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Collected Item: “My Hands Are Raw and I Can't Think”

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My Hands Are Raw and I Can't Think

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Listening to Marketplace on the radio each morning as I arrived at work in mid-January of 2020, I never suspected that what was forcing cancelations of Lunar New Year celebrations in China would leave me with raw hands and ringing ears. At that time, I was working at the Census Bureau for the lead person responsible for on-the-ground execution of the 2020 census in Idaho. The work involved data analysis and strategic planning, as we created and staffed a field operation to complement the Census Bureau’s attempt to transition from the traditional door-to-door canvassing to online self-reporting.
In the early days of the pandemic, we tried to maintain business as usual as we, and most of the country, watched cases rise. When things got bad enough, a mandate from Washington shut down our office for nearly six weeks. When our team was called back, we entered a totally new world. The Census Bureau leadership had mandated a hyper safe work environment and work rules. The office furniture was completely rearranged to create social distance. A six-foot perimeter around every desk was marked on the floor to ensure work interactions took place at a distance. Similarly, walking paths were marked on the floor and one-way traffic was encouraged. Everyone was issued a box of masks and hand sanitizers and soap dispensers were everywhere. The visual was pretty laughable but it is my hands and ears that carry the strongest memories of attempting to work in this environment.
Trying to comply with the guidelines meant more hand washing and sanitizing than one would likely see around an operating room. The government, while trying to be a really good parent, however, had failed to supply hand lotion. Shame on me! I didn’t bring my own and raw, chapped hands became my red badge of courage, and compliance. Additionally, I will never forget the volume in that concrete block room. A room full of people on the phone can be noisy; but social distanced work conversations meant masked people shouting to co-workers as they stood six feet from their desk. It was the definition of cacophony. The work I was doing required a lot of attention to detail and I remember it being so loud at times I could not think clearly. There were time I would go outside to listen to quiet of the traffic on the busy street in front of the office.

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Arizona State University, HST 643, Sensory History

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