COVID-19 is ravaging the global community, and the healthcare system writ large is struggling to maintain its hold on surveillance, treatment, testing, supply chains, personnel, and all manner of response to this unprecedented threat. We have not seen such a ferocious pandemic since the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918, and we are hard-pressed to hold the line as our interdependent and frequently flawed systems are taxed beyond capacity.

How can healthcare providers be most effective in these frightening and chaotic times? Is our fight against COVID-19, this novel coronavirus, Sisyphean or Herculean in nature?

You may recall that Sisyphus was a mythological figure who was doomed for eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain from sunrise to sunset, only to have it roll back down again where he would then pick up the yoke of his burden and resume his labors.

As for Hercules, he likely needs no introduction as his story is more firmly rooted in the human psyche than the aforementioned tortured soul. Hercules and Sisyphus are stories for these times, but which one we choose is up to us.

Hercules, Sisyphus, and the Firehose

The barrage of disinformation, contradiction, and uneven governmental response is at the very least confusing, if not absolutely maddening for anyone paying attention amidst the clamor. Sifting for evidence-based scientific information could be a full-time job for anyone attempting to make sense of it all.

Meanwhile, we face massive shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment); understaffing; administrative shortcomings; denial, grief, and fear; not to mention our own families, loved ones, and communities for whom we fret.

Staying calm while fighting stress and burnout is itself a tall order in this moment in human history. Add to that the firehose of information, alerts, and new diagnostic and response criteria that must be read, listened to, digested, and then acted upon, and we have a recipe for an absolutely Herculean undertaking.

The aforementioned evidence-based data is indeed available, but the deafening noise can seem like a Sisyphean challenge to the nurse, doctor, chaplain, or surgeon who barely has time to eat or sleep. To mix metaphors, the shifting sands of this disease’s march around the planet further taxes the human ability to push that boulder up the hill and not allow it to roll back to its original starting point. This heavy lift is beyond anything seen in our lifetimes, and if we are to prevail, we must each shoulder our portion of the burden to the best of our ability.

Uniting Sisyphus and Hercules

At this juncture, the perceptions of being engaged in a struggle without a successful conclusion can lead to compassion fatigue, moral and ethical distress, and burnout like healthcare workers and the system itself have never before experienced.

Unlike a relatively limited flu epidemic that can be contained without expanding to pandemic proportions, COVID-19 is a powerful and insidious enemy against which the fight must be coordinated, organized, cogent, and with luck and perseverance, ultimately effective.

Let’s choose to put our inner Sisyphus to rest, summon our individual and collective Hercules, and move through this dangerous and lethal chaos towards the near future that the human race so urgently needs and we all long for in our deepest hearts and souls.