health care and other life-sustaining sectors, working long shifts. Many more are single parents. In a time of crisis, maintaining health, sanity and an income comes first in the hierarchy of family and community needs.

Life as we knew it stopped last month.

We’re finding a new way, struggling to maintain the connectedness of life and the economy while disconnected from each other. This is not a natural, social or economic order.

Much wisdom can be found in the words of 17th century scholar John Donne, who wrote:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

This crisis should teach us all how connected we really are, whether we like it or not.

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