Section: Opinion

This Kenyon Life: With COVID-19, we need to care for all

As a generation, we have been raised in a world on fire. There is no shortage of things we should care about, things we should want or things we should do. On almost any topic, there is an article with a title followed by “and why you should care.” But there is a human limit to our empathy and attention spans. Look at how quickly the world moved on from discussions about Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement and, most recently, the war in Ukraine. In many ways, it is impressive that so many people continued to actively care about COVID-19 throughout the pandemic thus far. I use the phrase “actively care,” because I believe that people do still care about the aforementioned subjects. However, they are no longer actively demonstrating or acting on their care. Similarly, students do still care about COVID-19 and its impacts, but many students no longer actively care by wearing masks or limiting gatherings. Despite the desire to leave the world of COVID-19 behind, the pandemic continues to pose a significant threat to immunocompromised, chronically ill and disabled students. The threat that COVID-19 poses to the Kenyon community is not something that we “should” care about — it is a threat we need to actively care about. 

Last week, an immunocompromised and disabled Kenyon student anonymously wrote an essay titled “The Bare Minimum,” scattering it around Peirce. Following Kenyon’s lifting of the mask mandate, the essay discusses the author’s fear and anxiety surrounding people no longer masking. “People shouldn’t have to be controlled to do the right thing. They should do it because they care,” the author argued. Ultimately, the essay begs the question: Do students not wearing masks care about other people? I have considered this question before, and up until yesterday I was prepared to answer “no.” I applaud the author of the essay, as it is concise, powerful and thought-provoking. That said, I believe there is still hope. 

People don’t need to be “controlled” to do the right thing, but they need to be told who they are caring for. Rather than condemn unmasked students, it is necessary to emphasize that many students are still at risk. In an interview with ABC News, Dr. Jeannina Smith, medical director of the transplant and immunocompromised host service at the University of Wisconsin, stated that COVID-19 continues to pose a threat to immunocompromised patients. “I see the devastating effects of this viral infection every day as it leads to death and disability of my patients who were previously leading healthy, active lives,” she said. Dr. Smith went on to explain that despite medical advances, even ‘mild’ forms of COVID-19, such as Omicron, can have devastating effects on patients who are immunocompromised, chronically ill and disabled.

After years of pandemic living, getting people to actively care starts with breaking down the barriers to empathy. If one death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic, you tell them a name and a story. If out of sight becomes out of mind, you stand up in front of everyone. You must replace statistics with people and replace distance with presence. Tell your classes, your teachers, your friends: Make the community realize this is not abstract caring — this is real-life protection.

Our generation was the first to practice school shooting drills throughout our education, a reality we would be remiss to assume hasn’t played a formative role in how each of us moves through the world. Each school has slightly different protocols for a school shooter, but the four-step model is most broadly used: run, hide, fight and seek help. These aren’t ineffective steps, and in fact, they are very similar to the steps we have attempted throughout the pandemic. We pretended that COVID-19 would not be able to reach us, isolated for months, then armed ourselves with vaccines and boosters. We ran, we hid and although we fought, COVID-19 is still real and still a real threat. Now, as a school and community we need to listen to those who are immunocompromised, those with disabilities, those who still care. It is hard to advocate, and it is hard to acknowledge the pandemic is not over, but I believe in the strength of Kenyon students to not only care for themselves, but also for others.

I know that asking immunocompromised and disabled students to publicly demand change isn’t a perfect strategy. I know that it certainly isn’t fair, but I believe it is the only feasible alternative without a mask-mandate. It is not fair to ask People of Color to explain racism and privilege. It is not fair to ask women to explain sexism or assault. It is never fair to force marginalized people to be unpaid teachers and leaders, but it is effective. We are taught that being immunocompromised or having a disability is something that makes us weak, but that discounts our voices. We are not small, or feeble, or broken; our voices are loud and they are resilient. Our voices deserve to be heard. Our fear deserves to be heard. Don’t give people the excuse of assuming no one in their class needs them to wear a mask. It is possible that I am naive, but I still believe that people are capable of actively caring. I believe that if you tell them directly, Kenyon students will listen.

 

Hannah Sussman ’25 is a columnist at the Collegian. She is a sociology major from Glencoe, Ill. She can be reached at sussman3@kenyon.edu.

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