"You need to stay home," said the voiceover in an April public health ad in New York state. "It's all they're asking us to do. It's not that hard."
It's not that hard. This (or some variant) has been a frequent refrain from officials, public health experts, and others throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The tone is a mash of encouragement and paternalism intended to convey that many of us can avoid contributing to the disease's spread with relatively easy precautions.
It's not that hard is true of hand washing. It's almost always true of wearing a mask. But it is not true of lockdowns. It is not true of social distancing. It is not true of skipping Christmas or Thanksgiving or your mom's birthday or your brother's wedding. It's not true of missing church and New Year's Eve parties and eating in restaurants. It's not true of going without regular, in-person contact with friends and loved ones.
This actually is that hard. It sucks, and we should say so.
That is not to say it's not worth it. My household has been pretty conservative—as in careful, not Republican—about pandemic mitigation measures, conservative enough to get criticized for it both by family members and by strangers on the internet. We took advantage of the summer months to go to outdoor, masked church services, and we've had a limited number of friends over for bonfires in our backyard every week. I tried to stretch that stuff as long as possible into the fall, but I live in Minnesota and now it's just too cold, especially with our kids involved. Both church and socializing have moved back online. Most weeks we encounter only ourselves, our nanny, and sometimes staff at stores.
But like many things, this does not become easy just because we judge it worthwhile. Doing Easter service online was the right call, but it wasn't not that hard. Staying in our house all the time with two teething, bored toddlers isn't not that hard. Being unable to take them for a leisurely, purposeless, and, crucially, heated stroll through the mall isn't not that hard. Our twins having literally no other playmates their own age isn't not that hard. Wholly inadequate Zoom time with our friends isn't not that hard. None of this is not that hard.
And we're comparatively lucky! We have reliable, fast internet access and friends with the same. We can stay connected in a better-than-nothing facsimile of our ordinary relationship. We can at least see each other's faces. Many other Americans with limited tech skills or internet service cannot do likewise.
Our jobs are white-collar and allow us to work from home full-time. That's only true of about two in 10 people in this country.
Our income is high enough that we are the recipients of deliveries, not the deliverers. "You need to stay home" is not an order with which the truckers and postal workers and so many other people who keep us fed and clothed can comply.
Our kids are young enough that we're not dealing with the fiasco of online school. Friends with older kids are agonizing, switching schools, trying desperately to make an unworkable situation work.
Our child care wasn't disrupted, as so many people's was, because the incredibly high cost of day care for twin infants had already pushed us to the nanny option. But plenty of parents, especially mothers, have had their careers interrupted or put entirely on hold because there is no one to watch their children.
And their children, by the way, do not have an adult's understanding of the timeline of this crisis and can't entirely comprehend why everything is strange and scary right now. That isn't not that hard, and I don't think it's coincidental that I most often seem to see It's not that hard issuing from the lips of childless, white-collar, middle-class (or richer) people who do not have a chronic illness or disability. Maybe, for those few, it's truly not that hard. It is that hard for the rest of us.
It's hard because people need people. We are made to be in relationships with each other. Our brains, hearts, souls, spirits—whatever you want to call that core of our being—that thing need parties. It needs human contact. It needs community. It needs beers on the couch. It needs board games late into the night. It needs play dates. It needs not to die alone. It needs not to give birth alone. It needs love. And the internet, blessed and cursed as it is, can transmit love only so well.
The end of the COVID-19 pandemic is finally in sight. By summer, they tell us, anyone who wants a vaccine can have it. Life will drift back to normal. We'll have parties again. So it's maybe six months to go. That's not very long, in the grand scheme of things. The bulk of this is already behind us. Pandemics past have been longer and deadlier.
But right now, and for months to come, this is still happening. It is still lonely. It is still difficult. And I still don't want to hear from anyone's mouth—least of all public health officials—the pernicious, dismissive, inhuman claim that it's not that hard.