The last time I was out in public without a mask was March 6, 2020. I was the “mystery guest” at my son’s first grade class. I had the kids make up a news story based on a set of incomplete facts to show them how radically different the same set of “facts” can be framed. That was the last day either of my children physically attended school. That was also the last day my wife or my 70-year-old mother, who lives with us, got on a train and went to the office. My entire household has spent the last year essentially trapped in our house, treating the few excursions to purchase toilet paper or exercise our voting rights like we’re making a post-apocalyptic run through a zombie gauntlet.
We took the virus very seriously in our house, pretty much from the beginning. Publicly, the reason we gave to friends or onlookers, especially in February or March of last year, when some people thought we were overreacting, was that we needed to take extra precautions because we lived with a senior. Privately: I’m a massively overweight smoker with the immune system of an orchid whose blood type is “queso.” Covid-19 would have ripped through my body like a disrespectful rock band in a hotel room.
This past Monday—March 8, 2021—my wife and I got our first shot of the Covid-19 vaccine. My mother got her second shot on March 2. Through the grace of invisible deities and Pfizer, I now believe that I will survive the plague.
I’m supposed to say, “It’s been a very tough year” during which I’ve been stalked by death and anxiety, and then maybe offer a deep thought or two about all the “little things” you don’t miss until they’re gone. But, just between us chickens, my year has been fantastic. Hard, but in aggregate much better than “normal.” That’s because I’ve been able to leverage every ounce of privilege I have toward making this year work. I didn’t know this a year ago, but it turns out that the unearned scaffolding and blind luck that props up my life is also an excellent bulwark against a deadly pandemic.
The burdens of this crisis have not been shared equally by all people, as we know all too well by now. Nearly 530,000 people have died, and millions more will bear the scars of these losses forever. Almost 18 million households are behind on rent; as many as 45 million Americans may have experienced hunger last year. That’s because we never came up with a unified, national response to the economic, social, and human devastation caused by the virus. We never adjusted to help our most vulnerable or put the needs of our nation first. We never made our children our priority. Instead, we treated social and economic inequality like a preexisting condition and let the virus prey upon those least able to defend themselves. About a third of the country couldn’t even be bothered to wear a face-covering to protect other people. Even now, when we can see the light at the end of the pandemic but are not out of the suck, state governments continue to rush reopenings and put workers at risk. Congress finally passed a Covid relief bill—over the objection of every Republican. Somehow having an entire political party committed to not helping people is a thing the rest of us just have to accept.
My family could have easily paid the ultimate price for this irrational social and political response. But we’ve survived, thus far, because we were already in a strong position to survive. We started this pandemic on third base; to shelter at home, all we needed to do was assume government would fail, and not be in a cult. Privilege did the rest of the work.
Many beneficiaries of privilege tend to think their good fortune is the result of hard work and smart choices. Not me. I know when I’m swimming with the current. There are three key reasons why my pandemic has been safe and successful that cannot be replicated by a person Republicans think needs to try harder.
I Have a Non-Essential, Non-Service Job
How you experienced the pandemic is tied almost directly to what you do for a living. If you work in a service industry, then Covid-19 was a clear and present threat not only to your health but also to your job, profession, or entire industry. There were people who lost their jobs early because their employers cut back drastically to save their own skins. Others were able to hang onto employment but had to put themselves at risk of exposure again and again.
But some people were able to keep their jobs and do them from the safety of their own homes. I enjoyed the privilege of working from home even before the pandemic. Now, let’s just say, Emily Dickinson ain’t got nothing on me. Being a writer is a wonderful profession if you need to avoid human contact for a year.
But what’s been especially great about this year is that my wife has been allowed to work from home too. She’s one of the millions of Americans who always had a job she could do from home, but simply wasn’t allowed to. A year ago, Skyping into meetings was treated like a special dispensation granted only to those office workers who had some kind of emergency: “My dog was abducted by aliens and I’m negotiating for its release, so can I call into the bi-daily meeting about the meeting at the end of the week? I’m right next to the satellite.”
We’ve had the technology to allow most office workers to work from home for years, but it took a pandemic to make old guys willing to use it. We should have been moving toward a work-from-home society based on the decreased carbon footprint alone. The earth thanks Covid-19 for decreasing commuter pollution. I live in the suburbs and have bought precisely one tank of gas over the entire year.
Of course, my favorite after-work “happy hour” bar didn’t make it. My bartender got laid off. I imagine many of the businesses where my wife used to buy lunch are closed or struggling. I haven’t bought a train ticket or a subway token or taken a cab in a year. Or visited a newsstand. Or bought a cup of coffee. Much of what makes cities work is based on foot traffic, and I haven’t put two feet on the ground in the boroughs of New York City for 368 days and counting.
The privilege is not just about working from home; it’s about being able to make a living while so many other people work from home too.
I Can Pay the Premium
Oh, I’ve spent money. Despite the savings from gas and train tickets, this has easily been the most expensive year on my ledger.
I now get everything via delivery. Food and groceries are delivered to my steps in a “contactless” fashion. Any nascent desire to wean myself off of Amazon as a protest over its poor worker conditions was discarded as I let the corporate Moloch eat all of my commerce. Things I didn’t even know could be delivered, like alcohol and medications, are now brought to my door. I even quit smoking because cigarettes were the one thing I couldn’t get delivered. (Congratulations, nanny state, you got me.)
Meanwhile, almost every household expense has shot through the roof: The electricity bill is higher because everybody is home all time. The heating bill is higher because apparently the people I live with have not yet learned about sweaters. The water bill is higher, and I don’t even really understand why. You can’t smell people on Zoom. Somebody in my household is taking non-essential showers.
I can’t really afford all of these increased expenses. But I’m extremely lucky that this economic storm is hitting me at a time in my life where I’ve built the financial stability to weather it. Before the pandemic, I was already at the point where I never had to choose between two equally essential goods. I wasn’t so stretched that I had to decide between food or shelter. Clothes or heat. Taxes or medicine.
Which is why I could afford to keep myself and my family safe for this past year. Or to put it more accurately, I could afford to pay others to help me weather it. It’s not that I have wealth, or even good credit. It’s that I could redeploy what funds I had towards safety without risking basic needs.
A lot of people weren’t in that situation. People who were already scrambling to make rent couldn’t suddenly buy extra stuff to make lockdowns possible. When schools shut down, we bought extra laptops. Now, each child has their own dedicated computer. Which is ridiculous; I didn’t have my own television until high school, and I was a spoiled little snot. But that’s the kind of decision I could make because the purchase wasn’t coming out of the Lunchables budget.
During the plagues of the Middle Ages, the elites would abandon the cities and retreat to their country estates. It worked, more or less, because unbeknownst to them, there were fewer rats racing through houses in the country.
We’re no better than they were. Some of us had the funds to shut ourselves in. Others struggled as their cash flow set the limit on their safety protocols. The government could have provided enough money to smooth out those economic inequalities, but instead it allowed economic inequality to dictate exposure to the virus.
I Live in a Foxhole, Not a Prison
All of the financial privilege and economic security in the world would still have produced an unbearable year if I hated being cooped up indoors. Luckily, I’ve always been an “inside” person. Cracking open a window is pretty much all the “fresh air” I need, and I don’t even need that when that air is cold.
The linchpin of my entire Covid-19 lockdown has been my best friend, whom I also happen to be married to. She’s pretty great. We have a good, strong, emotionally affirming relationship, and getting to spend this much time with each other has been a boon we thought we’d have to wait until retirement to reap. Also, she has hands—and every single parent will appreciate how useful having additional hands are when trying to work from home with children.
The only other adult in my quarantine setup is my mother, who has lived with us since we moved to the suburbs six years ago. Living in a multigenerational household is a fairly common thing among basically every culture except white Americans. It’s just more affordable to care for an aging parent in your own home. During the pandemic, our setup has been a great advantage. We have yet another set of hands to help with the kids. We don’t have to worry about Grandma being lonely and isolated in some far-away apartment. We didn’t have to fear for her welfare in an assisted living community.
It hasn’t all been roses and Disney Plus, of course. Remote school has, more or less, been a disaster. My kids, who are 8 and 5, have basically missed out on a year of learning how to be kids, or learning anything else for that matter. Their socialization has been delayed; they literally haven’t played with a child their age for a year. I fear that when they do eventually go back to in-person school, teachers will think they’re feral. They will catch up on what they’ve missed in terms of math and phonics. But there’s early childhood development that can’t really be replaced or recaptured.
Oh, well. At least they’ve also missed out on a year of racism and white supremacy.
The very best thing about the pandemic has been that I’ve had an extra year to protect my children from whiteness. Yeah, they don’t have “friends,” but they also don’t have bullies. They don’t have authority figures transmitting implicit—or explicit—biases to them. I can hear most of what they’re being told at school, and can correct white narratives in real time, if needed. And I don’t have to worry about the police or a mass shooter being within range of their little Black lives.
My privilege has given me the incomparable good fortune of being able to protect and enjoy what I treasure most: my family. I am beyond lucky to have been able to spend this year around people I love who love me.
But there has been a lot of “luck.” I’m lucky that my wife and I have a relationship conducive to being in each other’s faces all the damn time. I’m lucky she can stand her mother-in-law. I’m lucky my kids have each other, at least, and that I can afford to get them what things money can buy. I’m lucky that I’ve only had to put on pants to vote and get the vaccine.
I’m lucky nobody died. My goal, on March 6, 2020, was to get through the pandemic with everybody I love still alive at the end of it. By any objective measure, I’ve had a great year. Thankfully, I could afford it.