How COVID-19 Elevates Anxiety and Opens Possibility for Radical Change

Issue 125 — April 6, 2020

How are you feeling today?

Early in the social distancing, shelter-in-placing, self-quarantining pandemic life, were you enjoying having more time with the family and binge watching your fave series? But now the stress is starting to wear on you?

The internet abounds with messages like this, stemming from people’s anxiety about COVID-19.

Do you have to turn off the television so as not to get depressed by the constant media coverage of COVID-19, seeing the numbers of sick and dying multiply exponentially, hearing health care workers begging for ppe — now that we all know “ppe” stands for personal protection equipment?

Maybe you have a friend or family member who is sick with the coronavirus, or most tragically have lost a loved one to the disease? My heart goes out to all who are struggling with these tragic events.

You are not alone.

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That’s the first thing you should know.

Inspiring message from Bon Jovi. People are helping each other get through the pandemic.

The American Psychiatric Association’s national poll found that nearly half of Americans are worried about getting COVID-19 themselves and 62% are worried that a loved one will contract it. Over a third say it’s having a serious detrimental effect on their mental health.

I’m waking up around 3 am some nights with free floating anxiety. I’m fortunate to have a loving spouse and plenty of food (and toilet paper — not because I can find any to buy, but because I learned from my mother always to keep a supply on hand). So far, so good with our large family, though we worry about the nurse practitioners and others in the family whose professions require public contact.

Like many families, we’re having virtual gatherings since we’re all social distancing.

My Take The Lead team is virtual so our work style hasn’t changed. Zoom has been a way of life for us for years. We’re preparing to offer a series of free web chats on topics people have told us they want during this difficult time. I hope these tips will be helpful. We’ll relaunch our online course soon and we’re pivoting to make sure we have virtual capacity to deliver our 50 Women Can Change the World programs so as not to miss a beat, though we will have some delays and yes, fundraising is a big challenge right now. But we can’t let even a pandemic deter us from our mission of gender parity in leadership, especially in healthcare at this moment.

Coronavirus raises issues of gender — just like almost everything else does.

First, men are more likely than women to die from the virus. According to The Lancet, men and women seem equally likely to contract the disease, but men have a higher mortality rate. Yet as with so many other public health research and policy development, gender based studies have not been to ascertain why these differences exist. Researchers need to explore whether there are biological differences in susceptibility or whether culturally learned behavioral differences between men and women are influential.

Second, despite the disparity in mortality rates, there is little question that the social impact of COVID-19 falls more heavily on women. The World Economic Forum outlines these impacts and argues that women’s leadership in fighting the pandemic is essential, for these reasons:

  • “Women comprise the majority of frontline healthcare workers globally, meaning that female representation is vital in tackling the coronavirus crisis.
  • “70% of the world’s healthcare staff are made up of women, but only 25% of global leaders are female.
  • “Without women in these positions, women’s issues could fail to be addressed throughout the crisis.
  • “Solving health emergencies like COVID-19 demands the best minds the world has to offer — in health systems strengthening, therapeutic R&D and more. We know diverse teams lead to more innovation, and neglecting half the talent pool limits our ability to make life-saving choices.
  • “Leaders dictate where funding and research goes, from vaccine development to social safety nets. Without women in these positions, subsequent decisions will not adequately address the hurdles women face.
  • “Already, women comprise the bulk of the world’s frontline health workers, shouldering the burden of strenuous work, while increasing their own risk of infection.”

Finally, substantial gaps in the U.S. healthcare system have been revealed. The lack of a unified national preparedness to respond to epidemics has been laid bare, as states are left to set their own public health responses and to compete with each other to obtain ppe, life saving respirators, hospital beds, and even to triage healthcare personnel.

The coronavirus crisis is motivating innovation such as this ventilator developed by the Dyson company better known for hair dryers and vacuum cleaners.

As individuals, of course it is important to do what we can to alleviate suffering and to bring optimism and hope to others. We are inspired by the heartwarming stories of people bringing meals to doctors and the homebound elderly and bear hunts to entertain children. But let’s face it: there are limits to what we can do individually.

We often tell ourselves smugly that we have the best healthcare in the world. And it is true that if you are wealthy and in the right place at the right time or know the right people, you might be able to get the very latest and best care available. But for the vast majority of Americans, access to that level of care is elusive at best and unaffordable at worst. This is a systemic problem that must be met with a systemic answer.

The consequences, for example, of private equity ownership of emergency rooms and other medical specialty practices turns what should be humanitarian healthcare services available equitably to all into profit centers. Doctors and nurses become commodities rather than lifesaving professionals. Fewer than one in ten private equity firms is female led. The lack of women in private equity leadership might not be the cause of this trend, but greater gender balance in leadership would almost certainly help to balance the economic and humanitarian elements of health care provision.

How can women lead the way to change the healthcare system and find other solutions to the crisis?

It’s time for a profound paradigm shift in our healthcare system. It just might be that one of the positive outcomes of this horrendous crisis will be such a rethinking. In times of crisis and chaos, as I explain in a recent podcast, people are forced to be open to new ways of thinking and doing. If that is so, I predict that women will be at the forefront.

The possibility of that bright spot should make all of us feel better.

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