In the age of COVID, the arts will help us grieve, heal and come together

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At the epicenter of the pandemic, a cacophony of beeps, alarms and whooshing ventilators haunt our public health nightmare. Here in our country, the noise in overflowing Intensive Care Units is constant, driven by more than 200,000 new cases and 3,400 coronavirus deaths daily.

We’re reaching a breaking point in our health care system and community infrastructure. Through the noise and alarms in these trying times, what we need to desperately hear is the sound of music.

As an international pianist and researcher on music and wellness and a former state government official responsible for homeland security and disaster response, we urge our leaders to invest in music to support our health care and deepen community engagement.

Music reduces stress and anxiety both for patients and caretakers. It helps us breathe better and regulates our heartbeats. It positively affects our perception of pain – both emotional and physical.

More research points to the healing power of music. The World Health Organization endorsed music, and other arts, as effective in enhancing our individual and collective well-being after examining more than 3,000 studies. Their report indicates how music is effective from preventive to palliative care, from premature babies in the neonatal ICU to sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Given music’s healing ability, expanding access to music is timely to this emergency. The American Music Therapy Association supports the use of telehealth, allowing access to rural and high-risk communities. Studies reveal music’s effectiveness on patients on ventilators, reducing their need for painkillers, regulating their breathing and heart.

Music Heals Us summons this power of music for ICU patients in isolation by delivering personalized musical performance to their bedsides via iPads. They reached over 2,800 patients since the pandemic began.

However, at the onset of pandemic, many music therapists were furloughed, or fired. With more than 440,000 American deaths with no end in sight, we must leverage creativity to do better.

A few examples of such ingenuity: Gov. Gavin Newsom’s California Creative Corps proposal from his January budget. Through this pilot, the California Arts Council would invest $15 million for over 500 local artists to inspire wellness and engagement, particularly in our hardest hit communities. And under the leadership of San Francisco Mayor London Breed and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco also announced its own Creative Corps in November.

Both programs will deploy artists to advance public health education – important messengers in a time where there’s been understandable vaccine skepticism from communities of color due to a legacy of medical racism.

These are examples of imaginative policymaking, bridging divisions between medicine and music, institutions and local communities, academia and the public. The latest evidence increasingly clarifies how, how much and why the arts positively impact us physically and socially.

It’ll also ensure many artists much-needed employment as part of an industry among the hardest hit during this pandemic. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a public-private partnership to offer a series of statewide pop-up concerts and Mellon Foundation grants to put more than 1,000 artists back to work and provide money to community arts groups, Americans for the Arts report a whopping 63% unemployment in the art and creativity sector. 

Furthermore, the return on arts funding is multi-fold. A 2018 study revealed that music for ICU patients led to over $2,300 in cost savings per patient. The “Arts on Prescription” program in the United Kingdom discovered £4 to £11 saved for every £1 invested in arts on prescriptions. The program found dramatic drops in general physician consultations and hospital admissions – 37% and 27%, respectively. The virtuous circle will help equalize some of the inequalities that the pandemic highlights.

Medicine and our world-class doctors save lives. And, no, music doesn’t replace masks, nor do the arts act as vaccines per se. But it’s the arts and music that can enrich our lives. We must harness this power to heal from loss and become stronger together in our battle against the virus.

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