Why I’m Troubled by the Argument to Reopen

The ongoing debate between public health and economic stability is incredibly perplexing, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhere stuck in the middle, with a constantly shifting perspective. 

Each day, more people lose their lives to COVID-19 complications, and countless others are rendered jobless or unable to make rent payments in the economic fallout.  As family members grieve loss of their loved ones over Zoom funerals, small businesses begin to permanently close their doors.  It’s heartbreaking from so many angles, and varying opinions matter here.  I imagine someone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19 complications will have different views on a reopening strategy than someone who is healthy but recently unemployed.

There’s a legitimate argument that the cure cannot exceed the problem; that a prolonged quarantine, while saving lives by slowing infection rates, will lead to death related to depression, anxiety, poverty, and homelessness.  There’s no denying the salience of this argument.  What I once viewed as a “lives versus economic stability” very well could be a “lives versus lives” conversation.  With no clear-cut solution, and it feels like even the best political intentions could end up devastating millions of people.

But here’s my objection. I’ve seen many peers and Facebook strangers alike argue for the need for swift reopening, in order to improve mental health and keep people out of poverty.  On the surface, it appears a noble fight. But just as these arguments are convenient and timely, they are often overwhelmingly hollow. It’s beyond frustrating to see issues so severe as mental health and income inequality politicized and then tabled, used only as leverage to make a point.  I see it when Second Amendment warriors proselytize mental health awareness, as if the millions of Americans battling depression and anxiety want to be bucketed with a mass shooter. I see it when politicians tout the stock market, unemployment rate or the rising middle class, as if those struggling to feed their families wouldn’t trade a Dow Jones gain for affordable housing. As soon as the gun control or economic debate subsides, the ‘champions’ of these causes often vanish to fight the next Twitter opponent. While I understand the concerns with extending a lockdown, it pains me to yet again see the vulnerable thrust into the spotlight of goodwill, only to be shoved backstage when a sense of normalcy is restored.

These issues aren’t just painfully real – they’re within arm’s reach.  As someone who has struggled with mental health to this day, I’m acutely aware of its depth and scale. I saw a figure that calls to mental health crisis hotlines increased 600% over the course of the pandemic.  This is profoundly upsetting but should also call to attention the mental health crisis that has existed long before the novel coronavirus.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide prevention, America lost over 48,000 people to suicide in 2018 alone.  And while it often goes undetected to the untrained eye, this shouldn’t inhibit advocacy.  Helping to erase the negative stigma, donating to mental health causes, participating in awareness campaigns, and becoming better educated to serve your loved ones are all tangible practices available to every able-bodied American.  It’s foolish to think disparaging our anemic president or your tyrannical governor for contributing to the mental health crisis will change anything and rebuking them doesn’t make you a hero. This issue requires so much more than the occasional impression that you give a shit. Mental health is a subject that deserves, and always has deserved, to be treated with empathy, respect, and, equally importantly, action.

Poverty, joblessness, homelessness and food insecurity are matters which I’ve been fortunate not to face, but about which I care deeply.  And to see the impact of poverty, just take my city of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as an example. Though it is positioned as strongly middle class, 2017 data pins Carlisle at a poverty rate of 17.1%, which would be a disturbingly high rate for a pandemic, let alone ordinary time.  While the local food pantry has seen a devastating 30% increase in clientele, we cannot simply pretend that there was no need before.  While I’ve seen many community leaders step up in crisis, wearing masks while prepacking boxes, loading vehicles to minimize contact, and adapting to an entirely new method of safe food distribution, I’m reminded that our food pantry had quite a population to serve before pandemic struck.  This is not a new problem.

While it’s difficult to measure apathy, I evaluate participation among my colleagues and friends in community service activity, or lack thereof. There’s a significant gap between the amount of time I see peers and colleagues in social settings like bars and rec leagues than at the food pantry and other civic organizations.  While several people do give time and resources to the community, it seems most attitudes towards these institutions range from disinterested to wholly insensitive. Fallacies like pure meritocracy prevail in many arguments – I worked hard to get where I’m at, and others have the same ability to do so. Time constraints handcuff people from simple volunteer efforts.  In stable and unstable times alike, this is not acceptable.  The ability to serve is abundant, it is needed, and it always has been needed, in the form of resources, time and talents.  And unless you are and have been a real advocate, I find the manufactured grief over poverty to be morally reprehensible, so long as it serves as means to your own end.

I do realize I cast a wide net in the assessments of those who are, in my opinion, weaponizing issues in the war over reopening.  There are many people who devote their time and talents to these causes, whose contributions indefinitely outweigh my own. I look up to them. I respect them.  This also isn’t to say I don’t have blind spots.  I do, and I understand that there are myriad issues in which I’ve over promised and under delivered. To admonish the abundant apathy is only half the equation; my purpose, our purpose, should be championing issues to the greatest extent possible.  I hope not to chastise but to provoke; not to belittle but to inspire.  At this time more than ever, those of us who are privileged in health, safety, and economic stability have a tremendous opportunity to help alleviate the impact of this disaster. Just just as the world was never made better by political props and message boards, now, more than ever, we need to get involved to bring our communities back to normal.  Or perhaps this time, with impassioned, sustained care and action – we can create a better normal.    

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