Even in places where the new coronavirus isn’t spreading throughout communities, the specter of COVID-19 lingers everywhere—whether in the form of folk touting conspiracy theories, teachers concerned about their safety or our elders worried about whether they’ll survive.
Truth is, Black and Brown communities are more vulnerable to this epidemic than most. Our higher rates of chronic diseases—think: asthma, COPD, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, hypertension, sickle cell disease and so on—and the more polluted environments we tend to live and work in may place our lungs at risk, leave our immune systems run down, place our hearts vulnerable to additional strain and fill our minds filled with anxiety.
On top of that, many of us work in public-facing jobs—from healthcare workers to educators, to retail, to customer service, to transit employees, to sales professionals.
And then there’s the ever-present threat of last hired, first fired come lay-off time.
Get Into Formation
That said, we are not powerless to protect ourselves.
“Lots of times the narrative about what we’re going through is approached with a deficit framing—what we don’t have, what we can’t do, what we lost, how we’re suffering,” says Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor of epidemiology at The Ohio State University, an expert in women’s health, urban health and the study of how chronic diseases behave in specific populations (called epidemiology).
Truth is, there’s actually a lot we can do—individually and collectively—to prepare for the disruption the virus will likely cause and take charge of our own health and well being. To start, there are the strategies you may have been learning about on the news—practices like washing your hands for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, often; not touching your face, eyes or mouth; covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze; regularly disinfecting hard surfaces with products that kill the virus; staying home if you’re sick; and avoiding large gatherings by practicing social distancing, both to keep yourself from acquiring the virus and to slow its spread.
But we don’t have to stop there!
You have the power to strengthen your own immune system. By doing so, you help to make your body more resistant to COVID-19 should you be exposed, and better able to fight back if you do become infected.
“There are things that people can do tangibly right now to combat some of the stressors,” confirms Dr. Sealy-Jefferson, whose work includes discovering solutions to the disproportionate rate of infant mortality among African American women. “They don’t cost a lot of money and there are lifestyle changes people can easily do.”
Importantly, taking charge of our health and well being and proactively loving ourselves by engaging in self-care are radical actions for those of us with marginalized identities, especially in a nation whose leader’s bigotry is self-evident and who seems hell-bent on destroying us.
“Self-care can be described as the practice of taking an active role in taking care of and protecting your own well being and happiness during periods of stress,” Dr. Seely-Jefferson says. “This can involve saying no, prioritizing your own feelings, asking for help, spending time alone, putting yourself first, asking for what you need, setting boundaries, staying at home, forgiving yourself and taking a step back. These are different from the traditional ways we define self-care and are soul-affirming activities that can counter some of the negative insults we get on a daily basis.”
Here are even more self-empowering steps.
1. Make a plan.
Getting in action is a great way to channel any nervous energy and productively manage anxiety. Prepare yourself and your family before community spread begins in your area.
- Read the advice from the United States’ health-protection agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about how to prepare your home.
- Grocery shop in advance so you’re covered if you get sick, need to isolate or quarantine yourself for two weeks at home, or disruption takes place in your family, work or community life that requires you and your family to stay home.
- Before an outbreak takes place, create a game plan with your family members, relatives, neighbors, spiritual community, fraternity or sorority, or members of civic associations for how you will care for each other and the community as people become ill. We need to reach out to each other and form a plan to create loose care networks.
- Call your health care provider or insurance company and gain approval to order extra medication that you take for any chronic condition.
- Start stacking your loot. Layoffs may be coming.
2. Get hold of your health.
If you haven’t been taking your meds, it’s time to get your chronic health conditions under control. Having a chronic disease ups your chances of having a worse case of the virus—and having an undiagnosed or uncontrolled chronic disease and COVID-19 is a reality ripe for a catastrophe. So, if you are sick of taking your meds, using your inhaler, or sticking your finger to test your blood sugar, consider the consequences and try to grin and bear it.
3. Stop Smoking.
Even though they aren’t listed specifically as people at risk, smokers face a higher risk of poor health if they acquire COVID-19, which is an illness that can affect the lungs. No, quitting ain’t easy. But neither is getting pneumonia or finding yourself on a respirator. Begin to cut back on the number of cigarettes you smoke or attempt to kick the habit again. The more times you try, the more likely you are to succeed.
4. Lessen your stress.
Learn how to self-soothe, which is “the deliberate action of calming or comforting yourself when you’re unhappy or distressed,” says Dr. Seely-Jefferson. “It employs all of the senses, as a way of reducing the intensity of negative emotions.” Here are some of her favorite approaches:
- Sight – turn off the lights, wear a sleep mask, enjoy a coloring book, look at colors that soothe you
- Touch – get a massage, take a hot or cold shower, wrap yourself up a heated or weighted blanket
- Sound – listen to calming noises, play nature sounds, engage in a guided meditation (she likes the Calm app)
- Smell – use aromatherapy (these scents can help you relieve stress), light a scented candle, burn incense, get some fresh air
- Taste – sample strong flavors, eat slowly, enjoy warm drinks, relish nostalgic foods
5. Ditch the remote.
Media companies know that if they can scare you, they can use the brain’s natural tendency to fixate on potential threats in order to “own” your attention and influence what you watch. Breathless cable news anchors and headlines that leave you hanging and promise information that requires you to stay tuned to acquire are here to stay. Giving them less of your mental bandwidth will help you stay calm. Also, consider removing the TV from your bedroom and taking streaming apps off your phone. Simulating your “fight or flight” response by watching shows that may cause your body to pump adrenaline defeats the purpose.
6. Tend to your sleep.
Research shows that Americans of color get less sleep than White Americans do. These tips may help you rest more easily:
- Engage in a wind-down. A couple of hours before bedtime, signal to your body that it’s time to rest by engaging in a ritual like lighting an aromatherapy candle and enjoying a warm bath.
- Avoid screens at least one hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted from mobile phones, tablets and TV screens awakens the brain. Activate the Night Shift function on your iPhone or blue light filter or night light on your Android. Download f.lux onto your laptop, tablet or computer. Use blue light blocking glasses.
7. Eat foods that strengthen your immune system.
If there ever was a time to take healthy eating advice seriously, it’s now. By eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, and fewer processed and fried foods, you can both buffer yourself and experience the pleasure of eating. Consume foods that look as close to the way God made them as possible. Reduce manmade sugar, which can depress your immune system, whether in cereal, soda or ice cream. Try a fresh orange, strawberries or sweet potatoes instead.
8. Keep moving.
Whether dancing around the house, going walking or dragging your exercise bike out of the closet, being active contributes to your overall health and therefore to your immune system’s well being.
9. Honor your inner wisdom.
Whether through the grace of God, your own inner knowing, or the ancestors’ watchful eye, somehow you’ve made it this far in life. Use prayer, meditation and other ways to tune in to the Universe or your Higher Power. “It’s important to really listen to and honor our own intuition and feelings and our own insights about what’s best for us,” says Dr. Sealy-Jefferson. “Not prioritizing people who are not us, or what they say about what we should be doing.”
So, there’s lots you can do to take charge of your health and reduce the odds you’ll acquire or have a bad outcome from COVID-19. Much of our power boils down to actively practicing self-love. “No other group of people in this country has experienced the history that we have and are still here,” says Dr. Sealy-Jefferson. “There is power in that and we need to tap into that power.”
Hilary Beard is a Philadelphia based writer and the author of “Health First!: The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide” and “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life.”