A Confession and Lessons in Isolation

I have a confession to make.

On March 4, 2020, the U.S. had reported fewer than 100 cases of coronavirus; the first recorded case was January 19. I was scheduled to go to Monterrey, Mexico, early that March evening, and any denial or naiveté that I had about the seriousness of the situation had disappeared. For some weeks, I had been inquiring as to whether — even hoping — the scheduled event would be canceled and not force me to make a decision on if I should go or not. But the argument had been made that less than a handful of cases had been reported in Mexico, far away from Monterrey, so the danger was minimal, and the event should go on. Like many others, I decided to go — after all, it was just for a day.

The business meeting did not allow for strict social distancing, but I was extremely disciplined in not shaking hands. I constantly used hand sanitizer or washed my hands, and avoided touching surfaces and my face. It was not easy. In the Mexican and my Puerto Rican culture, shaking hands, hugging, and kissing as a sign of friendship is the rule, not the exception. All of us in the meeting were very self-conscious and felt awkward suppressing our instinct to have physical contact.

That evening, there was a dinner at the beautiful home of one of our alumni. I thought it was going to be a small affair, but there must have been 40 people there. Again, I was extremely careful, avoiding contact with people and things. I was one of the very few acting that way. My colleagues quickly reverted to the traditions that make them comfortable. Peer pressure was building. I did not like to be different. I yearned for the social contact, the physical touch so consistent with my heritage.

After a wonderful dinner and evening, it came time to say goodbye. After a long evening of being reserved, I succumbed to the pressure and I, too, participated in the parting hugs and kisses. It felt wonderful — but I confess that it was not very smart.

I have heard that isolation is hardest for extroverts. I have never considered myself an extrovert, but I sure suffer as much as anyone else from the deprivation that isolation efforts impose. The bottom line is that I am inherently and culturally social. It is extremely hard to be away from people. It is extremely hard not to shake hands, to share hugs. The hardest part of this isolation is not being close to the wonderful people with whom I work. I miss saying good morning to them, I miss the bantering, I miss seeing their smiles up close, I just miss seeing them. Every day, in the interminable video connections, I have the urge to reach into the monitor and somehow, magically, touch the participants. I know that they feel the same way.

So, I first confess that I erred in not following social distancing while in Mexico. Luckily for all of us, that mistake did not result in harm. I promise I will not do it again. Second, this experience has reminded me to never take any colleague, friend, or family member for granted. I miss them all.

I hope this is over soon.

-Rafael L. Bras

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  • Rafael Bras

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