“It’s like you’re practically living through history, Kanchan.”, was the first thing my mother told me as I logged into my third period on Zoom. I rubbed my eyes, which had become perpetually blurry after my exponential increase in daily screen time. Every day became Pajama Day, where I drowsily took calculus notes from the comfort of my bed. Every night was dedicated to hilariously cynical posts on Facebook’s Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens and Instagram’s Self-Isolation Bingo. I was not living through history. I was practically sleeping through it, coping with fear and mass-anxiety with a tired sense of denial. And it was only after my mother made that comment that I was reminded of the immense responsibilities that young people have during this global pandemic. For us, the coronavirus is not a test of what we’ll endure; rather, it’s a test of whether we’ll let others survive — a test that’s meeting with some mixed responses from our generation.
E-shopping, social media, digital marketing — the infamous hallmarks of the iGeneration now play a critical role in the sustainability of social distancing. And young people are spearheading this effort, with the trending #stayhome and the #stayhomesavelives tags on social media platforms. Digital culture has changed dramatically since the onset of the coronavirus. My feed is flooded with screenshots of peoples’ group Skype calls, featuring laughing friends and family. People post daily photos of their dogs lying on living room rugs, of the closets they’re about to finally clean and the new recipes they’re about to try with all the spare time. I didn’t realize it at first, but this shift is comforting in a domestic way; I think posts that document self-isolation provide a necessary reminder that all of us are learning to adjust to this New Normal, with its glitches and imperfections.
Even more helpful is the volume of educational content that is available online, a bulk of which is circulated by young people. Everyone benefits from knowing the facts — from knowing the concentration of alcohol required for a bottle of hand sanitizer to understanding the difference between ‘antibacterial and ‘antiviral’. Students with parents or relatives in the healthcare industry often provide updates about the impending situation. One of my friends even posted a tutorial showing the spots we tend to miss when we wash our hands on her Youtube channel. Although we’re physically separated from one another, our digital communities provide a platform for compassion and group learning. It was through Instagram that I signed an online petition encouraging major corporations like Whole Foods to pay laborers for their time off. Informational content is so simple to spread. It’s a matter of a click, a forward, a re-tweet — but it’s my generation’s effort to protect some of society’s most vulnerable.
But for every helpful post that I find on social media, there are two more derisive comments about how only ‘old people are affected by corona’, and how ‘this is a free country’. Freedom, the cultural hallmark of this democracy, has been warped to accommodate selfish delusions of young people who feel invincible in the face of a global pandemic. A distinct disappointment fills me when I come across videos of lockdown parties, where college students secretly celebrate their ‘extended vacation’ by deliberately ignoring the rules of social distancing. As they cheer on a keg stand, I frown in disapproval. A painfully oblivious beachgoer responds into the camera, “If I get corona, I get corona.” Because it honestly does not matter if he goes ahead and “gets corona” while spring breaking in a jam-packed Florida beach. What does matter is the countless elderly or uninsured people he will put at risk. I wonder if he can see beyond the idyllic Florida sunlight — if his ignorance permits him to notice his city’s crowded hospitals and exhausted healthcare workers paying the consequences of these very parties. The response from my generation reeks of the same ignorance that permeates conversations about gun control or climate change. From the right to bear arms to the right to congregate, our individual freedoms don’t mean we are not accountable for the choices we make — and the lives we may take in the process.
The moment you think it can’t get worse, it somehow does. The line between the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ emerges when ignorance turns to apathy. Some of us refuse to self-isolate because we don’t understand the consequences of our actions. Others simply don’t care — and that’s a far more horrifying mindset to face. When I first heard about ecofascism, I was convinced it was a joke. But through the ever-present Internet, I was guided into this twisted celebration of the coronavirus, where the horrifying death toll is another step towards an ecological utopia. “Coronavirus is saving the planet”, a netizen proudly claims. Yes, our air-quality will naturally improve with fewer flights and vehicles dominating the highways. But in no way is COVID-19 a step towards a hidden “Greater Good”. Glorifying a pandemic disrespects the thousands who have lost their lives to this virus. It disregards the janitors and sanitary workers who have no choice but to risk their own for a Greater Good that is far more terrifying beyond the face of a screen. As much as I appreciate memes for pulling me through my second week of self-isolation, I can’t help but reel in disgust when I see jokes about ‘BoomerRemover’, which somehow insinuates that the vulnerable elderly deserve to face this harrowing reality alone.
All of us are living through history. Like every other high school junior, I fantasize about the essay questions found on AP US History exams ten years later. When I finally have that opportunity to reflect on the coronavirus outbreak rather than cope with it on a daily basis, I wonder what I’ll tell my children. I wonder what they’ll tell their own. Regardless of what that day will look like, I don’t want to tell them that my generation watched thousands of immunocompromised individuals buckle beneath the weight of a threatening disease. I don’t want to tell them we shut our eyes and waited for these moments of crisis to pass. Without the right to drive or vote, young people still hold immense power to fight back. And the way we use that power ultimately defines the stories we’ll tell.