Coronavirus has given us a summer of 'dissonance'

Now, in summer, we’re trying to make sense of the cognitive dissonance. Do we head for the beaches and salt-water Mediterranean where the jellyfish now reign, or buy beach chairs for the balcony?

DO WE head for the beaches where the jellyfish now reign or buy beach chairs for the balcony?   (photo credit: URI LENZ/FLASH 90)
DO WE head for the beaches where the jellyfish now reign or buy beach chairs for the balcony?
(photo credit: URI LENZ/FLASH 90)
The word “dissonance” has been rattling around in my head ever since I heard Julie Benbenishty speak recently by Zoom to an international audience.
Benbenishty came to Israel from the United States as a teen, studied nursing and served as an IDF nurse. Today she’s a trauma specialist with a PhD, and one of the Hadassah nurses who volunteered for bedside, ventilator-side care in our current pandemic to bolster the COVID-19 team in Hadassah Medical Organizations ICUs. In the midst of the first wave peak, Benbenishty realized she needed to take her car for the annual required check. After work, she drove to one of Jerusalem’s authorized vehicle inspection stations.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Benbenishty has had a Hebrew sign taped to her windshield identifying her as “Hadassah Hospital Staff on Duty.” When she pulled up to the inspection station and rolled down her window, the curious attendant asked her what she does at Hadassah Hospital. “I’m a nurse in the coronavirus outbreak ward,” she said
He leaped back, ordered her to roll up the window, and ran away to alert the other attendants and inspectors that they had “a corona nurse” so they should keep their distance.
“All the inspectors ran away,” said Benbenishty. The good news was that her car was approved in record time. “The bad news,” she said, “is that their reaction is typical of how people react when they learn what I do.”
Nor is her experience unique. Colleagues in the Outbreak wards share these unhappy stories. So do nurses abroad. Benbenishty has spoken to colleagues in neighboring countries – she’s the co-founder of an NGO called Nurses in the Middle East – and with nurses in New York and Seattle.
“On one hand the world has been wonderfully appreciative, saluting health workers by clapping on balconies and organizing celebratory fly-pasts. On the other hand, when a pipe broke in my apartment building, neighbors openly expressed concerns about getting ‘Julie’s water’ leaking into their apartments. This dissonance exacerbates a feeling of isolation by those of us working day and night in the Outbreak units.”
DISSONANCE. THE tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements. And there’s also cognitive dissonance, a theory proposed by the late Jewish American social psychologist Leon Festinger, who described the stress of holding two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas, and experiencing psychological stress because of that.
I was listening to a podcast on American National Public Radio about cognitive dissonance during our coronavirus times. Typical clashes: we want to be safe, on the other hand we think that summer is a time for family vacations. We vacillate between the two. Sound familiar?
Think of where we’ve come. On Purim, Corona-beer costumes were popular and still funny. While we were laughing, the virus was attacking. By Passover nothing was funny about coronavirus and we were in scary lockdown. And now, in summer, we’re trying to make sense of the cognitive dissonance. Do we head for the sun-drenched beaches and salt-water Mediterranean where the jellyfish now reign, or buy beach chairs for the balcony?
Can we go to a schoolyard to hear our grandchild in a musical recital if it’s all outdoors? Can we spend a family Shabbat at an Israeli hotel opening in July after four months of closure if the manager has assured us of scrupulous cleaning, masked waiters and staff and social distancing? Can we take a few calculated risks after months of extreme caution? And is this the proverbial slippery slope, where lowering the bar once allows us to lower it more the next time?
There are no clear answers, no matter how many articles we read or experts we consult. That’s another problem. There is simultaneously a profusion of information, but a dearth of answers. It wasn’t that long ago when family physicians waved away aches and pains as “just a virus.” Now we live in a world where viruses – AIDS, Ebola, Corona – are worldwide threats. The coronavirus is unfamiliar and ornery. Experienced virologists who have tangled with CMV and Zika are just learning corona’s wily ways. Medical news is complicated by the suspension of the usual double-blind clinical trials we’re used to. Peer-reviewed publications have been replaced by social media breaking news. In the last half year, thousands of papers have been written about COVID-19, but hard facts are hard to come by, while photos of overwhelmed medical teams abroad were on our nightly news. Well-intentioned persons are eager to share information that may be correct today but not tomorrow, or incorrect at source. When, in the media, health officials are alarmists or reassuring, we don’t know whom to trust.
A third area of dissonance is the contrast between the closing of national borders on one hand and the expansiveness of contact via the Internet on the other. Who hasn’t been on a multi-national Zoom call? Benbenishty’s talk drew participants from a dozen countries as part of a Hadassah International summer seminar program. I also listened in last week as gynecologist Simcha Yagel taught 1,200 Chinese doctors how he reads three- and four-dimensional ultrasound scans to recognize prenatal congenital heart defects. The low-cost Israeli ventilator project AmboVent started in the military, invited brainstorming from all over the world and the codes were given out for free for any country – friend or foe – that wanted to develop them. I joined the investors and inventors from 90 countries who tuned into the recent OurCrowd seminar. Never has there been so much international sharing of ideas and data. Still, we can’t go anywhere. Right now, one friend is struggling to get to a sibling’s funeral in Europe; another is missing a grandson’s wedding in Puerto Rico. The borders of our small country have never felt so rigid.
What did my mother always say way before we knew of corona? Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht. Man plans and God laughs. The dissonance of decision-making in a newly uncertain world isn’t going away. I’m trying to recognize the internal clashes, and realize that this discomfort is the norm now, learning to live with dissonant decisions.
As for Julie Benbenishty, she’s doing something significant. She’s kicked off an international research project with medical professionals around the world to document the dissonance and find ways to combat it. We are all counting on their skills and determination as we face the future.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.

Tags summer health