Last night, after the presidential address about coronavirus, the texts started rolling in.
It was my mom-friend group text chain, and in between sarcastic GIFs about hoarding toilet paper and quips about the absurdity of empty pasta aisles (“It’s the aPASTAlypse!”), we were all wondering the same thing: should we run to the store to stock our pantries, after all?
Now, let me preface this by saying: since I can remember, I’ve always found comfort in a good disaster plan. I was the kid who couldn’t sleep unless her parents assured her there would be no house fire, no tornado, and no earthquake. I actually asked Santa for a fire ladder one year. My emergency preparedness has been the subject of many a friendly tease from my husband and close friends over the years. So, while I wasn’t running to the stores for TP and nonperishable goods last week, last night I started to feel like I needed to. Facing the real possibility of schools and public spaces shutting down for a couple weeks, and as pandemic panic set in nationwide, I put the kids to bed, threw the dishes in the sink and trudged off to the grocery store.
As I wandered the aisles trying to think about what my family of five needed for two weeks stuck in the house (a scary thought in and of itself), I started to notice the carts of the people around me. I live in an area with a mixed socioeconomic demographic: my fellow 9:30 p.m. shoppers included plenty of confused husbands sent to the store in their basketball shorts with a list of things they weren’t sure how to find; young women stocking up on the necessities of single life; working class families closely adding up the cost of what was in their cart; a homeless man who biked to the store for dog food; elderly couples moving slowly and cautiously to find what they needed. As I realized my trip to the store was going to be an expensive late-night endeavor, I wondered how my less-affluent neighbors were going to manage.
Today at school drop-off, I saw one of the mom friends from the text chain who had remained relatively silent during the whole conversation. I asked her if she got what she needed at the store. “No,” she said. “I’ve been working so much, and, I don’t know … this whole thing is getting to me. Stockpiling is such a privilege.”
Her words shot straight to my heart. She was right. Last night’s empty grocery store shelves sent an inkling of panic to the pit of my stomach and I bought more than we really need, I’m sure. I usually do, even in normal times. It’s something I’ve been working to correct for awhile now. But last night was especially surreal and my ego -- surely the culprit behind my years of fear-based, unnecessary emergency action plans -- was piping up. It was playing out Supermarket Sweep, the doomsday edition, in my head. “Quick, get ALLL the whole hams! And the detergent!”
As I drove home, I thought about her comment, and how right she was. Taking stock of our current lifestyle, I started to count my lucky stars. Just four years ago, I was an hourly worker, teaching private Pilates and group fitness. In good times, I made a great living - the more our economy soared, the more people were willing to pay me for my services. But in bad times, like the recession of 2008, it was downright scary. If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. If I got sick, I felt like I couldn’t take time off. If my clients or their kids got sick and cancelled last minute, I was faced with either being the jerk who charged them anyway, or losing my own income. My employer didn’t offer health insurance, which meant I paid out of pocket for all of my health expenses. And each day, I was in contact with sweat, spit, sometimes blood and even tears. I was literally living paycheck to paycheck, and praying I’d avoid a health emergency, which would certainly bankrupt me. Once I had children of my own and had to pay for daycare, I realized my career was no longer sustainable with such high childcare costs. I loved my job, but I had no choice but to pivot if I wanted to provide security for my family.
Yet here’s the kicker: being able to pivot quickly into a new, lucrative career that offered health insurance was, in itself, an exercise in privilege. I had a college degree, other skills to offer, a supportive partner with a good job, and -- let’s call it what it is -- white skin; all of which helped me turn the page.
If there is one thing the coronavirus pandemic is bringing to light it's how quickly our social problems escalate when we think ONLY as individuals rather than part of the whole... and how ill-equipped we are to deal with the fallout.
Any way you slice it, there are going to be repercussions to the decisions made in the wake of this pandemic. There is no easy solution, but there is one thing scientists agree on: we must take definitive, large-scale action quickly to encourage social distancing and contain the spread of this virus. To that, many will respond with rolled eyes and annoyance, stating that the risk presented to themselves and their children is low, so why should school close? Why should birthday parties be cancelled and sports tournaments called off? It’s no worse than the flu, they say. But to view a public health crisis through your own narrow lens of experience can prove deadly for so many others who are immunocompromised, uninsured or underinsured, elderly, or overly exposed. In fact, this viewpoint even risks the lives of healthcare workers, who will be at the front lines should this highly communicable disease explode exponentially the way it did in China and Italy.
Yet on the other hand, hoarding supplies and food and medicine in a state of panic is no less a privileged response than brushing off the virus entirely. So many people cannot afford a week’s worth of groceries, let alone a month. And while we may agree that cancelling everything is the right thing to do, we must remember those who will be impacted the most. Many of our neighbors do not have paid sick leave, and have to choose between putting food on the table or going to work anyway, spreading their germs and infecting more people. Our schools may have to close, but some students rely on school lunches for food, don’t have access to the internet in their homes, and may fall behind in their schoolwork if classes are moved online. Many working parents won’t have childcare and work for employers who will not be flexible or offer remote work, putting their jobs at risk.
Within every possible response to coronavirus, we have the opportunity to act based out of compassion for ourselves and our neighbors, or out of privilege and fear. We must walk the fine line of acting quickly and definitively without panicking, of preparing without preventing others from being able to do the same.
To that end, here are some suggestions for how we all might check our panic and privilege in the age of COVID-19:
- Donate Locally: If you have enough resources to stock food, you have enough to donate. Buy a few extra jars of peanut butter, some extra noodles and sauce, extra pet food, extra diapers and wipes and take them to your local shelter or action center to help families who can’t afford a trip to the store.
- Consider Paying Service Workers Anyway: If you have a personal trainer, nanny, massage therapist, housecleaner or other service professional who won’t be able to work for a few weeks, consider paying them regardless. To them, it often means the difference between surviving and thriving.
- Order Takeout: If you frequent small businesses for breakfast or lunch, and they are staying open for takeout, order to go. Small businesses are sure to take a big hit from less traffic.
- Offer to Watch Someone’s Child: If schools close and you know a family who can’t find childcare but must go to work, offer to watch their kids.
- Fly and Maybe Even Buy: Check on your elderly and immunocompromised neighbors to see if you can pick up prescriptions, grab some groceries, or run an errand so they don’t have to brave public spaces.
- Take Advantage of the Teaching Moment: When explaining to your kids why things are cancelled, express your disappointment, but also talk about the reasons why: so that we can make sure Grandma and Grandpa stay healthy, and make sure our sick neighbors don’t get sicker. Kids are born more compassionate than fearful. It’s up to us as parents to cultivate the sense of community that we hope will surround them if they were ever in need.
We are a country that celebrates free will. But if our own free will prevents others from living their pursuit of happiness, we are doing nothing to live up to the promises our forefathers made. The coronavirus pandemic gives us an opportunity to respond with compassion instead of fear, and walk the walk of community. I know we can do it … right after we all wash our hands.