Reality Check: Isolation is a Privilege

COVID-19 has been described as an equalizing force: a potentially fatal disease that could infect anyone, so everyone has an equal responsibility to stay home and stay safe. Upon closer inspection, however, the story isn’t so simple. Although COVID-19 is transmissible to anyone, infection and mortality rates are disproportionately high amongst marginalized and underprivileged groups. By sitting at home and complaining of boredom – as I have witnessed many people do over the past several weeks – we remain blind to the fact that the opportunity to stay home during this pandemic reflects immense privilege. Not only does this complaining allow us to continue wallowing in self-pity, it negates every chance we have for fueling our energy towards positive change.

As Canadians, we are incredibly fortunate to have measures in place for our protection. We have a government that is recognizing the severity of this virus and taking active measures to encourage and allow its citizens to stay home. Also, we have access to economic benefits – such as the newly implemented CERB – to provide sustainable income for families whose livelihoods have been impacted by the pandemic. It is commonplace in our country to have Internet access for virtual education, sturdy homes built for individual families and enough food and water to keep us healthy. The accessibility of these resources alone demonstrates the unbelievable privilege we hold during this pandemic in our country.

Right now, however, millions of people in developing nations are struggling to find any semblance of isolation. Many of them live in crammed buildings, sharing a living space with dozens of others and lacking both welfare and medical treatment. Hand washing with clean water may be impossible, further increasing their likelihood of contracting the illness. As though these circumstances were not difficult enough, the vast majority of workers in these countries live from paycheque to paycheque and cannot access basic necessities without being able to work. Imagine choosing between protecting your family from disease while they starve, or risking contracting an incurable virus by working to feed them. The choice may seem unfathomable to us, but it is reality for many.

Though we are fortunate to be in Canada, we are certainly not immune to forcing greater hardships on the people whose lives are most impacted by the pandemic. Only a few weeks ago in our country, widespread panic ensued as toilet paper shortages occurred in virtually every grocery store. This left anyone without significant disposable income stranded, as they could not afford to stock up. Panic buying is yet another form of privilege, leaving people with less privilege scrounging to access basic needs. On top of situations such as this, there are many people within our country and beyond for whom it is unsafe to stay at home. People experiencing domestic conflict, people who rely on school lunches to feed their children and people without shelter do not have the luxury of staying “safe at home.”

For those of us experiencing newly virtual classrooms or workspaces, acknowledge the difference that this access has made to your life. Office jobs are relatively easy to convert to an online format, but anyone working in skill-based positions – think hairdressers, massage therapists and other positions that require physical contact – are left without livelihoods. This can have tremendous impacts on their mental and economic well-being.

Our essential workers, the brave people who must carry on with their jobs despite putting themselves in harms way, are the ones to whom we owe the greatest thanks. These people tirelessly and selflessly function as the backbone of society, working to ensure that the masses can access the goods and services they need. And yet, so many of them are mistreated, yelled at for a lack of stock beyond their control or paid abysmal wages. Our essential workers sacrifice their health daily so that we don’t have to.

In many cases, people are using their newfound free time to catch up on homework, learn a new skill or cultivate deeper relationships with their housemates and families. However, not everyone is mentally well enough to engage in these activities. I would be remiss to neglect the enormous impact that this pandemic has had on the mental health of many, regardless of where they are or their place in society. People are coping with trauma responses for the first time, suffering relapses or struggling to navigate unfamiliar territory. This experience is unprecedented for everybody and coping with sudden trauma is an unexpected burden to bear. For anyone struggling with their mental health throughout this time, I urge you to reach out. There are virtual counselors, helplines and free wellness supports available. Please take advantage of them and know that you are not alone.

In our society, we tend to experience a phenomenon that I will refer to as “privilege guilt.” This is the feeling of discomfort that often arises when we are told that we have an advantage over others. We want to feel as though we have earned everything we have and that all people are equal, but as countless scenarios and studies have proven, this is simply not the case.

As such, even in the face of glaring inequalities, many people ignore how fortuitous they are. It is imperative for us to recognize that the term privilege is not demonizing. Someone experiencing privilege is not a bad person for doing so; rather, the recognition of this fact can enable them to use this power for good. Privilege illustrates the fact that we have a lot to be grateful for and, I hope, a lot to share. Knowing this, we can each take a step back to acknowledge, accept and learn from the various levels of privilege that we hold. Many of us are empowered through our access to free time, safe spaces and medical care. We have life-saving shelter and an ability to remain within the confines of our homes. Most readers of this article will likely be healthy, able-bodied students who would likely make a full recovery from COVID-19 should they encounter it. As such, it is our responsibility to act as ambassadors and use our positions of privilege to facilitate positive change.

The single most important step you can take to minimize the spread of COVID-19 is to stay home. Do not leave your house unnecessarily and comply with the restrictions imposed by our government to keep safe. The few times that you do leave to purchase essential items, make sure to practice proper social distancing and hygiene, and do not stay in a store or enclosed area longer than necessary. These small steps will help keep our essential workers safe: the fewer people they encounter, the safer they are.

While you stay home, use your privilege to advocate for those who can’t. Sign petitions for causes you believe in, perhaps in support of our essential workers. Advocate for the protection of those who do not have a voice. Use your platform to encourage others to stay home and virtually check in on friends who may be especially vulnerable. Educate yourself and the people around you. Above all, take care of yourself. Self-care is crucial throughout this time, as you cannot pour from an empty cup.

My hope is that we will one day emerge from this pandemic having gained a newfound realization of what really matters. We are all craving a sense of normalcy, grieving everything from attending classes to getting coffee with our friends. Still, we have all recognized that the importance of these formerly everyday occurrences pales in comparison to the value of a life. We must support the people who are genuinely essential to society, which includes our minimum-wage workers. We must remember that lives really matter, every single one. In fact, I aspire for us to not return to normal, and for our communal empathy to have grown far beyond sustaining the way things were. In doing so, positive change will be inevitable.

Thanks to the privileges that we hold, many of us have the choice to stay home. Our social distancing will significantly reduce the burden on our healthcare system and will quite literally save lives. I implore you to recognize the responsibility you hold in having this privilege and do your part for those who do not have the opportunity to choose.