On Monday, March 9, as people returned from Spring Break, COVID-19 seemed to be the punchline of every joke. Students kept asking, “Who’s going to take one for the team and catch coronavirus so Drew cancels classes?” As they joked and laughed, they remained oblivious to the struggles that others are facing amidst this crisis. Before Drew decided to transition to online classes, international students and non-New Jersey residents were hearing horror story after horror story about universities closing and giving students under a week’s notice to pack their stuff and leave. While some people were joking, others were terrified of what the future held.
The COVID-19 crisis of today is bringing out the worst aspects of American (white) privilege. As stores run out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, Chinese restaurants face severe losses and the economy continues to crash. Even with these emergencies in the background, it seems that white domestic college students have nothing better to do but make jokes at the expense of other people’s suffering.
GRAPHIC COURTESY OF THE CDC
When I called a Chinese restaurant last night to place an order for my friends and I, they told me we were only their third order of the day. When I went to Stop and Shop in Madison there was only one bag of rice left on the shelves and no hand sanitizer to be found. While people from Madison seem to be “protecting” themselves by avoiding lo mein and performing basic hygiene they should have been practicing all along, I have heard rumors of Drew students that took advantage of the cheap flights to Europe over spring break and declined to tell Drew about it so they would not have to self-quarantine. This is but an example of how the panic caused by coronavirus is made worse by racism and stereotypes. After all, I have not heard any jokes about catching a cheap flight to China.
Once Drew made the decision to transition to online learners, there were cries of celebration and parties broke out in the residence halls. Students didn’t consider for one second that not everyone has a home to get back to, or think of the international students who chose to live far away from their families for four years only to have their last semester in college taken away from them. Young, healthy people know the odds of them dying of coronavirus are small, as they can easily recover quickly after a bad cold. So they continue to exercise no caution, not caring about the older staff and faculty members that work and sometimes live on campus, about the immune-compromised students that may or may not share a bathroom with them.
This is not the time to be making jokes. Although Drew has handled the situation far better than many schools, the reality is that many of us are struggling at this time. Even if there is no need to panic, many students are facing anxiety and fear as their safe routine disappears. With on-campus jobs mostly furloughed, many students have lost their access to income. With travel bans implemented, people’s ability to go home have been compromised. With graduation coming up on May 9, seniors are left to scramble to make the best out of the last weeks of their college experience.
Think twice before you make a joke about COVID-19; you don’t know if the punchline is actually sitting next to you.