As with every step of the COVID era, the tensions presented by this current moment in time are completely unprecedented. All 50 states are currently in some stage of reopening — whether the stages are moving along as planned or scaling back. The country is experiencing sustained social unrest during a time where social and economic inequity are front and center. On top of it all, there's still a lot about COVID-19 we don't know — and there's a huge gap in beliefs between what's acceptable behavior right now and what's not.
While I can't tell you the best way to navigate our present, I do think it's critical to be in constant consideration of how COVID-19 is affecting the people around us — and respectful of their experiences and anxieties. With that being said, here are four often well-meaning comments that can glaze over the very real experiences of your friends, family, colleagues or neighbors and come off as offensive.
According to an article published on July 4 by the New York Times, the World Health Organization is currently suggesting the fatality rate of COVID-19 is .6%. But as the agency’s chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, aptly shared: .6% of the United States is still two million people. When you say this statistic to someone and discount peoples' fears in the process, you're not only suggesting two million people deaths isn't completely inconceivable to you — you're also suggesting you don't believe it's worth your effort to work against that number of deaths. This lack of empathy is offensive on its own, but it also points to a level of privilege. You're failing to acknowledge that you could be in that two million, too, introducing an "us versus them" mentality that's just so typical of oppressive systems. There's the lucky and the unlucky and you aren't willing to consider why. Or, you have considered why and it doesn't bother you enough to stop discounting the concerns of the less privileged.
While some people are happy to be going back to their workplace — especially those who are able to work in socially distant atmospheres for a fair wage — there are many people who feel unsafe returning to work who are economically obligated to go back. It's remiss to assume every waiter, teacher, retail worker or other face-to-face employee you know is ecstatic to head back to work instead of assuming they are terrified and disappointed. Especially when there are, technically, other ways we could be insuring people are economically stable without asking them to risk exposure to COVID-19.
Wearing masks is annoying. There's no harm in venting about how frustrating it is. But blame coronavirus and then do it anyway. Blaming a storefront or other business for making you wear a mask to protect their employees and clientele makes you sound out-of-touch — it's a complete disregard for the lives of the people around you.
If you were skeptical of someone (or an entire state) engaging in a certain behavior and it doesn't work in their favor, it's still not OK to joke about the contraction or spread of COVID-19 — or worse, celebrate that you were right.
Personally, I've said this one quite a bit — and I've been learning why it's offensive. As I've seen activists and authors point out, the "before" of coronavirus was very unfair for many people. The racial and other social inequities of our "before" are the root cause of today's social unrest — and a huge cause for why COVID-19 has been so pervasive and deadly in the United States. Suggesting we should return to a system that is blatantly unfair when we have the real opportunity to make change discounts the struggle of everyone who suffered inequity before, everyone who is suffering in the wake of COVID-19 now and everyone who is fighting to make things better.
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