Last week, Intouch’s Inclusion and Diversity Alliance (IDA) hosted a cross-office Zoom panel on how employees are being emotionally and psychologically affected by COVID-19. The panel included seven Intouchers from around the country and was moderated by Mary Hoefler, MS, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist who has worked in the behavioral health field for 33 years. Panelists came from a variety of backgrounds – some who have immune-system issues, some who are extroverts living alone during the continuing quarantine, some who live with family, and others who are far from home and worry about their families while their families worry about them. Ms. Hoefler opened the discussion by asking, “Everywhere you turn, you see, ‘we’re in this together’. Does the ‘same storm, different boats’ ring true for you?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that current information on COVID-19 suggests “a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups” — particularly Hispanics/Latinos and African Americans — due to a number of environmental factors, including living conditions, work circumstances, underlying chronic health conditions and lower access to healthcare. Jonathan Ortiz, who works in the New York office, talked about the overwhelming loss he has experienced since the pandemic began, and how he reached a breaking point when he lost his brother-in-law to COVID-19. He was never an emotional person, he said, but now he’s learning to embrace that side – “My concept of strength has changed,” he said.

On the panel, also, were two African American women; one lives in a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood of Brooklyn that’s been hard-hit by COVID-19, while the other — Tiera Montgomery — lives in the Kansas City area and is roommate and caregiver for her sister, who has lupus. Both women have struggled in different ways – one overwhelmed by the knowledge that her fellow community members are struggling, the other trying to make sure her sister gets the medications she needs, including hydrochloroquine, which for a time was touted as a possible treatment for COVID-19.

Yena Lee, a project manager in the Chicago office, talked about not being able to get the biweekly blood testing she needs for a kidney condition because of limited access to her healthcare providers (HCPs). Though restrictions on medical visits are beginning to loosen, some patients still must wait longer than usual to see an HCP unless they’re facing a medical emergency. “It helps just to talk about it,” she said.

Asians and Asian-Americans have also been affected in a different way: Because the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was first reported in China, racism and xenophobia has led to baseless verbal and physical attacks on people just going about their daily lives. A developer in the Kansas City office who is from Beijing, China, said he worries about his family back home – “Do they have the PPE and supplies they need?” He doesn’t know, he said, because they only tell him the good things. Although he’s fortunate to have not experienced anti-Asian hostility, he worries about federal policies that limit the number of immigrants in the United States, and that he could be deported if he loses his job.

Panelists living alone during COVID-19 are experiencing other challenges. Kyla Smith moved to work at Intouch’s San Francisco office just before the pandemic hit; being alone is exhausting, she said, yet it’s been a challenge to acknowledge that she needs people. She wanted listeners to know it’s okay to struggle, okay to cry. In Boston, Caley McCaslin talked about living alone as an immunocompromised person who can’t see her healthcare-worker partner because of the risk of getting sick. While she’s grateful to be able to work from home during this time, she misses her friends and even struggles with ending her workday; “It’s hard to slow down and enjoy the extra time I have,” she said.

As the discussion began to wind down, the moderator reminded everyone, “You don’t have to be a warrior,” and now more than ever, this feels critical to remember. We’re fortunate to live in a technology-rich time, when it’s easier than ever to connect with those we love and get the social and emotional support we need. If you’re struggling, know that it’s okay to not be okay right now – we may be in different boats, but we’re facing the same storm, and we’ll get through it by being there for each other.

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