When I was in the first grade, I got sick with what everyone – including my pediatrician – thought was a bad cold. I was told to drink eight Dixie Cups worth of Gatorade a day, but weeks passed and I became virtually incapicated by severe flu-like symptoms. One day, I woke up with – unbeknownst to me at the time, of course – a buildup of acid in my lungs that made it extremely difficult to breathe. I calmly said to my mother, who was crying on the bed next to me, that I was sure I was going to die.
I didn’t die, but I became very, very sick. I vomited blood, developed a rash on my skin and tongue, and received an intravenous gamma-globulin transplant that didn’t make me any better. I was admitted to the ICU, and was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease – or mucocutaneous lymph node syndrome – a very rare autoimmune disease that causes severe inflammation of the blood vessels. It most commonly occurs in (particularly boys) under five years old and is most prevalent in Japan. The disease can be fatal, and can cause deadly heart complications.
I write about this now as it has become increasingly evident to me that my generation in particular is suffering from a collective delusion of invincibility. Across the country, college students have openly refused to abide by social distancing to go on spring break. A group of young adults in Kentucky threw a “coronavirus party” as a means of mocking social distancing protocol – only for at least one of its participants to now test positive. Despite a shelter in place order, California beaches are packed.
But these kinds of cruel refusals of obedience to public safety are not relegated to outside of our own community. Soon after Bates ceased operations and ordered students to evacuate campus as soon as possible, a large party was thrown, complete with an enormous banner that read “NESCAC CHAMPS” – an ignorant and unfunny celebration of the fact that Bates was the last of its peer institutions to shut down during the worst global pandemic of our lifetimes. While thousands had already suffered and died of the virus across the globe, students seemed to feel as if Bates had won something. Photos of this event and the banner in particular were broadcasted widely over my social media feed.
I know, from my own painful history, that no one is exempt from our own mortality. When I almost died at the age of seven, I was neither male, under the age of five, or Japanese; all demographic features that should have protected me but didn’t. Disease rarely makes any absolute exceptions for anyone, and this is particularly true for COVID-19. A student who graduated from Bates only four years ago is currently intubated and in a medically induced coma after contracting the disease. Recent data has illuminated that young people are being hospitalized for COVID-19 at higher rates than expected.
With that said, it shouldn’t take the news of young people experiencing higher rates of critical illness to stop acting solely out of our own self interests. We have known for months now that young people contribute significantly to the spread of COVID-19 to more at-risk demographics, like the elderly, health care workers, or the immunocompromised. An infection like COVID-19 could have killed me when I was seven – and it’s possible I could have contracted it because others were too selfish to prioritize my inalienable rights to life and safety over their own personal enjoyment.
At the risk of sounding derisive or sanctimonious, I am making a plea to my community, my generation, and anyone in the world at large who thinks they are either immune from the virus or immune from the inherent moral responsibilities we owe to humanity. The implications of your decisions, now, are no longer simply restricted to you. The consequences of your actions will be suffered by my almost 70 year father, who is risking his life every day amongst a national shortage of personal protective equipment to treat his cancer patients. They will be suffered by our parents, our siblings, even our peers. They will be suffered by the millions of children who, just like I did over ten years ago, live their lives in limbo in the ICU. One day, they might be suffered by you.
Our intrinsic interconnectedness and ethical obligations to one another as human beings has never been made more apparent. It is up to us to rise to the occasion.