“There’s no shame in taking a step back to focus on self-care.” As I was saying this to one of my clients recently, it hit me: if I truly believe that, then I need to practice what I preach! It was obvious to me that my client was suffering from burnout, due to the demands of her job as a mental health professional as well as her family caregiver responsibilities, and equally obvious that she absolutely deserved to set some boundaries, ask for help, and take a break to recharge her batteries. And yet, even though I was beginning to see signs of burnout in myself, it was a real struggle to acknowledge this, and give myself the same permission to step back.
This is the dilemma that many of us in the helping professions face: if you’re a nurse, doctor, psychotherapist, social worker, or teacher, you may have received training to recognize the signs of burnout, and you may know what to tell your patients, clients, or colleagues to do to relieve it. In fact, you might spend your days counseling others to take a step back, set some boundaries, reach out for help, and get some rest. But when it comes to you, you’re far more likely to tell yourself to just push through the exhaustion, and ignore the growing cynicism and feeling of detachment from the work that you used to love.
So what exactly is burnout? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome resulting from chronic work-related stress, with symptoms characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” It is not a medical condition or mental disorder.
Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at UC Berkeley and co-author of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), describes burnout as “feelings of exhaustion, inefficiency and cynicism, defined by a detachment from work and a lost sense of meaning.” Developed in 1981, the MBI was the first instrument to measure burnout, and remains widely used today.
Are people in the helping professions more likely to experience burnout? According to recent surveys [3,4], burnout seems to be growing among workers across occupations, fueled by COVID-19 pandemic-related trends in working from home, remote schooling for children, and staffing shortages. But healthcare workers and educators have been hit the hardest, and even prior to the pandemic, these occupations have historically been most impacted by burnout. To understand why, we can examine the traits of people who are most vulnerable to burnout, but even more importantly, we need to look at the characteristics of jobs that burn people out.
Burnout doesn’t happen to slackers, but rather to those who are the most conscientious and hardest working, and who regard their work as a calling. The traits of people who are most vulnerable to burnout include:
- Being a helper, by nature or occupation;
- Scoring high on conscientiousness and agreeableness (Big Five Personality test);
- Taking pride in one’s work ethic and dedication;
- When the going gets tough, they don’t quit, they just work harder; and
- They believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness.
Do any of those ring true for you?
Burnout is caused by chronic and excessive job-related stress, not by any deficiency in the individual. The characteristics of occupations that have highest rates of burnout include:
- Involving the provision of direct services to people in the areas of health, mental health, and primary education;
- Responsibilities are loosely or vaguely defined, additional responsibilities are constantly being added;
- Success is difficult to measure, there’s never an endpoint or goal post;
- Rewards are intangible, few, or fleeting;
- Job demands exceed what is humanly possible, given time and resource constraints.
Therefore, it is increasingly difficult to do the job well, or meet the needs of those you are supposed to serve. Does this sound like your job?
How do you know if you’re suffering from burnout? In my experience, these are the key signs:
- You’re more impatient or irritable than usual;
- You don’t feel well-rested after a night’s sleep;
- You’ve stopped doing activities that normally bring you pleasure or involve self-care;
- You find yourself saying or thinking more often, “I just don’t care” about your job; and
- You don’t feel ready to go back to work after your regular days off.
You may also find yourself getting more and more behind on routine work and household tasks, and thinking more often about quitting, changing jobs, or retirement.
A key point: burnout is not the same as depression. Because there is a significant overlap of symptoms, those who are suffering from burnout may believe, or may be told, that they’re clinically depressed, however, the causes of burnout are different, and so is the treatment. (Of course, it’s possible to have both burnout and clinical depression, in which case you will need to address both conditions.)
What is the treatment for burnout? Ideally, a signficant amount of time off work. For some people, a couple of weeks might be enough, for others, a month to a year may be needed. Of course, this is not possible or realistic for many people, so then you will need to implement these self-care tasks while continuing to work:
- Start with setting some boundaries. Learn to say “no,” or “not now,” and let go of any non-essential tasks;
- Ask for help from colleagues, or delegate if you can;
- Prioritize getting more sleep and exercise, eating healthier, and reaching out to family and friends for social connection;
- Change your attitude or approach to work. Become willing to be “good enough” rather than “great;” commit to leaving work on time, or if you work from home, create boundaries to separate work from home and family life;
- Take some time to review your life goals, and what gives you a sense of meaning and purpose. If it’s not your job anymore, then begin to explore other options.
- Finally, I highly recommend seeking out a psychotherapist to assist you in this process.
When I saw my client again, she seemed a bit happier, and reported that she had set some limits with the family members who had been most demanding of her time. She’d also resumed her exercise routine, was making plans for a trip with friends, and was actively looking for a job that was less direct-service oriented. And how did I address my own incipient burnout? I have decided to take a break from teaching mindfulness classes, even though I love doing so, to give myself more time for rest, relaxation, exercise, and visits with friends and family.
1. Burnout an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases WHO. 28 May 2019. Referenced in Wikipedia page on occupational burnout.
2. Christina Maslach, quoted in Zuckerman, C (2021, April 30) How to Beat Burnout without Quitting Your Job. NYT online, retrieved March 28 2022.
3. Survey by Robert Half Int’l, referenced in Maurer, J. (2020, December 16) Remote Employees Are Working Longer Than Before. Retrieved from SHRM HR Today, online ed.
4. Threlkeld, K. (2021, March 11) Employee Burnout Report: Covid-19’s Impact and 3 Strategies to Curb It. Retrieved from Indeed.com.
5. From “The Exhaustion Funnel,” handout from my MBCT course.
In a recent poll, 70% of Americans agreed with the statement: “It’s time we accept that Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.” New York Times writer Charles Blow cites this in last Sunday’s column, and goes on to say, “The number of lives taken by Covid in this country alone – north of 900,000 – is almost unfathomable. But, somehow the public has absorbed and reckoned with it in some way. We have taken on a Darwinian sensibility about it all, accepting it as sudden thinning of a herd, a form of natural selection. It is both sad and stunning.”
I’m not sure I agree with Blow’s take on the poll results. To me, they speak of denial rather than acceptance, in the same way that anyone grieving a loss has experienced those well-meaning folks who say, “it’s been three months (or six, or twelve), isn’t it time to move on?” Americans as a society don’t deal with death very well, it makes us uncomfortable, and as a result we don’t allow ourselves to grieve. Instead, we tell ourselves and each other, “move on.”
But just as most people are profoundly affected by the death of a loved one, and find it difficult to move on, it seems to me that we as a society have been profoundly affected by the events of the last two years – either caused by the pandemic or resulting from its politicization – and as a result, we are really struggling to reconcile what our eyes and ears tell us is true with what our minds want to believe, and with what our hearts are able to absorb.
Our minds want to believe that life is fair, that we live in a just society, and that if we “do the right thing,” we will be rewarded with a happy and successful life. Isn’t that what we were told, by parents, teachers, or other well-meaning adults (who also wanted to believe)? How do we reconcile these beliefs with what we have experienced?
The unfairness of who the virus’s victims have been: young people, parents of young children, healthcare providers, adults in their prime, beloved grandparents; the injustice of access to costly treatment options being a function of wealth, status, and race; the surges of contagion and hospitalization being driven by those who don’t do the right thing, who refuse to mask up or get vaccinated; and finally, the shock of realizing that even though you did everything right – masking, sanitizing, quarantining, getting vaccinated, social distancing, depriving yourself of life’s pleasures – still, you came down with the virus anyway. How do we make sense of it all?
The answer for many people seems to be, “move on.” In other words, just ignore what we’ve seen, stuff our emotions, numb out with more TV, social media, shopping, drinking or drug use, and pretend that we’re fine, totally fine. Is that what “normalcy” looks like? To me, that looks like delusional thinking and denial.
Denial, as I often tell my patients, is a normal defense mechanism, and as such, has a protective function, which is to cushion us from the full impact of a grief or trauma too big to bear. Most children and many adults will instinctively move into “magical thinking” following a loss or a traumatic event, where one part of the mind does know what has happened, but another part acts as if everything is perfectly okay. I think this may be what is occurring for many people.
Last spring people were talking about “languishing,” from an article by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant, that described what I and many others were feeling then – “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” Indeed, Grant seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the moment, however, that was a very different moment than the one we’re in today.
There was a guest essay in Sunday’s NYT, by executive coach Brad Stulberg, who references Grant’s article, and has this to say: “But now, nearly a year later, as with just about everything related to Covid, we’re sick of languishing too. We want to feel motivated, and to get unstuck. The question, of course, is: How?”
Yes. I have been wanting to feel motivated and to get unstuck, for months now. At first I thought maybe I was still “languishing,” but actually I don’t think that’s what’s happening, for me, or for most of us. I believe we are grieving, whether we know it or not. Whether or not in denial, we are numb, but not from “numbing out,” rather from the shock of recognizing that the losses we’ve experienced aren’t just a bad dream that we can awaken from.
We are also angry, perhaps very angry, yet without a clearly identifiable person or cause to direct our anger toward, just like what happens when a loved one dies. We may engage in bargaining, promising to be a better person or devote ourselves to a noble cause if we can just be done with this stupid virus, and feel happy again. And many of us have fallen into depression over the past year, as so often happens after a loss.
These stages of grief, familiar to most of us, were first described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her classic book, On Death and Dying. As I’ve discussed with many of my patients, the stages do not occur in a linear way, like chapters in a book, but rather as amorphous feeling states that we go in and out of over time, usually a long time, longer than we expect or want. We can experience all of them – denial, anger, bargaining, depression – at the same time, even as we have moments, days, or weeks of feeling relatively calm and “normal.” That’s what grief looks like. Doesn’t that seem a lot like what we’re experiencing today?
There’s another stage of grief that Kubler-Ross identified, which because she listed it last, we tend to assume is the final stage: acceptance. Actually, acceptance comes and goes just like the other stages, though it does tend to grow over time as the reality of our loss(es) sinks in. Some people have the mistaken belief that acceptance means “I’m A-okay with what happened, and I’m good to go now,” in other words, moving on. However, that’s not what Kubler-Ross meant, as she was really writing about the experience of the person who is dying, coming to a place of peace and acceptance of their fate. Circle of life, and all.
Acceptance, for the loved ones who remain living, is actually a starting point, rather than an end to grief. As David Kessler, a student of Kubler-Ross and author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, writes, “meaning is not in the death itself, or in how they died, but rather it’s what is in us afterward.” The process of grieving can be transformational. It has the potential to transform us into a wiser and more compassionate human being, or it can leave us bitter and uncaring. Which path will you choose? Kessler reminds us, “we can’t heal what we don’t feel.”
I believe that it is going to take years for most of us, both individually and collectively, to truly make sense of what we’ve lost during this pandemic, and come to an understanding of how that loss has transformed our lives and our world. We will be making progress when we can acknowledge the enormity of our losses, and start talking about how we’ve been affected.
A letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle caught my eye yesterday morning, as I was reading the paper over breakfast. Unlike most letters to the editor, it reads like a poem, and I quote it in its entirety here, having received permission from the author, because she sums up my thoughts and feelings more eloquently than I can:
An Open Letter to my fellow Americans
“Let’s move on,” everyone says
But, there is no where else to go
This illusion of movement to a future promised land,
just beyond the horizon of inconveniences
“Let’s get on with our lives,” you say
Have you been asleep all this time?
Haven’t we all been living our lives through the mess, the sorrows, the death and disease? What is this life you’re so anxious to get on with?
Will it look so much different than the now-moment you’re in,
that you proclaim so loudly in my ear and make such a fuss,
so I can understand what you’ve given up?
Truth is, your life will go on looking much the same
Many of you haven’t given up all that much
The illusion of normalcy, whatever that is
The luxury of not hearing about one million dead Americans
The permission to stop caring
It’s not easy, with one’s hearts and eyes open to a painful truth
But it’s not all bad
Because we are here
And that means we’re alive
Breathing, beating, dancing alive
Every morning a song
Every evening a prayer
This is our lives
The unbearable weight of being here.
(Alicia Parker, MFT)Learn More
Well, we’ve made it to the end of 2021 – what a weird and wearying year it’s been. A year of “wait and see,” of plans made, changed, cancelled, then made and changed or cancelled all over again. It’s been challenging to live with so much uncertainty, hasn’t it?
As a trauma counselor, I’m familiar with the emotional numbing that can happen when the nervous system is bombarded with threats to one’s well-being; lately I’m seeing this not only in many clients, especially the educators and healthcare professionals, who have dealt with the worst of it, but a bit in everyone, myself included, as we are all bombarded with threats to our whole society’s well-being, which I shall not enumerate here – no doubt you are well aware.
This is also the time of year that people who are prone to seasonal depression, like me and some of my clients, may struggle even without a pandemic. It’s been hard to sort out what part may be SAD (seasonal affective disorder), triggered by the loss of sunlight, versus normal sadness about all of the pandemic-related losses we’ve witnessed or experienced.
And yet there was much to be grateful for this past year, in my life and I hope in yours. First, I was among the first to be vaccinated, and now I’m boosted too, and so far have avoided getting the virus. The same is true for most of the people I know. With the vaccines and boosters have also come new treatments for those who do get COVID, so that even as we are dealing with a new, more contagious variant right now, the chances of getting seriously ill or dying from it have been dramatically reduced.
Second, the world has opened up again. It’s hard to even put into words how nourishing it was to be able to return to live music performances this summer and fall, in venues where I felt safe because proof of vaccination and masking were required. I’ve heard similar feelings from many others. Support for the performing arts has never been stronger. And while some events got cancelled recently, and some holiday plans changed due to the virus or the crazy weather, still the stores and restaurants remain open, and judging from the full parking lots at the shopping mall across from my office, business is good!
After last year’s lockdowns, shutdowns, and other deprivations, our gratitude for what we have grew.
We learned to appreciate what’s most important, and for most of us, being able to get together in-person with at least small groups of family or friends is top of the list. If we can just do that, we’re okay. We didn’t miss the commute to work, or long days in the office, and we learned that an awful lot of jobs can be done just as well remotely. Even, apparently, psychotherapy. While I still prefer seeing clients in person, I learned that for some clients, a Zoom or phone session is actually preferable.
And I never thought I’d say this, but when our neighborhood pool re-opened in May, for the first time in over a year, I couldn’t wait to get up at dawn to plunge into a cold body of water! I’ve learned how important my morning lap swimming is to my overall well-being. To paraphrase an old saying, perhaps a pandemic is the crucible in which all life’s lessons can be learned. What new insights or life lessons have you gained in the past year? And how would you like to apply them, going forward?
“Come, look up with kindness yet,
For even solace can be sourced from sorrow.
We remember, not just for the sake of yesterday,
But to take on tomorrow.”
(from New Day’s Lyric, by Amanda Gorman, published in the SF Chronicle, 12/31/21)Learn More
As a licensed mental health professional, I was taught to keep politics (and religion) out of the therapy room, to keep the focus on mental health issues. So why am I writing about voting? Because I have come to believe that both the right to vote, and the act of exercising that right, are directly connected to the mental health and well-being of every one of us.
Three of the major crises facing us today – skyrocketing healthcare costs, climate change, and systemic racial injustice – are not only interwoven, as I’ve mentioned before, but impact mental health, and relate to voting. Let’s start with healthcare, and a personal example:
In the past year, three of my relatives have lost their jobs, and as a result, lost their health insurance. All are too young to qualify for Medicare, but over 55 – an age group that is especially vulnerable to job loss (yes, age discrimination is real) and also more vulnerable to COVID-19, as well as all of the everyday health issues that tend to increase as we age. They were faced with either having to pay for continued coverage through COBRA, at 3 – 4 times the cost of their healthcare premium when they were working, or foregoing healthcare coverage until they’d spent down all of their assets so they could qualify for Medicaid. Yes, stuck between a big rock and a very hard place. During a pandemic and a collapsing economy.
While optimism tends to run in my family, is it any surprise that each of them have struggled with feelings of anxiety and depression? Clearly their mental health and well-being is impacted. Yet their painful dilemma, and that of thousands like them, could be solved with the stroke of a pen – the signature of the President authorizing Congress to act to lower the qualifying age for Medicare from 65 to 55. Yes, it could be that simple – that is, if we had a President who believed in programs like Medicare, and who felt some responsibility for the health and well-being of every American. That’s one very important reason to vote on November 3rd.
The stroke of a President’s pen won’t solve all of the issues with our broken healthcare system, so that’s why we also need to show up and vote for state and federal legislation that offers a variety of other fixes, and for local and national representatives who are able to understand the complexities of the system and will reach across the aisle to get bills passed.
In my other role a mindfulness teacher, I heard from a student that she was having trouble embracing the practice of mindful breathing, as her worry about climate change is giving her nightmares. “How will focusing on my breath help anything, when these are real problems that affect all of us and aren’t getting fixed?” she asked.
Climate change is giving many of us nightmares now! Social psychologists tell us that the human brain isn’t very good at noticing change that happens at a slow pace, which may explain why many people ignored what climate scientists (and Al Gore!) were saying for decades. Now that Mother Nature seems to be clobbering us over the head with all of these extreme weather events, more people are noticing, but they’re reacting with despair. Is it already too late?
A member of my monthly mindfulness meditation group shared, “with all that is going on in the world I have been struggling a bit. Seems like every day something new comes up. The one issue that troubles me the most is being put aside . . . and that is climate change.” He went on to say, “but the good news is there are actions we can take to fight against it. And I have found that by taking action it has been a tremendous help to me in relieving my stress and anxiety.”
Exactly. Taking action almost always helps us feel better, because when we focus on what we have control over, and do something, we become stronger, more empowered, and less helpless. And one important action we can take for climate change is to vote.
“We need to be sure that we are electing politicians who believe in science and know how to listen to scientists, can interpret what they are telling them, and have the courage to act. This is not trivial. . . . It behooves us voters to assess current and proposed political leaders at the federal, state, and local government levels come election time, and after they are elected. This is not time to elect climate change deniers.” (Richard Maurer, League of Women Voters, Eden Area, August 2020 newsletter)
Recently we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Actually, only white women gained this right, since Black women weren’t included until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and many Native and Latina women were still excluded until 1975, when amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated literacy and English fluency as requirements to vote.
Early this year, back when we could still travel freely, I was in Austin, Texas, and visited the LBJ Library and museum. As a boomer, I’m old enough to remember when Lyndon Baines Johnson was president, so the museum was a fascinating, and moving, trip down memory lane. I chose just one souvenir from the gift shop, a postcard with this LBJ quote:
“It is wrong – deadly wrong – to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.”
I had learned from the museum that LBJ didn’t always believe this, since he was raised in a state that had been part of the Confederacy, and that in fact he had been actively involved in voter suppression activities as a young Texas congressman. But his views evolved over his time in office, were greatly influenced by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and other civil rights leaders of the time, and led him to push for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which became the hallmark legislation of his presidency.
However, the voting rights guaranteed by this law have never been enforced in many states, and disenfranchisement of Black voters has been common practice in the South. Furthermore, as a result of a 2013 US Supreme Court ruling (Shelby County v. Holder), which reversed a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, efforts to prevent Black and brown voters from voting have intensified in many states, via voter ID laws, purging of voter rolls, gerrymandering and so on. (For a clear and comprehensive explanation of this dark side of American history, I highly recommend reading Carol Anderson’s One Person No Vote.)
As a white person, raised in the North by educated and progressive parents, and residing in the SF Bay Area for forty years, I confess to being in a bit of a bubble until recently. I took for granted the right to vote, because I didn’t realize how pervasive racial injustice still is. I thought when we elected a Black President we were well on our way towards realizing Dr King’s dream (“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”) Instead, it seems that the Obama presidency outraged a certain segment of our society, and we have been experiencing the backlash ever since.
The right to vote is the foundation of any democracy, and democracy is the foundation of a healthy society, a society that values and respects all of its citizens. Thousands throughout our history (including some of my ancestors) have fought for the freedom to exercise that right, and so that it would be granted to all Americans; yet still today there are members of our society who seek to prevent other members from exercising this basic right, based on the color of their skin. Being denied your rights takes a huge toll on a person’s health and mental health; the consequences of systemic racial injustice include higher rates of health and mental health problems, as well as restricted access to health and mental healthcare.
As a clinical social worker, I have seen that simply knowing you have a choice, and that you are empowered to make it, has an immediate and profound effect on lowering levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. I also know that by using our power to vote, we can elect representatives who will fight for our right to better health and mental health care, as well as address climate change and racial injustice, in our local communities and nationwide. So I urge you to 1) make sure that you are registered to vote, 2) educate yourself about the people and issues on the ballot, and 3) VOTE this November 3rd, like all of our lives depend on it!
For more information on voting
The League of Women Voters is a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to educate and advocate for informed voter participation. To register to vote, confirm your registration status, or learn about the issues on your local ballot, go to Vote411.org.
Sharon Salzberg has a page on her website for Election Season Resources, including some free downloadable images (like the one for this post) and a short audio guided meditation practice.Learn More
My Google calendar reminded me last Friday that I was supposed to be on a flight to Paris, for a ten day vacation. I needed to let that sink in for a moment, so I baked my weekly loaf of banana bread and pondered how the world has changed since I made those plans.
Even if I felt it was safe to spend twelve hours trapped in a large metal cylinder with a bunch of strangers, all of us breathing recycled air (and I don’t), they won’t let me in to France right now! In fact, Americans aren’t welcome in most of Europe, due to our administration’s complete failure to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, causing rates of infection, hospitalization, and death to increase dramatically over the last month, rather than being contained.
Much of Europe, as well as Thailand and Vietnam, two of the world’s poorer countries, have managed to contain the virus, while the wealthiest country in the world can’t provide adequate testing for its citizens, enough protective gear for its front line workers, or paid sick leave so that infected workers can stay home instead of bringing the virus to their coworkers and customers. Worse than that, we have certain news media and elected officials, including the occupant of the White House, telling the American people that the coronavirus is a hoax, that wearing masks is for sissies, and that we should ignore scientific and medical guidelines.
Not only am I now living in a world where I have to worry about catching a deadly virus every time I venture out of my home, but millions of Americans have lost their jobs or are furloughed indefinitely, and economists are warning that the US economy is in the ICU. Certain politicians are asking us to choose between saving the economy and saving our lives. (It’s a false choice: Sweden chose not to implement sheltering-in-place, mask-wearing or social distancing, betting they could manage the pandemic without damaging the economy, and yet they’ve lost more lives to COVID-19 than neighboring countries, and their economy still tanked.)
And if all of that isn’t bad enough, while we’ve been sheltering-in-place and losing jobs, Black people have continued to be killed by police officers at a much higher rate than whites, and when thousands of Black, brown and white people, young and old, have peacefully protested these killings and the systemic racism that underlies them, the protesters have been attacked – not only by angry white people, but now also by agents of our own Federal government.
The world I live in seems to be crumbling into complete chaos and confusion. And yet, I do not despair, in fact, I’m feeling oddly optimistic. It’s not because back in March, at the beginning of the shelter-in-place, I discovered a great recipe for banana bread: it’s gluten free, dairy free, sugar free, and surprisingly quite delicious. I’ve made a loaf nearly every Friday afternoon, when my work week is done, to provide some guilt-free comfort. (I know I’m not the only one who’s been doing more baking and cooking while stuck at home.)
Let me tell you why I’m feeling hopeful these days about the future. First, as I learned years ago, and have been telling my clients over the last few months, every crisis presents not just a threat but also an opportunity. The threats are usually obvious; it takes effort to find the opportunities. While this pandemic is clearly the worst crisis any of us now living have known, history offers evidence that it could become a portal to creating a better world, as the writer Arundhati Roy suggests at the end of this article.
As I see it, the three major crises we’re experiencing in this country – the rising rates of infection and death from COVID-19, the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, and the explosion of outrage over racial injustice – are all connected. (For a more eloquent explanation, see Nicholas Kristof’s recent column in The New York Times.) Consider this: the idea of tying healthcare benefits to employment made sense in the 20th century, but in today’s rapidly-evolving and increasingly gig economy, it no longer does. Losing your job should not mean losing your family’s healthcare benefits. The need for some form of universal healthcare has never been more obvious.
Consider also that the need for social safety-net programs like Medicaid, Headstart, and food stamps is growing, but did you know that the primary reason those programs have been maligned and underfunded for decades, by Republicans as well as Democrats, is due to the erroneous belief that Black and brown people take advantage of these programs, while white folks pay for them? (To find out the real story, read Dog Whistle Politics, by Ian Haney Lopez.)
(By the way, my optimism is fueled by the evidence that people are reading books like his, and that Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility are bestsellers. Democracy requires an educated citizenry, and books are a portal to knowledge, while the media can be manipulated and can also become a tool for social control and oppression.)
Thus we have an opportunity here. If we can change the structural conditions that led to these crises, we can solve them all. We can begin by expanding Medicaid and Medicare to cover anyone who needs it, as well as providing paid sick and family leave for all workers. While we’re at it, we can expand access to daycare and preschool programs, as well as increase wages for childcare workers and caregivers. Changes like these will not only improve the lives of our Black and brown citizens, they will keep the rest of us healthier, provide a better future for all of our children, and create more jobs in the healthcare and social services sectors.
Comfort food can also be healthy and delicious, like my banana bread. Making programs like Medicaid/Medicare and paid sick leave open to all enhances the health and safety of everyone, and in doing so, is cost effective. In taking care of the most oppressed and vulnerable members of our society, we all benefit. I hope that the coronavirus pandemic has made this truth so painfully obvious that voters and our elected representatives will make it happen this year. We can seize the opportunity in the midst of this crisis to create a better world!