March 19, 2020

Coronavirus: Early Impressions of Sudden Social Change

Todd Schoepflin author photoBy Todd Schoepflin

I can’t believe I was in a classroom less than a week ago. It feels much longer than that. In one of my courses last week, a student started a conversation about Coronavirus. It gave us an opportunity to talk about our various emotions and reactions to an emerging and uncertain situation. In the next class (and final class before spring break recess), I thanked the student and told her I was grateful that she initiated a discussion about a sensitive and difficult subject.

During my office hours on Thursday March 12, two student athletes stopped in to drop off papers that were due. They asked if they could be excused from class due to a team meeting in which they were expecting to find out their athletic season would be canceled. One of my students was visibly upset and fighting back tears. I thanked them for coming by, told them not to worry about missing class, and said I was sorry their season was suddenly ending. I started thinking about all the student athletes who have worked so hard, putting in countless hours at the gym, during practice, in games, only for their pursuits to end unexpectedly. And then I started thinking of students in their senior year who are so close to the finish line and whom are surely excited about a graduation ceremony. But customary rituals like a commencement event are up in the air at colleges nationwide. It’s too early to tell how our lives will continue to be disrupted in ways ranging from minor inconveniences to major emergencies.

My kids are 12 and 9, in 7th and 3rd grade, and their schools are closed for at least a month. We are extremely fortunate to be in a position that we, for the time being, can readily adjust to an unanticipated situation. My wife is a social worker at an elementary school that’s been closed, and it appears as though she’ll be home the same amount of time as our kids.

The original plan at my university was that we’d return to campus at the end of March, but the plan changed as I wrote this blog post, as we got word from our university president that courses will be offered remotely for the remainder of the semester. In our case, we have a good handle on taking care of our kids while they’re home from school, and our 12-year-old is responsible enough to watch his younger brother if my wife and I have work commitments requiring us to leave the house.

Things would be so much different and stressful if our kids were younger, or if we had jobs that required us to physically be at a workplace right now, or if our income changed drastically. I’m worried for people who don’t have their regular salaries or wages to count on, who don’t have child care, who don’t have healthcare insurance, who don’t have savings. What happens when the rent, utilities, student loan payment, credit card and car payments are due? And what happens to businesses that suddenly have had to close?

By now we’ve seen pictures on social media or televised news stories of people carrying on as though things are normal and we aren’t in the early stages of a pandemic. We’ve also seen images of people with large packages of toilet paper, and those empty shelves where there used to be hand sanitizer. I’m the kind of person who “takes it all in,” and that’s what I’ve been doing so far. I’m evaluating information, trying to interpret what’s changing in society, and trying to comprehend the various ways people are behaving.

It seems to me like a lot of us are trying to get a grip on a fast-changing situation that is leaving us bewildered, anxious, and scared. I can understand a person grabbing a giant package of toilet paper. It’s something they can control in the short term. I said to my wife today that I’m glad gas prices are relatively low, at least for now. If gas prices were rapidly increasing there’d likely be chaos at gas stations.

Here in Buffalo, we’re accustomed to people racing out to buy bread and milk, beer and liquor, and gas when we’re bracing for a snowstorm. In our region you occasionally get snowed in and sometimes you lose power. You worry about people who are sick, or elderly, or who face medical emergencies. You think of women who are due to give birth and wonder if they’ll be able to get to a hospital okay. No doubt, people face severe challenges in those situations, and there are people who get injured and, tragically, there are instances when people die.

In large part, though, the feeling of normalcy returns when the snow melts and the power comes back on. And so I understand the desire to “get back to normal,” but I’m wondering what “normal” means right now in American society. Being realistic about the possibility of a “new normal” is something sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom tweeted about recently.

The Coronavirus pandemic presents an overwhelming medical, emotional, psychological, and social crisis for which most of us haven’t been trained and aren’t prepared for. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote about recently, this is a time when we’ll be challenged to cultivate social solidarity, which includes interdependence, protecting vulnerable people, developing concern for the common good, and making policies that benefit public well-being.

I hope we rise to the challenge. It’s impossible to know where we’ll be 30 days from now, or 60, or 360. I hope we are creative, bold, compassionate and flexible in our thinking and policy-making. It caught my attention that Senator Mitt Romney is calling for every American adult to immediately receive $1,000, and I’m eager to see if Congress makes this (or something like this) happen.

Before I conclude, I want to acknowledge some of the people who are working to hold the fabric of society together: workers at grocery stores, food bank employees and volunteers, medical care professionals, public health workers, sanitation and maintenance workers, fast-food workers and other service employees, truck drivers and other delivery workers, public transit workers, utility workers, business owners, law enforcement professionals, firefighters and EMTs, civil servants, daycare workers, senior care providers, counselors and educators. That’s not a full list, and I mean no insult to any group not mentioned. Those are just some of the people who come to mind as I write this.

Finally, how are you doing? How are you feeling? What changes have you experienced in your daily life already? What changes in your community and in broader society have you noticed so far? What changes do you anticipate in the near future? What policy ideas do you think are needed? In what ways can we be good neighbors and members of society in these challenging times?


Is this a place where my students can comment?

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