Quarantine as privilege
It is a privilege to write this.
It is a privilege not to have to leave one’s home, not to worry about the food on tonight’s table, and not to work to keep one’s family alive.
It is a privilege to think of what’s going on in the world today while not being in the world at large.
It is a privilege not to be poor, all the more so in this time of a pandemic.
Of course, regardless of social class, all of us are affected by a crisis that I hope we will only face once in our lifetimes.
Our freedom of movement has been restricted, our plans canceled or at least postponed. For the coming weeks, if not months, we will have to make adjustments to our work and living arrangements, and some will have it more difficult than others.
For many, the most painful thing will be missing the chance to be with our loved ones.
Moreover, if this crisis continues, the supplies we’ve stored will run out, our finances will be depleted, and our mental reserves may even run out faster. On one hand, unlike previous pandemics that have rendered people completely isolated, we remain hyper-connected through our group chats, online channels, video conferences. But what if we lose internet access? Given that we don’t know where this situation will lead to, whatever privileges we have may not last for long.
In any case, as human beings, we are all at risk of COVID-19; a virus that knows no sex or status, race or religion, fame or fortune. The biological reality, and ultimate frailty, of our bodies is why some speak of pandemics as “great equalizers.”
But are they really? Will those who can afford to stay away from other people have the same risk of exposure as those who can’t? We speak of “social distancing” as being “one meter apart,” but many do not possess a meter of this earth, neither in the vehicles by which they travel or the places they work in, nor in the dwelling places they call home.
And in the event of exposure, will those who have afforded themselves healthy, nutritious lives have the same risk of severe illness as those who haven’t? Rightfully, we advise each other to eat healthy food, drink lots of water, and exercise, but long before the pandemic, people have struggled to access safe water, afford nutritious food, and avail of the time and space to exercise.
And finally, in the event of severe illness, will those who can afford quality health care have the same chance of survival as those who can’t even go to our hospitals? Add the economic, physical, social, and cultural barriers to health care to the above disparities, and the only possible conclusion is that pandemics divide more than they equalize.
Recognizing our privilege should, in the first place, make us calm and cooperative amid the sensible sacrifices that are being asked of us in this difficult moment. Some are forced to look for work or borrow money just so they can eat. Others are called to staff our hospitals and keep our nation running. Most of us are simply being told to stay at home.
Recognizing our privilege should also make us sensitive to the fact that others do not share our relatively comfortable situations. Amid grave uncertainty and fear, boasting publicly about how blessed you are at this time is not helpful.
Moreover, recognizing our privilege should mean acknowledging — and acting on — our responsibility to those who do not share it. Not just because if we can afford to be indifferent, then we can afford to care, but because whatever privilege we have rests on the labor of others.
Recognizing our privilege, finally, should make us more critical of policies that we support—and, among those in power, policies that we enact—and ask ourselves whether they consider the realities people actually face. It’s easy to say “Don’t complain, just follow the rules!” if compliance is convenient. It is easy to stay at home if you can eat, sleep, work, and play at home, while awaiting developments from the world outside.
But what of the man on the street who, finding himself with neither food nor freedom, cries, “Hunger will kill us faster than any disease!”?
If we are to survive this crisis as one community, if we are to leave no one behind, we need to recognize the quarantine as privilege—and social solidarity the least that we and our governments should do to those who enable it.
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