Something’s in the Air

Dear Reader,

Even if you live under a rock, I’m sure you’ve heard of the coronavirus. This insidious disease seemingly appeared with the new year and has grown in relevance with every passing day. As of today (2/21/2020), the death toll stands at about 2,150. When an unknown danger erupts and nobody feels safe, the disease mutates into more than just a biological hazard.

It is as if the coronavirus has infected the whole world. Cruise ships have been forced to quarantine and evacuate passengers, mandatory factory lockdowns in China have affected the automobile industry, and oil demand has dropped. Global disruption leads to panic, which demands a scapegoat. In the case of the coronavirus, many have resorted to xenophobia and racism against Chinese. Fear can be as poisonous as a disease. In the 1600s in New England, fear led to the conviction of several girls as witches and led to the execution of many innocent men and women. Fear has also led us to forcibly quarantine Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, point the finger at our adversaries during the Red Scare, and distance ourselves from the Muslim world after 9/11. The horrible actions that we take against others are unjustifiable even in our fear.  

In the case of the coronavirus, I have read news stories about harassment against Chinese individuals and have seen imagery depicting signs explicitly banning this entire nationality from restaurants. Racism—subtle and overt—is wrong. Racism and xenophobia as a result of the coronavirus, however, makes me think about “prejudice” against sick people. I’m sure all of us have shown up to work or school when we sniffled, our noses ran, and our throats were sore. When is it okay to ask a sick person to leave? For example, on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, sick passengers were taken into quarantine if they were suspected to have the coronavirus. As another example, elementary schools have the authority to ask guardians to pick up their children if the young ones are sufficiently ill. However, rules like quarantine and mandatory dismissal are not so stringent in college or the workplace.

I am taking a German course this spring at a university. There is a small cohort of us ranging from college students to individuals well-into-retirement age. At my last course session, the woman who sits next to me stated “Ich bin krank” when she responded to the question, “how are you?” The teacher looked concerned and half jokingly asked the student who just announced that she was sick whether she had the coronavirus. My neighbor, usually eager and willing to speak, just replied that her nose was runny and her throat hurt. I glanced over beside me to see that she had 3 “Halls” cough drops laid out next to her pen and notebook. My throat and the air in the room instantly became dry.

I don’t know what the coronavirus looks like, but I imagine the symptoms start out mild like the common cold. I shifted my body away from her and tried my best to breathe in the other direction. Throughout the two hours, I could feel my nostrils tingle and my throat drying out. I was becoming infected before my eyes. I avoided touching my mouth, nose, and eyes and washed my hands twice and used mouthwash as soon as I got home. I did not end up getting sick and I’m sure that all of my physical “symptoms” were psychosomatic. With visible signs of illness and a verbal confirmation of such, would it have been okay in this instance for the professor to ask the student to leave the class because she had a cold?

In a society that values hard work and achievement, sometimes we are silently applauded as superheroes for working despite pathological adversity. However, in my opinion, when we show up to work sick, we are more like selfish villains who would rather put everyone at risk than take some time off. With the coronavirus in the air, I’m sure those with the common cold are doing their best to stifle the sniffles and quell the coughs lest they risk quarantine and dismissal. 

I don’t know where I stand with forced quarantines or dismissals for sick individuals. There is a fine line. I know that many universities have strict rules about absences for sickness, often requiring a doctor’s note. There is also a dilemma because sometimes we are contagious—like a sore throat—but we are not incapacitated. And, with stringent absent and sick leave policies, it is usually easier to just show up if we are feeling 75% okay than to jump through the hoops to prove our sickness and make up the work incurred in our absence. I think as a society, we should do our best to minimize damage to our fellow neighbors, friends, and colleagues, but I’m not sure we’ve found the best system for this yet. 

If you’re feeling unwell, take it easy when you can. If you must go to work, it may just be in everyone’s best interest to let your colleagues know that you are sick. In this way, your colleagues can do their best to minimize contact and take other personal precautions. 

I hope you are doing well, Dear Reader, and taking extra care to protect yourself from the common cold, flu, and even the coronavirus. I wish you a healthy winter.



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