The Invisible Enemy: Managing the Pandemic Like a Soldier
For the past few months, we have been fighting a war against an invisible enemy, the coronavirus pandemic. Each one of us throughout the world has been affected by this pandemic. Social distancing, quarantines, and forced isolation have become the new normal. The passage of time has become odd and disconcerting. We have been asked to do things beyond our comfort zones to stay safe.
On top of it all we are constantly bombarded with a daily stream of negative information via news media, the internet, and once uplifting social media. A new term, “infodemic,” has been coined to describe this onslaught of information. And so much of what is now circulating is based on uninformed opinions or falsehoods. What are we to believe? What information can we trust?
Of course, we are getting tired. Millions of Americans have been infected. You probably know some of them. We do not know how or when this will end. We hear news of states beginning to open in stages and now starting to become more restrictive again but what does this mean for you or your family? It is all terribly confusing and can be discouraging.
I want to share some simple advice to help you navigate this new way of living. This will include the surprising components of being a well-equipped soldier: preparation, survival, dress, tending to your squad, holistic fitness (physical, mental, spiritual), and rest and relaxation (R&R).
I am a retired Army officer. I served in the U.S. Army Reserves Medical Specialist Corp as a dietitian for over twenty two years. I am also a grocery store dietitian helping people build better shopping and cooking habits. I want to help you cope and feel better during these strange times.
Soldiers receive constant training. The source of so much of your individual turmoil and stress may simply be the lack of training to endure this new enemy virus that has landed in our country. Imagine how you might now be thriving if you had had clear expectations and practice heading into this pandemic. With this in mind, I would like to train you to be a good soldier. ( I could also say airman, "coastie," sailor, or marine, but I was a soldier while serving in the US Army). This idea may sound odd, but remember we are at war with an unseen virus, something most of us have never experienced.
Currently, less than 0.005% of the American public serves in our military so most of our population does not know how to train for, deal with, or return home from a prolonged conflict.*
However, with proper training one can function smarter with less stress. The military prepares and equips soldiers to accomplish missions. Their hair is cut to help them feel their new identity as soldiers and the uniform dresses them for their mission. Basic training courses build foundations for physical, mental, and spiritual strength. Soldiers are trained on proper equipment and taught the rules for engagement.
In contrast, we all woke up one morning forced to accept how our world had suddenly changed. We now must know how to live safely with next to no preparation. Despite three main safety messages of social distancing (“stay six feet apart”), hygiene (“wash your hands”, “don’t touch things”) and wearing a mask, the “training” we receive varies greatly. The resulting feeling of being ill-equipped is not surprising.
Back in 1983 I joined the Maryland Army National Guard as a second lieutenant. I was six years out of college and working full time as a research dietitian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. When I arrived at the National Guard Armory I did not know what to expect. I would later realize this was my first mission. In one short weekend we were taught the basics of preparing, planning, and surviving a mission.
As a second lieutenant it was my responsibility to take care of my squad, assuring we were properly equipped to care for the other soldiers (our battle buddies), and how to carefully debrief after the mission to assure continual improvement. I also learned how leaders have to deliberately plan for rest and relaxation (R&R), a critical activity for a soldiers overall health that can get crowded out by other competing mission needs. You have to handle all of this while also tending to your own physical, mental, and spiritual fitness.
Your mission is to stay safe during this pandemic. Research what you need to have on hand while you are hunkered down. This can look different for different situations. If you are mobilized (isolated) at home, know what food supplies you need to prepare meals at home. If you are considered an essential worker, know safe ways to fuel yourself (eating and hydrating) while you work. For either scenario, figure out what supplies you have in your home (inventory) and what you need to purchase. If by the time you read this there are fewer social restrictions, then perhaps not all of these steps will apply. However, it is still prudent to put a plan like this into place for the next event.
⦁ Take Inventory – You need a Basic Inventory List. ( this list appears at the end of this article in a pdf so you can print it out to use). This is not a shopping list. Take inventory of what you have on hand currently. Check your pantry, check your refrigerator, check your freezer. If you keep an inventory of foods on hand you will be able to prepare a wide variety of simple meals and snacks. This basic list suggests what you should always have in your home (arsenal) so at a moment’s notice you are ready to put a meal on the table.
⦁ Make a Shopping List – Use your inventory list to plan your shopping list. Plan what you will serve for the next 2-3 weeks. At first glance this may seem like a lot of work, but this will pay off by saving time and money. These can be rotated in future weeks. Go through each food category. It helps to choose some foods that will be used right away, but also purchase foods that have a longer shelf . For example, bananas and avocados do not last long. Consider them “peacetime” luxury foods. Canned or frozen fruits are more like “wartime” foods which can last for months.
⦁ Plan for Sick Days – If you do get sick you want to make sure you have foods on hand that will help you recover. Chicken noodle soup has been scientifically proven to help you feel better faster. Plain crackers and refreshing beverages like water with ginger or lemon are other favorites when you do not feel well. Have an inventory of easy to prepare meals. If its tasty, health, and easy to prepare then why not eat it often? Soldiers have survived on much less. If you are the main caregiver and get sick, make sure that your family and cohabitants (‘battle buddies’) know the plan while you rest up.
⦁ Plan the Shopping Trip – For a successful mission you must know your store like a soldier knows the battlefield. A large store may be a better choice as there is more space to spread out. A longer drive to a store that provides all the items on your list may make sense.
⦁ Shop more efficiently. Know the store’s layout. Order your shopping list accordingly. Remember, you are on a mission. You want to get in and get out quickly and efficiently. Do not spend time browsing. Remember, this is a mission.
⦁ Shop less frequently. Plan to shop every two or three weeks if possible. Each trip increases your chances of exposure. This is a war for your health. This is not shopping as usual. You want to get in and get out. Grocery store employees do not want to be in contact with you any more than necessary. They have families and are also scared of being in contact with shoppers. Be extra gracious with store employees working under stressful conditions.
⦁ Orient yourself beforehand. Before entering the store take a few moments to prepare yourself for the new habits you need to practice. Put your mask on, remember your hand sanitizer (at least 60 percent alcohol), and make sure your shopping cart or basket is appropriately cleaned. Shop mindfully, keeping the recommended six feet distance from other shoppers, looking carefully before deliberately taking the first product you touch. At checkout watch what you touch and avoid paying with cash if possible.
⦁ Finish the Shopping Mission – When loading your groceries in your car be mindful of other passengers who may come in contact with potentially contaminated items. Then clean your hands and safely remove your mask. Avoid touching your face until after you have cleaned your hands. And remember to clean off your credit card. Once home, have a process to wipe off your grocery items with disinfecting wipes and then put your groceries away. Even better, if you can, let those items not requiring cold storage sit out for a few days and then put them away. Remember to wipe down the counters and pantry/fridge handles when finished.
⦁ Explore Alternate Shopping Options – If you are especially at risk consider having a caregiver shop for you or if available take advantage of online grocery ordering or curbside pickup. Remember to disinfect your purchases.
Drill instructors always believe that their new recruits are “soft” or spoiled from lack of discipline and it is their job to toughen up. Many of us have gotten “soft” or spoiled having so many kinds of foods to choose from and the ability to dine out 5-7 times per week, which is the average for Americans. We have become used to menu variety. We may order “takeout” Chinese dinner on Monday night, “takeout” tacos on Tuesday, and dine out at a restaurant on Friday. Some may have the financial wherewithal to buy all kinds of expensive foods. But this is survival now.
⦁ Eat Simply – Like elite athletes, soldiers will head into missions with nothing more than a meal bar in their pocket. They may also have a few other items in a rucksack if they are gone longer.This is their fuel for the mission. Then on returning, they are given an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat).
⦁ MRE? Think shelf stable. There are twenty four different MREs but often soldiers have the same foods over and over again. You can survive on basic foods and do very well. For example: oatmeal for breakfast, a simple sandwich or leftovers for lunch, and a simple dinner of protein, some vegetables, and a starch (e.g., bread, potatoes, pasta) for dinner.
⦁ Just the basics. Right now, you do not need extravagance. Less is more. For example, rice with beans gives you all the energy and protein you need. Add your favorite spice or sauce and canned vegetables for a healthful dinner. Fueling yourself does not need to be unusual or extravagant. You just need to eat.
⦁ Reduce the work. If you can and want to prepare something more, do that too. Many Americans have so much going on in a typical weekday they may not have the time to plan extravagant meals that require unusual ingredients. Now may be the time to take that pressure off and eat more simply. Or now may be that time to experiment learning some new cooking habits and enjoying learning a new skill. The shortage of flour and other baking ingredients in the stores indicates that many are now baking bread and making other baked foods. Like other consumers, you may make new healthy shopping and eating habits that could last for the rest of your life.
Military service members wear specific uniforms for their missions. In our current mission we are required to wear a mask. One big misconception is that masks are meant to protect you. That is wrong. You wear a mask to protect others. The COVID-19 virus is transmitted by water droplets and aerosolization caused by coughing, sneezing, or simply talking. This is especially important in close quarters (inside) around strangers who may not be as cautious as you.
⦁ Ready Your Battle Mask – Like military equipment, masks have specific purposes to get the proper results you need to use them correctly.
⦁ Protecting Others. A standard cloth or paper mask helps to contain the spread of those droplets and aerosols when an infected individual sneezes, coughs, or speaks. And we all know that a person can be infected but not have symptoms. However, a cloth mask will not prevent you from being infected.
⦁ Protecting Yourself. Higher grade masks, like N95s, are used in hospitals by trained personnel and can prevent infection from both droplets and aerosolization. But they need to be properly fitted and tested by trained personnel with special equipment. A poorly fitted mask, or one used with excess facial hair (even 24-hour stubble), renders these expensive and scarce resources entirely useless.
⦁ Proper Fit. Any mask must cover your face securely with your nose and mouth completely covered. Exposing your nose immediately defeats the purpose of any mask. You might as well not wear anything. It should be secured before you go out and then taken off once you are back home or back in your car. Do not take it off until you can take it off and wash your hands.
⦁ Proper Care. Your mask is catching a lot of bad things. Wash your mask each time after you wear it so that it is fresh the next time you need to wear it to go back into battle.
⦁ Protect your Eyes – Wear eye protection if you have it. This can help prevent droplets from getting into your eyes (another way a virus can infect you). Avoid touching your face, mouth, and nose after you have been out in public and before you can thoroughly wash your hands.
⦁ Gloves Not Required – Gloves are unnecessary. Wash your hands before enter a store, when you leave, and then again when you get home. Wearing gloves gives a false sense of protection and can cause cross contamination. They do not provide you or anyone else any protection, especially when you are still touching everything with them.
⦁ Wash Up – Wash your hands carefully under warm running water with soap. Make sure to cover all the surfaces and take about 20 seconds to do the job. Take your time and do not rush. Enjoy the down time in a hectic day. It is your job to stay clean. Remember the invisible enemy out there. You do not want to let down your guard. Shower if it makes you feel better and if you feel like you have been exposed. If you have taken children with you make sure to bathe them as well.
TENDING TO YOUR SQUAD
Leave no troops behind. Think family and community. Remember, this is a mission. You do not want to expose people unnecessarily. We need to do all that we can to protect vulnerable populations. The elderly are especially at great risk and we want to do all that we can do to protect them. If you have someone in your life over sixty-five years old or with health issues shop for them.
⦁ Help your Neighbors – Shopping for a neighbor reduces the amount of people in the grocery stores. Before you go, ask your neighbors and elderly friends if they need anything. Remember to ask parents or caregivers if they need anything. They should avoid being out with young children.
⦁ Help your Community – Food pantries have been hit hard. People are using them more than ever because so many are unemployed. Many of the unemployed were the same people who used to contribute and now cannot be as generous. If you can do so, drop off foods at your local pantry. Good choices include peanut butter, canned proteins, whole grains, and canned fruits and vegetables.
⦁ Guard the Frontline Workers – Not everyone is having to deal with this enemy in the same way. Some are fighting an exceedingly difficult battle on the frontlines. Health care workers in our hospitals and nursing homes are realizing the brunt of the battle, as are those driving buses, working in grocery stores, delivering the mail, and providing meals. We must do all that we can do to protect these folks who put their lives at risk for all of us.
HOLISTIC FITNESS: PHYSICAL, MENTAL, AND SPIRITUALLY
Soldiers need a plan for staying physically, mentally, and spiritually fit.
⦁ Routine as the Foundation – Start by keeping a routine. Going to bed at the same time and waking up at about the same time helps keep a rhythm to your daily life. Keeping to a schedule during the weekdays helps with a sense of time and makes weekdays and weekends feel different. This cannot always be achieved during wartime but keeping as much of a routine as possible will help reduce stress.
⦁ Exercise the Way You Can – Keeping your body physically healthy is critical. Choose exercises you can do in your current situation. This may not be a good time to do something physical that you have never done before or could be too strenuous. You do not want to get hurt and end up needing to go to a medical facility. Choose exercises that are aerobic and perform them several times per week. Stretching is important. Yoga is another option that can be helpful as it calms the spirit, moves the body, and contributes to your overall mental health. More and more opportunities are popping up online for free or for a small fee. You can find exercise, yoga, and dance classes online so take advantage of these opportunities. Any movement has the power to make you feel better.
⦁ Plan for Your Physical Health – If an annual health appointment has been cancelled or postponed, put that dental checkup, eye exam, or other routine check-up on your to-do list to be rescheduled. Be extra diligent to brush and floss your teeth so when you do get back into your provider’s office you are in good shape. If you do have an immediate health need don't put it off, check with your health provider to learn their protocols,
⦁ Mental Fortitude – Keep fit mentally. Limit your intake of information and news. Being a “newsaholic” will not improve your life, but only weigh you down emotionally during these stressful times. The media thrives on turmoil, division, and controversy. A steady stream of the latest death count will take a toll on you mentally.
⦁ Ingest News Deliberately. Treat your daily dose of news like a trained soldier receiving a mission brief. Decide what news you need ;what you need to learn. Then go to your trusted sources and gather the facts and perspective you need to move ahead with your day. News aggregators can help serve up a blend of the top important stories and commentary without losing you in clickbait internet rabbit holes.
⦁ Focus on Knowledge Expansion. Instead of keeping up with current events, try to gain new skills, perspective, and historical knowledge with your reading and viewing habits. Try to read more books to exercise your imagination, watch documentaries, take tutorials on topics that interest you, and learn more history which has a calming levity. This can be a helpful diversion and add to your wellbeing by making you feel more personally knowledgeable and equipped for the next life challenge or mission.
⦁ Spiritually Thrive – Do not neglect your spiritual health. Recognizing the significant need for spiritual health the military maintains chaplains and other religious leaders in their official ranks during peacetime and wartime. When life is busy oftentimes this is a part of ourselves that is neglected. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to visit a worship service? Are you thinking about building better spiritual habits? There are many online opportunities to check out during this time. Many places of worship have virtual services allowing you to visit from the privacy of your home. There is a lot you can learn if you take some time to be quiet, still, and observant.
REST AND RELAXATION (R&R)
Soldiers need opportunities to have breaks for deep rest and simple relaxation.
⦁ Have Fun on Purpose – Think of things that you have never had time to do. Our brains need a diversion to rest and relax, so this could be your time to try out something new. You could learn to bake bread, learn a new language, or learn to paint. Maybe teach your family some things that you have never gotten around to doing before. Tell them stories about how you grew up, why you are in the job you are in, or something that they have never heard about you. Take some time to just be different.
⦁ Plan for Future Fun – Plan for things you want to do when you can travel more freely (sent home from combat). Hope is a powerful motivator. Make a list of ways you will celebrate.
⦁ Think Simple – Take the pressure off. Whatever you are doing does not need to be amazing. This may be the time for someone to write the next book or invent something, but for many of us simply coping with our responsibilities is enough of a challenge. If you are surviving and keeping your family safe you are doing your job.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR BATTLE BUDDIES
In wartime soldier always have a companion. Some people are feeling very isolated right now, especially many of our elderly.
⦁ Deliberately Connect – Stay connected with others. Drop a card or a note in the mail, send a text, make a phone call. Do not overwhelm yourself by trying to reach too many people, but do not hide all alone in your foxhole either.
⦁ Strangers Need Connection – Our battle buddies include the front-line workers. Cheer them up in as many ways as you can. Some of them are extraordinarily tired and may be facing additional challenges on the home front. They could use a word of encouragement. Continue to reach out to them.
DEBRIEF FOR CONTINUAL IMPROVEMENT
Soldiers always plan for the mission to end and be discharged. What will this look like when we can safely go out into society again (when you are released from active duty and sent home)? What will this look like when your self-isolation is over? Dreaming is important, it brings hope into our lives. It is good to have a plan for how you will continue to be cautious and protect yourself and others. Maybe you will not want to jump right back into business as usual. Maybe you will take things slower as you have enjoyed some of the ways you have been living during this pandemic. Be mindful of what feels like your best course of action as long as it does not put someone else at risk and be respectful of the decisions of others.
⦁ Train for Future Missions – There will always be at least one lesson to take away from this time. Remember how surprising and bewildering this all felt a few months ago. What would you have wanted to do differently? Learn from each experience so you will be ready for the next crisis. Every soldier knows that there are valuable things to learn after the battle is over so the next time a conflict arises the same mistakes are not made and those valuable lessons learned can be put into action. That is what we call experience.
⦁ Celebrate the Victories – Reward yourself and others, even in small ways. Soldiers return home in different ways. Sometimes they come home quietly and sometimes to big parades. We do not know what this will look like in our communities, but we are a creative and resilient people. So, let’s be planning for what this can look like, and look forward to it!
*Schake, K.N., and Mattis, J.N. (2016). Warriors and citizens: American views of our military. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.
Look out for my next post with simple recipes to prepare from
your home grocery inventory!