These days, I feel inundated by coronavirus-related content. Swathed in my blanket and stuck in an inverted sleep schedule, I am met by constant reminders on social media to stay home, from Instagram stickers and angry tweets to Redditters yelling about groups of people they’ve seen outside. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment; adhering to lockdown measures is instrumental in containing the spread of the virus and preventing the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed. Reminding your friends and family of what’s at stake is certainly the responsible thing to do, but there’s a concerning insensitivity towards those who go outside, some of whom often feel they have no other choice.
I don’t mean people who throw parties or sneak over to their friends’ houses. I’m thinking of the man pulled off of a bus in Philadelphia for not wearing a mask (despite the shortage of masks), those with mental illnesses who have difficulty finding adequate mental health resources online and people caught in unsafe home situations. While we should be enforcing stay-at-home measures, we also need to ensure that people can stay home safely. And amidst the worries over coronavirus, structural issues in every society have emerged, ones that should not have been swept aside before, and will threaten the safety of all of us if ignored now.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted on April 9, “It’s classist to bar SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients from using their benefits for online grocery delivery, especially at a time like this. I joined my colleagues in asking @USDA to expand the online purchasing program to all states and even more retailers. Families are counting on it.” You cannot shout at people to stay home and villainize them when they don’t if they are forced to buy food and groceries, often without a mask, because of their financial situation. It is, as Omar says, astoundingly classist, and the replies to her tweet that admonish people on food stamps for ‘putting themselves in that situation’ are even more so.
What people forget, beyond empathy and understanding, is that failing to provide the lowest members of society with the means to protect themselves puts everybody in that society at risk. And it is not okay to then pull people off buses by force for not wearing masks that they were not provided.
We face a different yet conceptually similar issue in Singapore, where the recent escalation in the number of coronavirus cases can largely be attributed to a cluster in a migrant worker dormitory. It is frightening that this was not previously foreseen considering the living conditions of these workers that have now been publicly exposed. Workers live in cramped housing, often with upwards of 10 men living in one room, toilets that aren’t sanitised and trash that isn’t regularly cleared, leading to cockroach infestations. The dormitories seem to ring obvious alarm bells when it comes to a highly-transmissible virus — how is one meant to socially distance when you don’t have any physical space to do so?
It warms my heart that Singaporeans have been reacting with concern and generosity, donating over $100,000 and contributing to care packages for these workers, as well as signing a petition to demand institutional changes by Josephine Teo, the Minister of Manpower. Yet, it must not be forgotten that prior to this — a situation that now puts everybody at risk — migrant workers in Singapore, particularly those coming from Bangladesh, were treated by a large part of society with contempt, suspicion and racism. Charity organizations aimed at helping migrant workers in Singapore have found it routinely difficult to implement any changes due to hard restrictions by employers and, frankly, apathy from the Singaporean public.
The government’s response to this situation has been mixed. On one hand, they’ve promised to maintain workers’ wages during the lockdown period and are providing them with better meals, masks and hand sanitizers. But on the other, around 200,000 workers are now quarantined together, a lot of them housed in public car parks where they have no way to charge their phones and are subject to the stifling Singaporean heat. It is both terrifying that these workers are now so much more at risk of contracting the virus and ironically hopeful that people will now push for changes in their housing conditions and employment terms. But we must recall that these changes must happen and that these issues affect all of us even when public health is not at stake.
More interpersonally, before we react with vitriolic self-righteousness, we should realize that staying home can be as much of a death trap as leaving for those struggling with mental illness, those in abusive home situations, LGBTQ+ youth in non-accepting homes and those who are financially or spatially limited. Not everyone has their own space at home, to move, to speak or even to exist. For some, going out is far more liberating than just going to your favourite eatery or meeting up with friends. While lockdown measures apply to everyone, we should all be a little more empathetic in our responses to those who fail to follow them due to extenuating circumstances.
Leaving some behind eventually drags everybody else down too. We must care for our least-cared-for parts of society at all times. This is also a reminder to be compassionate with everyone right now. Tell them to stay home by all means, but remember to be kind — staying home for some is not as easy as it might be for you.
MIRANDA JEYARETNAM is a first year in Pierson College. Her columns run on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.