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Privilege in the Age of Coronavirus

By Laura Biscaglia and Marion Provencher

COVID-19. Yes, you got it right – your newsfeed is being spammed by just one more article on the most popular virus of 2020 (so far). From observing the full-blown panic of  your neighbours carrying home fifteen packs of toilet paper in assembly lines, to following your friends who are buying one airplane ticket after another to take advantage of the drops in prices, it’s likely that you don’t know where to turn your head. ‘Should I stay or should I go’ sang The Clash in the 1980s, and so are you; ‘should I stay in or go out?’ is the ultimate question. Until last week you thought you’d be happy during a shutdown, summoning the terrible COVID-19 as an excuse to skip social plans for a Netflix-binge-watching-and-cat-stroking session. Now all you want to do is to go out until 5am to let loose, and you are told you can’t. Life is so unfair.

If you recognise yourself even just a little in this description, let us tell you: we know it’s hard to self-impose social distancing. We understand. Especially when, until recently, there has been no real guidance from the Federal Government, the Canton, or even just your employer. You need to take responsibility into your own hands and you are not used to it. You roam Google for hours (or perhaps more like 5 minutes in panic-fuelled bursts of resolve) for guidance, and there isn’t any one person telling you what to do… We understand. This is frustrating. We would also like to tell you, in this dark hour: You are one of the privileged ones.

“It’s just like a cold, or the flu” says the news media. “We don’t get affected, only old people should be worried, we’ll be fine” say your classmates or colleagues. Your friends take the plane to travel across Europe, taking advantage of half-priced plane tickets. “I don’t mind working from home” joke other people. “It gives me a reason to watch Netflix for two weeks!” Whatever their intention, many of these narratives around COVID-19 could be summarised as coming from a place of privilege.

But what is privilege? Let us explain: privilege is an unearned advantage that is given much value, but is nonetheless restricted to a certain group. More often than not, groups that benefit from a privilege are unaware of it. Privilege can be expressed in terms of our gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, lack of disability, and more. Members of a privileged group will obtain the benefits of that belonging by virtue of their affiliation with the power structures that enable the expression of that privilege. 

We know, we’ve just thrown at you the expressions “unearned advantages” and “affiliation with power structures”. But the concept is really quite simple. Privilege is something many, but not all, have. We often are blind to it. The people who have it benefit from it, and often don’t know they do. 

Do you want an example? Of course! Let’s take the case of a person born in poverty. That person is less likely to benefit from health care systems than others born in middle-class families. They are less likely to have comprehensive health coverages, more likely to opt for cheaper monthly payments with high deductibles. Less likely to go for yearly check-ups, or buy all the prescription drugs they need, having to choose between which to prioritise. Many can’t afford access to psychological support (which is hardly covered without costly supplementary insurance), something that at times of increased stress and anxiety such as now can contribute to a spike in mental health conditions. 

Are we exaggerating? You may think so, but your assumptions are not a universal truth. This is an example of class privilege, where a completely unearned advantage (i.e. being born into a more well-off family) enables a person to benefit from a privilege (i.e. access to health care systems) that they are unaware of. This leads to long-lasting differences in how different people can or cannot enjoy the same opportunities in life. It is also worth emphasising: if you were born into a middle-class family, you will most likely never recognise your social class as a privilege. Chances are you grew up thinking that your experiences in the health care system were simply a part of how people live their lives.

The same applies to non-disabled individuals, defined as those who are able-bodied, or do not suffer from chronic illnesses, or experience no physical or health-related issues. Non-disabled individuals do not have to wonder whether they will be able to take the bus today. They do not have to plan when, where and with the support of whom they will be able to go to the bathroom, get dressed in the morning, or prepare food. For persons with disabilities, tasks like grocery shopping can require a fair amount of logistics, and the extent to which the environment around them is adapted to their needs can dictate their access to what many take for granted.

Those examples are straightforward, but life rarely is. We want you to use your imagination and picture what it would be like if you were born with a disability, and/or into a poor household. How might those two factors define your experience of the world you live in…?

We can already hear you think “But what does my privilege have to do with anything? You just said I was born with it, it’s not my fault now, is it? And what does it have to do with COVID-19, of all things?” 

Well, to answer the first question: we must try to be mindful of our privileges because our decisions have consequences on the people around us.They recreate (whether we want them to or not) systems of marginalisation, discrimination, and oppression. Second, privilege ties in directly with the current pandemic, because our behaviour can either contribute to saving lives, or it can help spread a virus that has already dramatically affected thousands of lives, especially (but not only!) older people and persons with pre-existing conditions. In a country like Switzerland, where there is no free state-provided healthcare, the consequences of an increase in infection are seriously dangerous. Once we realise that age, health, poverty (and many more factors!) are deeply intertwined, perhaps we can start to understand how privileged the choice to not care about COVID-19 can be. 

Are you young and healthy? Congratulations. Not all of us are. If you get infected, you can stay home, watch Netflix, and come back to your stable job? Not all of us can. Are you OK with possibly contributing to the death of an older or chronically-ill person? Time to go to therapy and spend the money that you clearly seem to have. Can you panic-buy your way through every Migros or Coop in town? Not everyone has the physical or financial capacity to do so. Get only what you need. Running for the last pack of pasta is not a sport yet.

It should be common sense to not allow ourselves to be blindsided by our privilege as able-bodied, young and middle-class persons. It should be common sense that we adopt a behaviour that aims to protect those who could be disproportionately affected by COVID-19: older people, persons with pre-existing medical conditions, and persons in situations of medical/financial vulnerability or precarity, who would not have the same access to quality health care should they contract COVID-19. 

So, if you don’t care because the coronavirus won’t really affect you, at least care because it might affect others. Do you feel sad that you can’t go clubbing this Saturday? We feel you. But you know what? We’ll survive one month without going to the cinema, dancing, or shopping in the streets of Milan or Paris. But the thousands of people who might get severely ill from contracting COVID-19? They might not survive this month.  

Feature Image by David S. Goodsell

2 comments on “Privilege in the Age of Coronavirus

  1. Pingback: COVID-19 Updates and Resources – The Graduate Press

  2. Pingback: Further Notes on Privilege – The Graduate Press

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