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On privilege, uncertainty, and COVID-19

I’m just going to say it: I’ve never before had my considerable privilege taken away. Sure, I’ve had challenges in my life, but they’ve stemmed from completely expected occurrences—my great-grandmother dying of old age—to downright wonderful experiences—living abroad for a year (how horrible). And forget structural barriers. I may be a woman, but my white, cisgender, middle-classness protects me from most serious modern misogyny. I may be queer, but my lack of a relationship has more to do with my dating abilities than with homophobia. I have always been able to choose who to be, who to love, where to go to college, when to go to college, and what to do when I get there. My life has always been up to me.

You all know what comes next. A pandemic swoops in, moves my college online indefinitely and sends me right back home. The present is no longer mine to control. I learn for the first time what a truly uncertain future feels like.

It happens every single day. I wake up feeling alive and healthy and therefore unmeasurably grateful, and then I read the headlines. At best, they are giant question marks. At worst, they are: “Expect coronavirus, deaths, and lockdowns on and off for the next few years.” A few means three. Three means the amount of time I have left in college.

Not a question mark. Just a big red X.

My brain doesn’t know what to do with it. At night, it oscillates between questions as I lie awake: What major will I declare next spring or Will I even be on campus next spring? What job do I want after college or Will anyone even be hiring after college? And forget Where do I want to study abroad—it’s been entirely replaced by Will I ever leave this god-awful country again?

Chances are, you’ve asked yourself these kinds of questions in the past two months, as well. Maybe you’ve been asking yourself these kinds of questions your entire life. Or maybe you’re like me, new to this whole the-world-is-not-my-oyster thing. Maybe you, too, are wondering how your fundamentally flawed but seemingly stable country has turned into an eerily silent war zone. Maybe images of the future are flashing through your head where the US is no longer a world leader or whatever we liked to think of ourselves, but “that country where COVID really got out of control.”

I’m not claiming that I’m feeling the worst effects of this pandemic. Not at all. Old hierarchies are being transplanted into the future; COVID is laying bare a new structural inequality each day. Still protected by the same white, cis, middle-classness, I will probably be relatively okay.

But “relative” is so different now. It means being able to work online rather than in person. Being able to leave my house for walks and runs instead of being stuck inside. Being able to stand across the room from my grandmother, even if I can’t hug her. And even this, the best of the best in the age of a pandemic, is hard. Physical closeness is not something I’d ever thought I’d lose; now I start sobbing whenever I imagine holding my family and friends in my arms.

It’s not because I haven’t been able to for months. I can deal with temporary goodbyes. It’s that, for the first time in my life, I don’t know how temporary this one will be. My sadness comes from not knowing when loss will end.

If you feel this way, too, whoever you are, imagine some alternate reality. We’re standing in the Bald Spot—campus is alive with people talking, laughing, moving—the chapel bells are ringing—and I’m giving you the hug we all deserve.

This is all I want. It is the only thing I am certain of.

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