Op-ed: The Meaning of Success during COVID-19

Why the struggle for lives is more important than the idea that a lack of productivity equates to failure.

By Meg A.
Class of 2020
Fishers Island School
June 1, 2020

“If you don’t execute that task you’ve been meaning to do now it’s not ‘cause you didn’t have time – it’s because you lack the discipline.” Too many times I’ve seen variations of this message on my Instagram, my TikTok, the clickbait titles on Snapchat stories. My newsfeed is riddled with articles about productivity and picking up ‘quarantine hobbies.’

Why, in the midst of this collective trauma, have we decided that the only way to earn respect is to come out of it with a pocketful of new hobbies? Why, even when the world is crashing down around us, do we care so much about productivity? What about all the people left behind?

It’s easy to accept the impact of trauma and hardship in the past. In books about crisis, global or otherwise, we understand and even admire people for simply managing to get through alive. In 1939, Steinbeck encouraged us to applaud the family for continuing despite every attempt they make being thrown in their face in The Grapes of Wrath . We cheer them on. We acknowledge that simply trying their best to survive is a success. And now, approximately 100 years later, some people are fighting the same battle for basic survival and we dismiss their validity in the name of productivity.

In the words of trauma psychologist, Alaa Hijazi, during the current pandemic, “people are trying to survive poverty, fear, retriggering of trauma, retriggering of other mental health difficulties.” The issue isn’t a lack of discipline – it’s an inability to function at full capacity. Progress in life cannot be measured in any real and comparable way because each person is living under entirely different circumstances.

The CDC itself has released information on its website about stress and handling the stress that accompanies a catastrophe of this magnitude. Those who the CDC identify as more at risk for negative stress-reactions include those at high risk for COVID-19, children and teenagers, essential workers, especially healthcare providers, and people with preexisting mental health or substance abuse conditions. Research shows that even among those without preexisting mental health concerns, 45% of US adults have reported a decrease in their mental health due to constant stress and worry caused by the coronavirus.

In addition to increased anxiety, some are facing domestic abuse situations at home without their usual support systems and safe spaces. As explained in this Atlantic article, for many people trapped in abusive homes, the worst possible outcome has been produced by the lockdowns necessary to flatten the curve. In research done by the National Institute of Justice, financial strain is likely to raise the likelihood of domestic violence, particularly between partners. With the stay at home orders, victims of abuse have a much more difficult time finding the time and space to call hotlines for help. Also, as school is often a safe space for children seeing relief from their domestic abusers with teachers being common reporters of abuse, many cases of particularly child abuse may go unnoticed and unreported.

Some even have their lives purposefully put at higher risk. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the Trump administration has implemented a regulation allowing medical providers to deny care on the basis of sexual or gender orientation. This puts LGBTQ+ people at higher risk because they could potentially be denied the care that they need while searching for treatment for COVID-19. Apart from the blatant homophobia supported by the US government through these regulations, this puts the entire American populace in danger by elevating the risk for thousands of people residing in America.

Unfortunately, the list of affected groups is far from over. Many with disabilities and preexisting conditions are terrified for their lives. They are at increased risk of contracting the virus and for some, the intubation that comes with serious cases can mean a complete inability to communicate. The Atlantic explains that caregivers are able to communicate for people with certain disabilities limiting communication. Due to measures put in place to limit the spread of the virus, caregivers may not be allowed into the hospitals where they are needed.

Homeless people have nowhere to turn anymore. A Wired article points out that the shelters they may have been able to go are “full, or closed, or too fraught with coronavirus risk to consider sleeping in.” They’ve been laid off and there is no one to panhandle to. All of the other places they may have been able to go to for shelter are closed. “Soup kitchens are closing, out of food, out of workers.” The homeless cannot maintain distance socially – their only hope is to stick together for survival. Through CDC testing done at a shelter in a county in Washington state on April 11, 2020, 86% of people either living or working in the shelter have contracted the virus.

In the words of Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at a New York City jail “Jails and prisons are often dirty and have really very little in the way of infection control.” In a prison, it is very difficult to take even the most basic precautions suggested for preventing spread of the coronavirus pandemic, like social distancing. According to Vox, in prisons hand sanitizer, due to it’s high alcohol content, soap, water, PPEs, and other materials necessary for combatting COVID can be difficult to get.

Economic analyses suggest that the U.S. economy is currently undergoing one of its most severe downturns in history and unemployment is spiking. As of April, 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is 14.7%. This is the highest rate present in the provided data (from 1948 to present), with the next highest being 10.8% in 1982. On top of that, the isolation and job loss that come as a result of COVID-19 are heavily linked to the development of mental health issues like anxiety and depression. From an epidemiologic survey of 18-54-year-olds, mental illness affects productivity in a more subtle but just as powerful way as physical illness. Though difficult to actually track due to the lockdown, psychologists project an increase in anxiety levels worldwide due to COVID is projected to increase anxiety levels worldwide.

The CDC has released information about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic and racial minority groups. From a report of 580 cases, only 45% were white, while 33% were black and 8% were Hispanic. The death rates among Hispanic/Latinx and Black/African American populations were significantly higher than Asian or White populations as well.  In certain parts of the United States, data shows just how disproportionate the ratio of infection and death rates are. In Milwaukee County WI, black patients made up 73% of coronavirus deaths despite making up 26% of the population. Available data suggests that “counties that are majority-black have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority.” This difference comes from disparities in vulnerability through pre-existing health problems which can be linked to higher rates of poverty. African American communities have less access to testing and treatment “are also more likely to be uninsured and live in communities with inadequate health-care facilities.”

Ultimately, in the face of the trauma, anxiety, and discrimination that is resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, the capitalist concept of productivity is the last thing that people need to be guilted about. The United States, and it’s economy, has thrived through the degradation of minority groups, which is clearer now than ever.


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