When I made the decision to close our medical clinic to in-person visits and temporarily suspend operations in our dental clinic in March 2020, I never thought that, 18 months later, COVID-19 would still be the major public health threat that it is. I would have never believed that over 1,600 people would be diagnosed (just this week) after a vaccine was available. I thought by now that we would have packed away our personal protective equipment, turned off our massive air exchangers, and stopped doing the daily health screeners.

But no.

Parents and kids are entering their second school year with quarantines and masks. Conflicts within workplaces, families and communities about vaccination and masking are creating stress, anxiety and isolation. A year and a half into the pandemic, everyone is tired, frazzled, more than a little on edge and ready for this all to be over.

As I re-read our Giving Voice articles from the beginning of the pandemic, they were full of encouragement and hope. In one article, I wrote, “Amazing things are happening . … People have dusted off their sewing machines and have quickly whipped up masks for family, friends, neighbors and healthcare workers. There have been teddy bear hunts, sidewalk chalk messages, free concerts, anonymous donors buying lunch for food pantry and grocery store staff and teachers going above and beyond to engage students in this new learning environment. The list goes on with ways our community has risen to meet the challenges of economic hardships and social isolation.” Those were beautiful moments of connection and support in the midst of uncertainty and chaos.

So, what if the antidote to the tension, struggles, and worry we are experiencing now has been with us the whole time?

COVID-19 and its variants have proven to be highly contagious. But there are other things that are as potent and as spreadable. No, I don’t mean other communicable diseases (although don’t forget to get your flu shot!). I am talking about kindness.

While we were taught to be kind at an early age, there are data to back up the contagion effect of kindness. Researchers have found that if you are kind to one person, they will be kind to four other people. In turn, those four people will be kind to four more people, and transmission continues. Imagine – creating a compassion ripple effect that is powerful enough to elevate mood, bring together people, and incite joy in our homes, schools, workplaces, and communities!

Our volunteers at Oasis have already figured this out. They know that giving their time not only helps our patients, it makes them feel good. One of our volunteers recently said that helping at Oasis gives them the chance to make their corner of the world better. A volunteer clinician said that it is always a privilege to care for others. Through their time at the clinic, they are doing something thoughtful for others – essentially spreading kindness through their volunteer work. Our patients feel it, too. As someone recently told us, “I’m just really grateful to everyone at the clinic. You’ve been really supportive and helpful and have really helped me become healthier and turned my life around.”

While COVID-19 is transmitted unseen, kindness can be spread visibly. It can be as simple as opening the door for someone or bringing your neighbor’s garbage cans in from the curb. You could bake a favorite dish to share with someone who hasn’t had a home-cooked meal in a while. Send cookies to your kid’s teacher/bus driver/cafeteria staff/librarians. Tell the person who bagged your groceries that they did a great job. Thank your co-workers for showing up and doing their best.

Maybe you like to spread your kindness covertly. If so, send lunch anonymously to those frontline healthcare workers who are still at it, working tirelessly to provide compassionate care. Send a thank-you note to the barista who always remembers your coffee order. Support businesses like Mare Brook Farm and their MaineBlooms program – a nice way to donate a bouquet of flowers to a local non-profit, medical professional or first responder. Your acts of kindness can come in many forms and be any size.

I understand that this might sound a little corny. Honestly, I am OK with that because, after 18 months of seeing our patients, my friends, family, and co-workers struggle (and struggling myself), I’m up for anything that has the potential to make people feel better. And even though we are overloaded, we just can’t be too tired to be kind. Because if we are, what kind of community will we live in? This is a reminder and an opportunity to go back to those early days – our masking sewing, teddy bear hunting days – when kindness spread, well, like a virus.

Anita Ruff is the executive director of Oasis Free Clinics, a non-profit, no-cost primary care medical practice and dental clinic, providing patient-centered care to uninsured adults in Midcoast, Maine. For more information, call (207) 721-9277 or visit oasisfreeclinics.org.Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community.

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