By Sarah Myers
After a year of enormous loss and sacrifice, we are losing our ability to feel shocked, or even saddened, by the tragedies surrounding us. At the same time, we are falling into complacency, starting to let our metaphorical masks fall below our noses and banking on the hope of vaccines. But this pandemic is far from over. The structural inadequacies and inequalities that exacerbated it and the horrors we have experienced this year will not change unless we pull ourselves together and see this through. Reading the news hurts; trying to stay afloat yourself while helping others is difficult; but turning away from these things will only lead to more pain.
The United States has just passed a terrifying milestone: half a million deaths due to COVID-19. It is impossible to conceive of the grief encompassed in that number. Each one of the deceased will be missed by loved ones, by community members, by the people who didn’t know their name but saw them at the bus stop every day.
Our nation, however, has barely taken a moment to mourn this enormous loss. We are too busy watching with horror and shock as it becomes clear that at least 58 people died in Texas because of a single winter storm.
We are watching in disbelief as Breonna Taylor’s murderers are charged with firing bullets into her neighbors’ apartment but not with her killing. Even as Black Lives Matter fades from the headlines, Black people in the United States face a disproportionate risk of dying from COVID-19. Despite a summer of activism, many Americans do not realize that, as of October 2020, one in 1,000 Black Americans had died of COVID-19. Not one in 1,000 elderly Black Americans, or Black Americans with preexisting conditions — one out of every 1,000 Black people in America.
We watched white supremacists mount an armed attack on the US Capitol.
Amid all of this, we either have the privilege of being socially isolated or the burden of being forced to continue going to work and risking exposure to the virus. People throughout the U.S. are facing financial hardship due to COVID-19, and the suffering is not equal. Black and Latino people are more likely to have slipped into poverty during the pandemic, and women of color are disproportionately likely to have lost their jobs.
And now we hear that 500,000 people have died, many of whom might have survived if only our previous president and state governments had been willing to do what was right instead of what was easy.
In some ways, this enormous toll barely seems to register. It is too large a number for the human mind to emotionally grasp, and we have experienced far too much tragedy already in the past 12 months. Human minds are very good at getting used to things. We become desensitized without intending to do so. Now, it seems that we are getting used to human suffering.
It is difficult, when you are already facing so much loss in your own life, to find the empathy necessary to truly feel the loss of 500,000 people whom you did not know personally. It seems pointless. Yet, we must extend that empathy and let ourselves feel the pain our neighbors are feeling, because, if we do not, callousness has won. We must feel the pain of others, because we must give them the help and kindness that we too would need, were we in their place.
It is so very tempting to think that the end of the pandemic is just around the corner. President Biden has promised that all adult Americans will have access to vaccines by this summer. Case numbers are going down from their holiday peak. We are coming up on 12 months of isolation, and the weather is getting warmer. The hard truth, however, is that this pandemic is far from over.
Biden’s promise applies only to people eligible to get vaccinated in the United States. Outside of the U.S., 130 countries have not yet received any vaccines. Experts are already trying desperately to make us understand that everyone, all eight billion of us, must be vaccinated before anyone is truly safe. Viruses mutate; they spread across borders; they evade vaccines. Worldwide vaccination, not national vaccination, must be the goal.
In the U.S., it will be months before many people have access to vaccines, and not everyone will be included at all. Florida has already implemented a proof of residency requirement for vaccinations, which appears to exclude migrant workers and other groups that do not have Florida-issued forms of ID. Even once we are vaccinated, or the pandemic is declared over, the lives lost to COVID-19 will not be returned. The financial hardship created by the pandemic will not be alleviated overnight, and the benefits of any economic recovery will not be equitably distributed — just look at the deeply unequal recovery from the 2008 recession, during which the 1% experienced economic growth twice as high as the 99%.
Looking at a nation which has already gone through far too much, I am deeply reluctant to make demands. Yet we must take action to ensure that the future ahead of us is not just another cycle of the tragedies behind. We have already seen how the desire to prevent another attack like the siege of the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 is leading some to repeat the mistakes of the U.S. response to 9/11, such as unethical surveillance and overpolicing. We have seen how the vaccination process is leaving behind Black people and other people of color — even though they face the most danger from COVID-19. Instead of defunding the police, some politicians have diverted COVID-19 relief funds to them.
While there are actions we can take as individuals, it’s worth addressing something that many Stanford students tend to forget. Although our student demographics are heavily tilted toward the rich, many students have experienced financial hardship, and this may have worsened during the pandemic. Many students have lost loved ones to the virus. Many students have experienced serious mental health problems, which the pandemic has often exacerbated. Many of us are in a position to donate time and money to others, but some of us are not.
Too often, in communications from the University administration, emails from professors and even articles in this paper, we assume that the students and community members reading have not been deeply affected by COVID-19, poverty or other problems and issue general calls for “everyone” and “all of us” to take action. While calls to action are important, it is just as important for those of us who need help to ask for it, and for others to help the less privileged members of our community. A lot of organizations have been doing great work throughout the past year and could very much use our assistance.
Last spring, students launched the Stanford Basic Needs Fund, a mutual aid fund to make sure that students have access to food, housing, and healthcare. Students for Workers’ Rights has been raising funds for workers laid off by the University.
In the Bay Area, the Asian Law Caucus and Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate campaign are working to protect the rights of Asian people. VICE news has also put together a list of organizations working to help Asian people in the United States. Compassion in Oakland is organizing volunteer escorts for Asian people in Oakland.
Bay Area Rescue Mission is working to provide food, shelter and clothing to people without housing in the Bay Area. The National Coalition for the Homeless also maintains a national directory of organizations working to help people without housing.
And, of course, you must wear your mask, wash your hands and keep a distance of six feet from anyone not in your household. When it is your turn, get vaccinated if you are medically able. Contact President Biden, your Senators and your Representatives to urge them to present a plan to aid vaccination in all countries, not just people in the United States. Vote in local and midterm elections, and force yourself to remember or look up exactly how each candidate chose to respond to COVID-19 and every other crisis we have faced this year.
This has been a year of loss, suffering and pain. It is easy to think that there is nothing you can do, or that any effort is pointless, but that is not true. Ending this pandemic depends on all of us being kind to each other and ourselves by practicing social distancing and getting vaccinated. Building a better and more equitable future depends on that same kindness, as well as accountability at the polls for the leaders who failed us.
We cannot become numb to the suffering in the U.S. today. Maintaining empathy and facing these tragedies head-on hurts; how could it not? But that pain is necessary. More than 500,000 Americans have been killed by COVID-19. Our humanity must not die with them.
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