Omicron etiquette

Words and reactions during this pandemic

It’s been two years and I feel like this pandemic has aged most of us. The worries and uncertainties it brought are enough to make us suffer from daily, mini-breakdowns. Death, sickness, and mental troubles circle us like vultures waiting for that moment of weakness. A moment when you’ll be tired enough to either be careless or just throw in the towel. It’s been tough for everyone and this ordeal has truly put a lot of things to the test: Governments, health systems, and even our capacity for empathy.

Aside from our health, relationships are one of the first things to suffer during the pandemic. While it brought out the best in a lot of people (we see a lot of bayanihan stories and everyday people as heroes swooping in to be of help to others), it also highlighted some of our worst behaviors. One thing in particular is the way we talk about the disease.

Acknowledging sensitivities

Picking up from last week’s column where we tackled tact, let’s take a minute to examine ourselves and our recent interactions. When a friend calls you up to tell you that they tested positive for COVID, what’s the first thing you say?

A friend who recently tested positive was asked: “What risky things have you done?” A diplomat who had a COVID scare last year was asked “Why, where did you go?” after she confided to someone that she was anxiously waiting for test results.

Both instances weren’t comforting for the person at risk. They also exhibit a shift in the conversation. It’s not about the sick person’s welfare anymore as both statements show judgment and even the instinct for self-preservation. It’s natural to be curious where they went and how they got sick. Gathering this information helps us avoid the disease ourselves but in our curiosity and need to make sure we’re healthy, let’s not forget to show care first and foremost.

How? It’s by simply asking them how they’re feeling. If you must know how it happened, let them tell by gently asking them later in the conversation and only if they’re comfortable to do so.

Offer a helping hand

Next, ask them how you can help. It can be as simple as being there to talk to them over the phone while they’re in isolation or by picking up groceries or medicine for them. Make sure that when you say “Let me know if there’s anything I can help you with,” you really mean it. If you don’t have the bandwidth to help, just letting them know you’re hoping for their speedy recovery can be enough. It’s better than empty offer.

Don’t be pushy about this either. Some people may be battling anxiety. Calls and talking about their situation repeatedly may make them feel worse. Some prefer not to receive anything during

this time and would rather order things themselves online. Ask and give space for them to decide. Help should always be about the person in need, not what will make the helper feel needed and accomplished.

‘We forget that empathy should be at the core of this pandemic.’

Don’t play doctor

So you’ve had COVID-19 before and your friend has just tested positive. Resist the urge to position yourself as an expert, giving commands about what they should and shouldn’t do. Don’t ask for a list of their symptoms while comparing it with yours. “Oh it’s mild! I was fine for most of it!” only adds pressure to the sick. What’s mild for some may be severe for others. Their healing timeline might also be different from yours.

Once again, offering your experiences rather than bombarding someone with your COVID protocol is friendlier and more sensitive. It will be better accepted. “I had COVID-19 a few months ago. If you want to hear about my experience and the things that helped me during that time, please let me know.”

Rationalizing death

“When my uncle died of COVID, one of the first things a friend told me was ‘Well, he did have underlying medical conditions,’” another friend confided. The statement comes across as rude and unfeeling. Death in the family, even in a pandemic when there seems to be way too many of it, is still an unfathomable loss. It deserves a reaction that’s anchored on care and respect.

It’s natural for us to rationalize why someone died. It’s a source of comfort for most people. For those who aren’t related or a friend to the dearly departed, however, it’s a little different. The statement was not said to comfort the one who was grieving. It was for the one saying it and their fears. They don’t have an underlying condition so it shouldn’t kill them, right? Once again, a failure in supporting someone who’s in need.

If you really must know, make sure that you give comfort (a lot of it) before you ask probing questions to satisfy your curiosity.

Pointing fingers

Omicron is extremely contagious, so shaming someone from getting infected is pretty moot at this point. Still, we see a lot of this going on. People whose first reaction is asking who you were with, when you got infected, and where, as if they’re contact tracers. The panic is understandable but the sick’s comfort should come first.

I guess today’s lesson is this: We must control our inner Marites and try to be a better friend. As this diplomat I talked to about the pandemic said: “We forget that empathy should be at the core of this pandemic.” Let’s try to keep that in mind.