story and photography
by Natalie Sirna
The year 2020 was supposed to be the year of progress, technical innovation, and societal advancement. People had big expectations for this futuristic palindrome of a year. New decade, new me, was the thought on everyone’s mind as they wondered what the ‘20s would entail. Instead, January sent the world on a collision course headed backwards into a historical global pandemic. The coronavirus known as COVID-19 has officially gone viral. Underwhelmed at first, students at the University of La Verne received news about the virus as a distant out of sight problem, and instead gave more thought to their upcoming midterms. But fast-forward to mid-May, and they are now afraid to even leave their homes as the virus has hijacked every aspect of their life. Although no one was prepared for the trauma that 2020 would bring, change is taking place, even if it is not in the way any could have expected.
Trauma of this magnitude is personal. As with everyone, this has affected my wellbeing. The first two weeks of the stay-at-home order were wrought with emotion as I grappled with how to come to terms with all the changes. In less than a week, I lost my job, my dorm room, and the privilege of coming to class every day surrounded by my friends and peers. I used to consider my old routine mundane, but now I find myself longing for those never-ending lectures and late-night restaurant shifts.
It is now five weeks into the stay-at-home order. It is fair to say I have settled into my new normal, but no part of this journey has been easy. I can hardly pry my eyes away from the evening news as the reported deaths grow at an exceeding rate. I am not the same student from a month ago. I have been forced to adapt to a new schedule and a new way of learning. Leaving my house is now a daunting experience; with every trip to the store, I run the risk of bringing home a virus to which no one is immune. I am just one of the millions of Americans who filed for unemployment, and I eagerly await my government stimulus check to come in the mail. A month ago, anything resembling universal basic income was inconceivable, but these trying times have validated the need for more disposable cash. More than ever, people are feeling the weight of their vulnerability and desperately seek answers.
It was not always like this. Things quickly gained momentum. Each day, there was a new rule to follow. No unnecessary travel. Restaurants shifted to strictly take-out. Parks, trails, beaches—all closed. No gatherings of more than 50 dwindled to no more than 10, and soon all contact with strangers was discouraged. I felt the growing restrictions like a noose tightening. I remember the disbelief of seeing bare shelves line the grocery stores. “Is this actually happening?” I thought, because surely this must all be a joke. News of people stockpiling water bottles, hand sanitizer and toilet paper was comical at first, but soon this behavior was considered normal and expected. I felt my anxiety skyrocket as I faced the uncomfortable reality that there was nothing I could do to stop this. For the first time, I could not help but wonder whether I should be scared too.
Now, I have no choice but to embrace the unknown and settle into the uncertainty. While my life as a student has been uprooted, hundreds of thousands across the globe are lamenting lost loved ones. Lives are being disrupted, family units are being shattered, entire populations are being wiped out in a matter of weeks. Every time I watch the news, I am confronted with an incomparable amount of death and despair. I am left humbly reminded of the fragility of human life, and I am grateful for each breath of fresh air that fills my lungs. I continue to be in awe of the gravity of this pandemic. We are in the midst of a historical event. Our choices matter during this time, and we will remember how we reacted in the face of extreme adversity. Every hour is an ongoing battle against an enemy hidden in plain sight.
During February 2020, COVID-19 was still out of sight, out of mind for most Californians. But one ULV student—who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of repercussions from the Chinese government—could not contain his concern for his family. His anxiety foreshadowed the panic that would sweep across the nation in just a matter of weeks. For him, COVID-19 was already personal. His mother, father, and grandmother were residing in Shenzhen at the time, a Chinese city that felt the effects of the pandemic early on. Only permitted to leave the house to get essential groceries and medicine, his family had sparingly spent time outdoors. Turning on the news caused him intense worry for the safety and wellbeing of his family, so far away. “I am afraid that people here would make fun of me if I wore a mask, or think I have the virus,” he says. Ironically, masks have now become more than just an expectation, they are now required. A country that has previously been so reluctant to wear masks now has no choice. It is more important than ever to embrace change, even if that means challenging our previous assumptions.
Roy Kwon, University of La Verne’s associate professor of sociology, notes the role that our assumptions play in this situation, and why education is so important. As a sociologist, Kwon jokes that he is hesitant to label anything as being purely biological. “But in part, fear is a natural evolutionary response to protect us. It is for survival.” In a pandemic, survival is at the forefront of our minds. Each day, we are confronted with the daily death tolls, and this motivates us to take measures to increase our chances of beating this virus. It is no exaggeration to state that this a matter of life and death. And while fear is a helpful human response, Kwon argues that fear mixed with ignorance is a toxic combination that can have dangerous, even deadly consequences. “It leaves people to come to their own interpretations and assumptions about the virus,” Professor Kwon warns. “These people are also vulnerable to being taken advantage of by politicians or people of power.”
Assumptions often lead to scapegoating. The idea of scapegoating is a common response to fear. We are always looking for someone or something to blame; it gives us some semblance of control of the situation. Scapegoating is rampant throughout United States history. For example, the discriminatory reactions to the 1920s “red scare” shows how scapegoating can do lasting damage. A century later, COVID-19 has given people the opportunity to scapegoat Chinese citizens as those responsible for spreading the virus. But scapegoating is a dangerous and counterintuitive approach to fear that fails to weigh all the facts. Instead of taking accurate precautions to ensure health and safety, we become consumed with fear that can cause us to act irrationally. It is not uncommon to turn on the news and hear reports of violence and microaggression toward Chinese citizens. Racist rhetoric only politicizes the virus and makes it more difficult to focus on real solutions.
Kwon emphasizes the importance of finding a balance between making informed decisions and not trivializing the virus. Because while hoarding food and stockpiling mountains of toilet paper has proved to be unnecessary, dismissing the virus and brushing off fear can be just as dangerous. Spring breakers who did not heed the COVID-19 warning ended up paying the price. Especially for young people like myself, it is easy to believe you are invincible, especially after consuming the misinformation that COVID-19 only affects the elderly and immunocompromised. When social distancing recommendations started encroaching on students’ vacations, they retaliated by ignoring the warnings. By not weighing all the facts about the virus, they carelessly put their loved ones’ lives in danger. This led hospitals to be severely underprepared for the influx of new patients. Some argue that they were not about to let fear stop them from living their lives, but we have to acknowledge that COVID-19 poses a real threat to society, and the only way to combat it is to make a collective effort to stay inside, even if this means sacrificing our summer plans. It is not a question of individual liberty, but undoubtedly a matter of life and death. Although, the crowds of people swarming to the beaches as of late might argue otherwise.
How do we achieve this balance of making informed decisions without being consumed by fear? The solution is to ultimately try and be what Kwon describes as “educated consumers of knowledge.” This means being vigilant about where you get your news from and evaluating your response to that information. “It is up to the consumer of knowledge to be cautious and as objective as possible in the assessment of that knowledge,” says Kwon. When confronted with stories of people using racially charged rhetoric to justify discrimination against Chinese people, Kwon argues that “these people are simply not weighing all the facts about the virus,” and that acts of microaggression are just “pure ignorance.” Indeed, what was originally thought to be a virus that only affected the elderly and immunocompromised turned out to be far more dangerous. Everyone is susceptible to COVID-19, but especially because of race, class, gender or age. This is why it is especially misleading to label COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus,” and why stereotyping Asian people is an offensive way of scapegoating.
Although it can be hard to navigate fact from fiction in the world of social media, Kwon argues it is not all bad, saying, “It is only when uneducated people use their platform to espouse hate that social media becomes a problem.” If the consumer is uneducated or uninformed, then they are more likely to fuel the spread of misinformation and cause undue panic. As a takeaway, Kwon suggests that “in general, everyone could benefit from a little more humanity.”
In these trying times, a little humanity goes a long way. ULV students are facing an uphill battle that is negatively impacting their wellbeing. Suddenly, things like childcare, food, and job security are top priorities for full-time students. Mothers have to take on the role of teachers while struggling to focus on their own classes. Even something as trivial as a poor internet connection can now greatly impact students’ grades.
Students are undoubtedly feeling robbed of their college experience. University of La Verne freshman Lachlan Tatterson came all the way from Melbourne, Australia to La Verne, ready to play on the school’s golf team. “I was severely disappointed when I learned I had to move out. Luckily, I have my brothers and golf at home to keep me busy, but it was sorely inconvenient and completely unexpected.” Lachlan is just one of many students who have to keep up with their classes remotely and in a different time zone. If the school had waited any longer to evacuate the dorms, Lachlan is unsure whether he would have made it home due to travel restriction. Other students face different challenges in the wake of this crisis. Many return home to dysfunctional or stressful households, and some do not have a home to return to at all. Taking care of siblings and wondering where their next meal is coming from becomes a real issue, especially for those who have lost their jobs. With virtually no time to prepare, students struggle with the anxiety, unease and uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought. With all of these factors weighing on their minds, it is fair to say that this pandemic has been a traumatic experience.
While everyone has felt the effects of COVID-19, some groups are undoubtedly fairing worse than others. This global health emergency has highlighted the failures of our American health care system and the economic disparities that leave poorer ethnic communities more at risk for COVID-19. At the University of La Verne, one of the core values is diversity and inclusivity. It is an utmost priority to provide for students who suffer as a result of their social status. The University aims to educate its community on why such inequalities exist and what can be done to solve them.
The University of La Verne Multicultural Center exists as an on-campus educational resource for students to learn more about the experiences of others. There, you will find Misty Levingston, the associate director of multicultural affairs and black student services. Levingston weighs in on why the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected communities of color. “Socio-economic factors negatively affect people during this pandemic, and unfortunately they tend to go hand-in-hand. People who have underlying health problems tend to be people of color from lower socio-economic statuses because they often lack access to health care, fresh vegetables due to food deserts where they reside, and they may not have money to buy expensive fresh foods.” In the United States, impoverished communities tend to have a large population of ethnic minorities, and these communities suffer as a result of the government’s negligence.
Having access to fresh healthy food is a privilege we tend to take for granted. Food security can often mean the difference between life and death for individuals or their children. Levingston reminds that “if you go to a community of color, you don’t see many grocery stores with fresh foods, but you do see fast food places selling cheap, unhealthy, and easily accessible food. This causes high blood pressure, obesity, hypertension, asthma, and a myriad of other health problems. Now add a pandemic and you have a recipe for mass amounts of people of color dying.” Fast food industries capitalize on these communities and contribute to the poor health of these populations. Having to deal with discrimination and inequity already causes people of color to experience more stress-related health problems. This coupled with the inability to afford healthy food is a recipe for disaster.
One solution? “Make fresh food and health care more affordable and accessible,” says Levingston. “If countless other countries around the world can do it, why can’t the U.S?” Certainly, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed this country’s gross inability to take care of its poorer communities.
It is not just the physical health of some minority groups that are at risk, but their mental health could be taking a toll as well. Leticia Arelleno, University of La Verne professor of psychology gives insight into this issue.
Are people of color truly more at-risk for developing mental health issues? Arelleno argues that is a complicated question, and warns us not to generalize. “These communities demonstrate their own unique, culture-based assets and strengths that are regarded as protective factors in the mental health literature,” she says. As an example, she notes, “While recognizing the diversity among Latinx communities, there is a body of research that suggests that social support, religiosity/spirituality, racial/ethnic identity, and biculturalism are protective factors for this group and help explain their lower rates of mental illness.” As a member of the LatinX community herself, Arelleno is adamant that we should focus more on the resiliency of this group and other ethnic minorities to overcome challenges. Sweeping generalizations about minority groups can be inaccurate, and not every person of color is at a heightened risk for developing mental illness in comparison with white European individuals. There are many factors that can determine one’s mental wellbeing, such as genetics, medical conditions and job security. Discrimination and xenophobia also negatively impact one’s mental health. For instance, men of color feel the threat of racial profiling and have been more inclined to wear brightly colored masks during this time, so as to decrease others’ perception of danger.
The support one receives from family can also influence his or her wellbeing. In some minority communities, mental health is still largely stigmatized, and people may not be receiving the treatment they deserve. Many students may not feel comfortable disclosing their feelings to their families during this stressful time. Asked what she would tell ULV students struggling with their mental health at home, Arellano wants to let students know that “mental illness is not due to personal weakness or the lack of control. If a person has cancer we would not regard them as weak and expect them to suffer in silence. The same applies to mental health.” Arellano says that “It is important to demonstrate empathy for ourselves and others, and to not internalize one’s sense of shame.” Internalizing one’s emotions can be easy, especially if he or she is quarantined alone. Isolation can be devastating for those who depend on social interactions and person-to-person contact for the sake of their wellbeing. But Professor Arellano stresses how important it is to “make your mental health a priority, practice self-care, limit your media consumption, seek social support, help others cope, and seek help if needed.”
It is normal to experience feelings of panic, disbelief, shock and sadness. We are going through what Professor Arelleno describes as a “collective trauma.” Everyone deals with trauma differently. She says that “students should give themselves permission to experience their emotions without judgment.” Every individual has been touched by this pandemic. Whether we have lost a job, an opportunity, or even a loved one, this pandemic has left a stain on our collective consciousness. It is imperative to create a sense of normalcy for yourself in times of grave uncertainty.
Nevertheless, Professor Arelleno remains optimistic, saying “I hope that there is a silver lining, such as improving our healthcare system and providing everyone with optimal healthcare and addressing health disparities. I also hope that society can appreciate how all communities are important, regardless of their immigration status, age, etc.”
One student who has managed to find a silver lining is Campus Times writer Jocelyn Arceo. Unlike most ULV students, Arceo opted to remain in the dormitories, and currently carries out her RA duties in the Vista building. “I stayed because I just don’t have the space at home to properly succeed at school. I knew that would inhibit my ability to learn, so I made the decision to stay so I can still finish out my education strong.” Jocelyn is not alone in feeling this way. Countless students are returning home to environments that do not allow them to thrive academically. Undoubtedly, living on campus provides students with certain advantages. Quiet study rooms, constant access to the library just a few hundred feet away, and even just being surrounded with other students all adds to the appeal of this living environment. “Going home just meant higher risk of not finishing for me,” says Jocelyn.
But her time spent living in the quiet and empty halls of the Vista building has not been wasted. In fact, it has provided Jocelyn the opportunity to decompress and spend some introspective time alone. “When I’m not in class, I have been doing a lot of what you would call soul searching. All this extra time has proven beneficial, and I am learning more about myself in a way that I just haven’t had the time to do before. It’s really what I have needed, and long overdue.” Like Jocelyn, many of us are newly confronted with extra time off. When this time is not spent worrying about the mounting unemployment rate or current state of the world, we can expend more energy toward the things we like to do, which are usually the things we never seem to have time for. It is truly about finding joy in the simple things again, like painting, gardening, and starting that project on which you have been procrastinating.
Jocelyn shares what has been keeping her mind occupied these days. “I started journaling, reading the books I have been putting off, and just trying to understand who I am while rediscovering the passions that school had forced me to push to the side.” The demands of student life often mean we must sacrifice our hobbies and our spare time, but now is an important opportunity to reconnect with what brings us joy. Students like Jocelyn have long been accustomed to the debilitating stress of classes and a piling workload. There is always something more to do, another paper to write, another assignment to turn in. Now is finally a time where we are encouraged to take time off and do something for ourselves. If anything positive comes out of our self-isolation, we can appreciate how we learned to embrace the boredom and practice by slowing down for once.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a whirlwind of emotions that transformed our daily routine and influenced our choices. While it is important to not trivialize the virus itself, knowing how to react in times of uncertainty can prevent the reinforcement of stereotypes through discrimination, and save ourselves and others from further distress. This crisis has brought to our attention the need to take into account the experiences of others. It is undoubtedly important to ensure individual safety, and, by weighing all the facts, anyone can be well-informed and knowledgeable about the virus. This ultimately comes down to seeking out the most reliable sources of information and taking advantage of your local resources for essential needs. If this experience has caused you anxiety, know that you are not alone, and there are resources available to you. Together, let us take the time to process this worldwide trauma and practice taking care of our overall well-being. While no one could have foreseen this coming, it is imperative that we take steps to heal our communities as well as ourselves.