If you haven’t heard about Andrea Askowitz, you’re in for a ride. Askowitz wrote an article recently, published on the UK’s Independent, proudly headlined, “My Family Are the Rule-Breaking, Lockdown-Flouting Entitled Americans You’ve Heard About During the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
In the essay, Askowitz details a wild scenario in which her wife, trapped behind a police checkpoint to enter Key Largo, lies and says she’s left her children home alone. The police escort her back to her house, and Askowitz has to hide under the bed and order her children to lie by omission to the police. Her wife told family members, “They held me for an hour. It was police brutality.”
Askowitz calls the policeman a “bully” who thought he was “king of the world” but acknowledges he was doing “a worthy job: keeping the coronavirus out of Key Largo.” She admits that they were exactly the people the cops were trying to keep out because of their recent international travel. However, they disregarded the laws “because… well, we wanted to.” That’s pure privilege. (And selfish, dangerous bullshit.)
Admittedly, this is an extreme (and disgusting) display, which makes it easy to condemn Askowitz. And I’m not saying it isn’t absolutely right to do so. But we also have to recognize that many of us — myself included — have also taken full advantage of our privilege during this pandemic, even if it is in a much less gross way.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways privilege offers certain protections and conveniences during a pandemic…
Money Lets People with Privilege Make Choices
My husband decided, after one visit to our usual grocery store a mile away, that we wouldn’t be going there anymore: no one wore masks. The cashiers didn’t have screens between them and the customers. People didn’t socially distance. Someone actually photographed him wearing a mask and gloves, as if it was funny. No way was that acceptable to either of us.
But we have the option of going to another grocery store. It’s a twenty-minute drive from our house and the most expensive in our area. They request that all customers wear masks. The entire staff wears them, and wears them correctly. Only one person is allowed in an aisle at a time; customers and cashiers interact with a screen between them; there are marked lines on the floor to show proper social distancing.
This boils down to privilege. We have the choice to shop at the expensive store. We have the money. We have the car to drive twenty minutes away. We can pick and say: this place is less risky than this place. We are less likely to contract COVID-19 here. Our privilege keeps us healthy.
Money Keeps People with Privilege from Going Nuts
We own a decent-sized backyard. That’s a huge privilege here in America, where many people live in apartments or houses with yards no bigger than a living room. Their kids are stuck inside unless they’re taken on supervised outdoor outings. And there are no playgrounds or parks now. Hello, empty field or parking lot (we sometimes take our kids to ride their bikes in an empty lot nearby) — if you’re even privileged enough to have one of those. Stuck in a city apartment? Have fun with those kids and their 1,000 square feet of isolation.
Not only do we have a backyard — when we knew we were in this for the long haul, I insisted we buy a trampoline. My husband constructed a mammoth playground. This took time and a substantial amount of cash. We have an above-ground pool. My husband bought me a hammock to sit on the front porch so I can escape from the kid chaos inside; he made himself a wood shop in the garage for the same reason. We had enough ready capital for these things. We had the privilege.
Money Keeps Us Isolated
Everything’s delivered for free with the benefit of an Amazon Prime account; we have the privilege of never leaving the house for items like dog food or shampoo or makeup or a hundred other things that keep a household running. But even grocery delivery from a local store is more expensive — the prices are usually a little higher, plus there’s the cost of a tip.
We can also afford to have PPE delivered: masks, mask covers, gloves, hand sanitizer. So if we do leave the house, we have the means to mitigate the physical risks and keep ourselves safer.
Money Keeps Us Working
My husband is a teacher; I’m a writer. We all work remotely or at home; we’re used to homeschooling (another example of privilege). We’re not struggling to maintain lives in which we’re suddenly expected to teach kids we never expected to teach. We’re not wrangling 9 to 5 jobs while trying to do it, either — more privilege.
More importantly, we’re not essential workers. We’re not out in the middle of a pandemic, exposed to the virus. We don’t deliver mail. We don’t pick up garbage. We don’t guard prisons or work in hospitals. We’re not the police. We all have the most lucky of work-at-home jobs. No one’s fired us. The money keeps coming.
That’s because we had enough privilege to get those jobs in the first place, be it through education, skin color, or money.
We Have the Biggest Privilege of All: Health Care
Imagine we do get sick. Imagine we do need a ventilator.
We will not rack up enormous medical bills from a bout with COVID-19. We can afford the emergency room; we can pay for the treatment. When we recover, god willing, we will still have jobs.
We’re terrified of COVID-19 as it is. Imagine our terror if we couldn’t afford it.
We have the privilege to avoid the virus, and even if we don’t avoid the virus, we have the privilege to afford it. Our privilege allows us things like WiFi, like Amazon Prime and Netflix and Disney+ to entertain our kids. We have a backyard; we have enough room to avoid each other if we need space. We can choose to avoid people without masks. We can stay away from people who refuse to socially distance.
Many, many Americans don’t have our choices. They don’t have our privilege.
It’s time that those of us with that privilege start to realize it.
So What the Hell Are We Supposed to Do?
First: We need to realize we’re privileged. That’s step number one. We have to stand up and acknowledge that we have more than other people: more freedom to make more choices, which lead to less chance of getting sick.
Once we’ve done that, we need to ask what we can do to help others.
We can donate. We can’t volunteer right now, but we can donate: we can give needed supplies, like PPE, to friends and neighbors who need it. We can give it to businesses in the area who might be struggling. We can give it to food banks. We can give food to food banks (that particular crisis hasn’t gone away just because of COVID-19) — especially now, when school is out and kids who rely on school lunch programs for regular meals may be more vulnerable.
We have more. Other people have less. We need to share what we have. Give art supplies and toys to parents who you know may be struggling to entertain their kids (that’s like, everyone? Now is the time to clean out your kids’ unused toys and rotate them among families, y’all).
Above all, remember: we’re lucky. We’re really lucky. Practice gratitude. Check on your neighbors if you can do so safely. When you run to the grocery store, ask the elderly woman next door what she needs, and get it for her. If you pay regularly for a service such as a housekeeper or hairstylist, continue to pay them even if you’re not actively using that service right now. Thank your delivery people — leave them big tips, and a note goes a long way. So does a sincere, “Hey, we couldn’t do this without your sacrifice, so thank you for everything you’re doing” at a safe distance. When you see them come by, shout and ask how they are. If they aren’t wearing a mask, leave one for them with a note. Little things can add up to big ones.
Little things can add up to big ones.
That applies to privilege.
But it also applies to kindness.