Dimensions of Health and COVID-19

Was it Worth it?

There are a few ways to look at healthcare and the expectations that are put on physicians and other caregivers, whether by themselves or by their patients. There are some who might see heath services as something akin to a mechanic. With automobile repair shops, the customer brings in the vehicle and tells the technician what they believe is wrong. Depending on the relationship between the two, the mechanic might half-listen to the customer and then get along to the business of diagnosing the problem and making the necessary repairs to get the vehicle operating in better condition. They may even offer some suggestions for preventive care or more work that should not be neglected. The process solely looks at the physical problems and how to best address them. And of course this makes sense for automobiles. Automobiles don’t have feelings, beliefs, or social networks. The problem with this attitude when dealing with people is that they do have all of the above. When it comes to a person’s health, the physical component is only one dimension.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that somehow mass amounts of people were led to believe that the physical dimension of health was the only part worth worrying about, even at the expense of the other dimensions.  Human beings are much more complex than vehicles and while physical well-being is indeed necessary, I would argue that it is not the most important dimension.  In fact, as a Christian I would even say that it’s the least important.  So what are these other aspects of health?  While I’m sure that there are many, working within a faith-based healthcare system over the past few years has allowed me to appreciate more the reality of not only physical health, but also mental health, social health, and spiritual health.  As Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back as he poked Luke’s flesh, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”  The meaning is that we as human beings are so much greater than the physical.  And this concept is not only a Christian or sci-fi fantasy one, it is one that is shared by almost every belief system throughout history. 

What is the danger, therefore in focusing only on one dimension of health, in particular the physical one?  This is seen quite frequently when doctors and family members see anything but saving the life of an individual as a failure.  Sometimes, the physical being is done, and the person wants or needs only to be surrounded by friends and family.  They seek peace of mind, spirit, and closure with those they are most close to.  Perhaps with the reaction that the world had to Covid, we somehow believed that the other 3 dimensions were worth sacrificing in order to lessen the risk of physical harm.  And without in any way meaning to diminish the pain or death that those suffering from Covid experienced; those who actually did suffer physically represented a tiny number compared to those who were harmed mentally, socially, and spiritually.   And most of those who got Covid have recovered from the physical harm, while the other aspects have much more long lasting effects.  This is not unique to Covid; anyone who has been a victim or rape or other violent crime would tell you that the physical suffering is temporary, it is all the other types of suffering that last a lifetime.  Let us take a look at these other health factors.

Mental health has been an increasingly talked about topic in healthcare and in the news.  Without our mind, what are we?  Mental and behavioral health concerns cover a large range of conditions from anxiety and depression to sociopathic tendencies.  Studies have only really begun to touch the surface regarding the type of damage that lockdowns, stay at home orders, closing schools, wearing masks, and isolation from family and friends have caused.  Again, I’m not saying that some of these things did not help prevent physical health problems or even death for some.  I’m asking whether it was worth it.   Homelessness, drug abuse, violent crime, mass shootings, domestic abuse, youth acting out; most cases of these can be traced to some sort of mental or behavioral health issue.  Yes, these situations have always existed, but have we created situations that have allowed them to be exacerbated?

Social health is another area that I’m sure we can appreciate has been impacted greatly during the pandemic.  Even the term “social distancing” has created a mindset that tried to make it sound like severing ties with loved ones was a good thing.  What we were really asked to do was physical distancing.  The idea of intentionally distancing oneself socially from others is simply wrong and inhuman in my mind.  And while many found ways to still remain socially connected – mostly through digital screens and social media, this was subpar at best and I believe will have a severe and long lasting effect on young people, especially those who were school age during this time.  We are social beings and creating an environment where children are taught that spending time with others is dangerous seems to put them at such a huge disadvantage.  We are living in a world in which collaboration and cooperation are key to success in the public and private sectors and yet we are raising a generation of socially awkward individuals.  They were already spending too much time on their screens, and now we’ve given them a reason to further cut themselves off from human interaction.  Many, including adults, have had their social circles limited to a point that they only interact with those who share their same beliefs.  These online social groups and echo chambers typically exist not only to support one belief but do so in opposition to others.  This occurs politically, racially, and in many other ways that tend to separate rather than unite.  Human interaction is something that goes beyond talking heads or typing on a website.  Eating together, playing, singing, working across a table, seeing facial expressions, attending a sporting event, shaking hands, hugging, and giving high fives to a diversity of others: can we really know someone or ourselves without these things? 

The other dimension is one that is perhaps the one not talked about as much because people today seem to believe that it is something personal, but spiritual health is also a crucial component of human flourishing.  While religion may be what informs spirituality for many, this is certainly not the case for all.  Spirituality is simply the way in which a person experiences the sacred or holy.  It is that knowledge that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.  How has a focus on the physical impacted our focus on the spiritual?  For some, their places of worship were closed: churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, national parks, beaches, and gyms.  Yes, people practice spirituality in all sorts of places.  And while this is only anecdotal, I do know many who used the closure of these places as a sort of excuse to stop practicing these rituals and some haven’t returned even after they have reopened.  And while you might say this is their own fault, it still comes from a sort of universal shift that has elevated our physical wellbeing as the most important, at the expense of what truly makes us human.  We also tend to lose something of the spiritual when we focus on what divides people, which seems to have become very common in the last couple of years. 

So where do we go from here?  In addition to asking the hard questions like, “Was it worth it?”  I think we need to celebrate the aspects of our lives that we are grateful for.  Perhaps reclaim the traditions and rituals that we took for granted before the pandemic and those that we neglected during it.  Reach out to those we haven’t seen in a year or more.  Encourage play dates and make grown up dates.  Remember the things that touch your soul and revisit those places and moments.  Be socially present to one another. 

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