Currently, it feels like I haven’t truly interacted with another person since before the pandemic. While I now attend classes and go to work in the morning, something still seems off; I feel a profound disconnect from those around me, and while I could pretend like this experience is unique, I know that it’s not. Especially after so many months of social distancing, it feels as though we have forgotten how to be human.
This isn’t true for all of us, especially among those who haven’t been following the same health protocols—but even that sentiment reflects where we are as a society. One would think that this experience we all have in common, of living in a pandemic, would unite us. Instead, it increasingly divides us. This is partly a reflection of ourselves but is more a reflection of oppressive social structures that our society is built upon.
Although we are united in the respect that we are forced to contend with COVID-19, we are also divided, as large portions of the global population are still without access to necessary health infrastructure. This is where we fall short; this is where the pandemic has shone a light on the longstanding institutions that are built on the commodification of human life.
While wealthy countries such as the U.S. have the capacity to distribute vaccines more fairly across the globe, they still hoard stocks of vaccines. Amnesty International, a global NGO that focuses on promoting human rights, has addressed this issue, condemning the way that wealthy countries like the U.S. and China have been hoarding vaccines.
Purchasing disproportionate shares of global vaccines has had a far-reaching impact on our global vaccination status. According to Our World in Data, only 1.9% of people living in low-income countries have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The U.S. has a distinct advantage over other countries in regard to our ability to mass-distribute the vaccine. To have vaccines readily available across the country, is an immense privilege, and goes unrecognized by too many.
It is because of our overall security and privilege over other countries that we have our own unique problem: a large chunk of our population is unwilling to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
According to Texas A&M University, a study conducted in June for the journal “Politics, Groups and Identities” found that 22% of Americans identify as “anti-vaxxers.” This alarming number, juxtaposed with our current vaccine advantage has revealed both the privilege of America as well as our susceptibility to misinformation.
Ultimately, this widespread disagreement in scientific knowledge underpins our inability to combat this pressing health crisis. Misinformation and disinformation are much more prevalent than they were before the internet was around, resulting in millions of Americans being unable to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources. According to the American Psychological Association, one of the main factors influencing public opinion about health measures is misinformation. Specifically, in early 2020, nearly 30% of Americans believed that China created COVID-19, and later in the year, 25% believed that the pandemic was planned by people in power.
In fact, our polarization has led to the worsening nature of the Delta variant—so much so that health restrictions have been tightening across the nation. These restrictions have been occurring mainly in states with higher populations and caseloads. States like Louisiana, Nevada and Virginia–as well as multiple others–are now subject to restrictions like mask mandates and indoor capacity restrictions.
While the pandemic has certainly highlighted this reality, it has also reflected multiple truths about who we are as people. If there is one thing I have learned after more than a year of lockdown, it’s that there are two types of people: those who are living in a pandemic and those who are surviving a pandemic.
Those who are living in a pandemic are those lucky enough to exist comfortably within our capitalist institutions. These are the people who can work from home, get their groceries delivered straight to their door and see rising COVID-19 case numbers without fearing for their life.
Those who are surviving a pandemic are the most at-risk, primarily out of sheer desperation. This demographic consists of those working essential jobs, many of which are either minimum wage or in the healthcare sector. Especially at times when COVID-19 cases were the highest, these people risked their lives to keep a roof over their heads.
This disparity in living conditions is one of the many reasons why we aren’t all united by the same experience. How are we supposed to share common ground on the severity of COVID-19 when for many, it doesn’t hold the same weight?
For some, the early pandemic lockdown might have been an optimal time for reflection or a time to learn new skills. For others, it might have been a fearful time of uncertainty—where going to work in the morning meant risking their lives. Different circumstances throughout this past year have generated opposing viewpoints to issues like masks, vaccines and our healthcare system.
These clashing realities make it difficult to understand one another. As a country, we simply can’t seem to be on the same page about the state of the pandemic, rendering us unable to overcome it. Does this mean that we are broken as a society? Perhaps. But it could also mean that we are so separated in our life experiences that we can’t seem to find common ground in the issues that we all share.
Whether or not we will be able to address this polarization in a timely manner is uncertain, but if one thing is true, it’s that we won’t get out of this pandemic alive if we don’t.