Table tennis player Lily Zhang

Learning to Cope with Our New Normal

“Will the 2020 Tokyo Olympics be cancelled? Postponed? What are you going to do if it’s cancelled? If it’s postponed, will there be an entirely new trials to determine the team?”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received countless questions about how the novel COVID-19 virus, more commonly known as the Coronavirus, will affect the Olympics. Well, to answer that question honestly, I don’t know. I really don’t. Given the unprecedented and uncharted moment in history that we’re all going through, I only know as much as you do. Which is not much. This is something that I simply have zero control over and can only wait along with everyone else to see how the situation progresses.

I’m not a health expert. I’m not a financial expert. Instead, I can only give you my perspective on how I’m personally handling the circumstance at hand. In these uncertain times, things seem to be constantly changing every day, every hour, so I’m reminding everyone to read this with a grain of salt.

I’m writing this while currently self-quarantined in my own room back in the Bay Area. Just a mere few days ago, I was training full-time in Düsseldorf, Germany, preparing for our upcoming league matches, competitions that were still on the calendar, and most significantly, the upcoming Olympic Games. However, everything drastically changed when I woke up early Thursday morning to a barrage of text messages and missed calls from friends and loved ones informing me about an announcement made by our President, banning all travel from Europe to the U.S. starting Friday at midnight. Later reiterations stated that the policy wouldn’t necessarily apply to U.S. citizens or residents, but I worked with my federation to buy a ticket home immediately.

Besides the obvious risk of contracting the virus during the journey, traveling was particularly worrisome since I figured everyone and their mother would have the same idea and scramble to get home before the policy came into effect. My first flight from Frankfurt to Toronto was completely full, but the travel was otherwise fairly seamless, as I passed through customs easily in Canada. As soon as I got home, I made the decision to quarantine myself in my room anyways, away from the rest of the house and my parents. I felt (and still feel) completely fine health-wise, but since my parents are both over 60, we decided it was best to err on the side of caution in the case that I did have the virus, but wasn’t showing symptoms yet, or was just asymptomatic. And that’s just the thing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus can incubate for 2-14 days before symptoms begin to present themselves and many people may even be asymptomatic, yet still have the ability to easily transmit it to others. While the virus might not be particularly life-threatening to younger and healthy people, we have the moral and ethical obligation to follow serious precautionary measures, such as staying inside and practicing the well-known phrase of social distancing.

I’m sure most, if not everyone, has seen the graphic about flattening the curve. This particular graphic represents the number of coronavirus cases in relation to time in two different scenarios. Overall, there might be the same number of cases in both scenarios, but this number shoots up severely in just a short period of time if there are no preventative measures in place.

Epidemic infographic by Esther Kim & Carl T. Bergstrom
Epidemic infographic created by Esther Kim & Carl T. Bergstrom for COVID-19 to demonstrate the benefits of slowing transmission.

In contrast, the number of cases flatten significantly and spreads out over a longer period of time if we do follow preventative measures, consequently protecting us from overwhelming the capacity of our healthcare infrastructure. That way, my parents, your grandparents, or any other person who needs it, will unquestionably have access to a bed in the hospital or to that ventilator they need to keep them alive. A useful way to look at it is to assume you actually already have the virus and change your behavior accordingly. It’s not too late to learn from the countries that have come before us. We need to do all we can do to protect the welfare of our more vulnerable community members and avoid unnecessary deaths.

However, with the implementation of these preventive measures, it’s safe to say that life as we know it has changed. Sporting events suspended, music festivals and large gatherings cancelled, schools and offices temporarily closed. Am I personally frustrated that our international competitions have all been either postponed or cancelled? That the professional league I’m competing in has come to a screeching halt? That the future of the Olympics is ambiguous? You bet. In fact, these were the only concerns consuming my thoughts in the earlier stages of all this. I thought it so devastating and unfair to have dedicated all this time and effort to fulfilling the Olympic dream, only to have it (possibly) ripped out from underneath me. Now all these years and years of hard work and dedication could very well amount to nothing.

But after exchanging feelings and thoughts with friends and even through some social media browsing, I have been actively working to adopt another perspective on the situation. Yes, it is okay to feel disappointed or even irritated that much of our plans have been completely upended. These feelings are perfectly valid. Nonetheless, it’s also important to acknowledge that many of us actually have the privilege to weather the storm by staying or working at home. Let us all take a moment to think about those who are most affected by the virus and these policy changes, including healthcare workers risking their own well-being by serving on the frontline, service industry workers who may depend on a constant revenue stream to survive, and the less fortunate who may not even have the luxury of a home to stay in.

It’s not always easy to find positives in a time like this, but there are always two different ways to look at a situation. There is a silver lining to this crisis. Maybe use the extra time to focus your energy on something you’ve always wanted to do. Practice meditation, read a book, learn how to poach that perfect egg. As a professional athlete, we are constantly on the road, traveling to that next competition or to that training camp in yet another city, another country. We often don’t get the opportunity to spend much time at home with family. I personally want to take this period to appreciate being home with my parents, reconnect with friends (virtually), and just regroup and refresh from the rigorous training schedule we’re normally used to.

The world is not ending. As we learn to cope with our new normal, it’s more crucial than ever to practice gratefulness, empathy, and mindfulness. Human beings have been resilient since the beginning of our existence and we will continue to be.

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