OPINION  The COVID-19 virus is cruel. It causes illness and death. It disrupts our economy, leaving families with strained finances. It leads businesses to appeal for bankruptcy protection. Families don’t know what to do about children returning to school. Stress levels are extreme. This is all difficult.

It’s possible we don’t even pay enough attention to the cruelest aspect of the pandemic. In order to fight the disease in our midst, we are asked to cover our faces. When our health experts ask us to do this, it seems inconvenient, uncomfortable and it fogs our glasses. But far worse than that, it makes our social distancing even more painful because we can’t easily read each other’s emotions.

We are social, emotional creatures. We thrive by communicating and by sharing our emotional state with those around us. Facial expression is central to our interactions. With a glance we share feelings before even saying a word. Now that sharing is blocked by a dang face cover.

Remember how our children began communicating with us as infants through facial expression before they even learned to speak? That facial communication didn’t stop with infancy. It’s the foundation of our communication. It leads to subconscious release of hormones – oxytocin for love and peace, and epinephrine or cortisol for the fight-or-flight response.

To make things worse the virus causes us to keep our distance and halt touching. We’re primates, for God’s sake. Look at how much our evolutionary cousins enjoy touch. The grooming reflex is soothing; it releases a vagal-nerve response. It assures us all is good in the world. Now the virus deprives us of soothing one other – that firm or limp handshake, the gentle pat on the back, or a hug to confirm shared joy or sorrow. Amid COVID-19 we miss emotional communication and suffer immensely from its loss.

Our human species is under attack by this virus that has found a home in our population. Without us all together the virus would have no place to live, dying unless it could find another species to live in. We need to take away the virus home – us.

Our species is known for our ability to band together with shared intention to accomplish things. We can collaborate to achieve things; that’s what makes us the most capable species on Earth. We can deprive the virus of a place to live by working together to do it.

It isn’t easy. In fact it’s going to be downright difficult. The first thing we need to do is to stop fighting with each other, one group against another, one group not trusting the other. When we fight amongst ourselves we undermine our greatest strength to collaborate. Then the virus is happy to keep living in us, in our communities and in our living space.

There are still many uncertainties about the biology of the virus. We hope for a vaccine but there is no guarantee it will work. We hope for herd immunity but that too may not work if individual immune responses are unable to develop long-term protection after infection.

What we do know is the ability of the virus to pass from individuals is blocked by adoptable behaviors. I call them the three “W” behaviors.

  • Wash our hands and stop touching our faces.
  • Watch our distance to keep more than 6 feet apart.
  • Wear a face cover whenever in the presence of others who are not part of our safe household circle.

Wash hands; Watch our distance; Wear face cover.

If we do those things all the time and without interruption, we deprive the virus of a place to live.

Doing those three behaviors is difficult. Our hands become raw from washing and we love touching our face. It seems rude to back away from others to protect our safe space of separation. It’s difficult to cover our faces because we cannot easily read another’s facial expressions. We enjoy that window into our emotional communication.

Besides the three “W” behaviors we need to do a couple of other things to live through this. We need to be gentle with one another. We need to give extra emotional benefit of the doubt. We need to realize that our normal emotional cues are being deprived to us. We need to be sure to hug one another in our household space and to be appreciative of emotional cues we receive there. We need to pay extra attention to one another’s eyes as we seek cues not otherwise available behind our face covers.

If we adopt the three “W” behaviors, our public-health experts will help us win this war with the other creature that’s living off us. We can kill the virus from our living space. Our public-health experts ask us to test for the virus in our bodies when we have symptoms. They ask us to help with contact tracing and isolation of cases that are found.

The better we practice the three “W” behaviors, the fewer cases of infection we’ll see and the fewer isolation experiences we’ll need. Then we’ll be able to take back what is ours – a place where we can live as thriving human beings, hugging, touching and sharing our emotional experiences. We need to band together to do it.

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Dr. Mark Neumann is a retired pediatric critical-care doctor who lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, with his wife, their teenage son and a “wannabe” cow dog. He’s a member of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. He believes our personal good health depends on living in healthy communities. To that end he devotes his time and effort to political engagement for our future and for those who will follow us.