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MARCH 17, 2020 -- Humans are highly visual creatures. Severe and transformative events in our society are often remembered best by moments captured in representative photographs. Iconic images have immortalized such events as the end of World War II, the Vietnam War, and others.
Often there are iconic individuals, too, who come to embody and symbolize awareness of health and medical issues, such as Michael J. Fox for Parkinson's disease. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the world and the public consciousness, will Tom Hanks' and Rita Wilson's announcement that they have coronavirus infection become a symbolic image?
Even in this age of celebrity oversaturation, such a scenario might seem unlikely. Hanks does reach 8 million Instagram followers, but how could one image encapsulate this pandemic experience? Everyone hopes, of course, that Hanks and Wilson make complete recoveries, but recovery—or lack thereof—isn't required to become the public face of an epidemic.
As Hanks is a long-tenured and beloved actor, it's not surprising that the public is taking to heart what happens to him. His common-man persona and appeal fit with the low-key approach that he is taking to this: "We are taking it one day at a time."
In his comments on being quarantined with COVID-19, Hanks has also hit on what could become one of the single most significant societal opportunities for change in this pandemic. Beyond the importance of self-quarantining, social distancing, and hand washing, there is a great opportunity for our civilization to embrace and overcome one of its greatest modern challenges.
Life in our society has become a profoundly lonely experience for many. By some estimates, most of us feel "cast away" some of the time. A 2016 survey of more than 2000 Americans, conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association, showed that almost three quarters (72%) of Americans experience loneliness. And for many, it's not just a once-in-a-while occurrence; one third said they feel lonely at least once a week.
Now that we've asked so many people to shelter in place, including everyone over age 70 and those with known high-risk exposures and high-risk medical comorbidities; and discouraged nonessential travel as well as gatherings as small as prayer groups and as large as conferences attended by over 100,000 people, this pandemic has the potential to engender previously unimaginable depths of loneliness across the planet.
In his initial public comments, Hanks said, "There are things we can all do to get through this by following the advice of experts and taking care of ourselves and each other, no?"
Society responds to each crisis or epidemic with the tools and understanding that it possesses at that time. (Much like how the character Forrest Gump dealt with each obstacle in his way.)
Perhaps, in some ways, we've never been in a better position to handle an epidemic of this sort. When people need to remain fed, healthy, and entertained, we have internet-based home delivery of food, medicines, and sometimes toilet paper. Although Joe Versus the Volcano might not be everyone's cup of tea, there are plenty of other Hanks films one can stream so as not to go stir crazy while waiting out confinement.
Can People Connect to One Another?
The weakness of our society today in its profundity of isolation and loneliness, before COVID-19, is very likely to be exposed now in unseemly ways. Perhaps Hanks can use his social media platform and public persona to influence everyone to take a step back from the anxiety, paranoia, and fear that they are feeling in 2020 and make this a year in which we practice 20/20 vision—to see each other, to connect, and to overcome. That would make quite a "splash."
On Instagram, Hanks made reference to one of his most famous lines from the film A League of Their Own: "Remember, despite all the current events, there is no crying in baseball." There is, however, crying in loneliness, and we as a society, a profession, and a people can do better to relieve this.
Like Hanks said when portraying Mister Rogers, "Anything mentionable can be more manageable." We just have to be in positions to hear each other. If we don't, then the picture won't be pretty.
Many terrible things will probably come out of this COVID-19 pandemic. While we're each doing what we can to stay safe and keep others safe, it's useful to recall Hanks' words and to remember that this is a fight that asks all of us to take care of not only ourselves, but each other.