Amid known and unknown repercussions of COVID-19, faith communities, like all Americans, are considering what to do and what not to do. Here’s something we must resist doing or stop doing: joining the chorus of critics who are painting Millennials with a broad brush in the search for scapegoats.
A prominent argument published in news reports and repeated on social media platforms is that young Americans are ignoring the proper precautions to slow the spread of the virus and are actively endangering others in their carelessness. That may be the case, but much of the criticism lacks perspective and compassion. The reality is that many of the popular narratives emerging in a time of tremendous anxiety are steeped in cultural and economic privilege from all sides.
“The way COVID-19 is affecting you is not the only thing that matters because it’s not just about you.”
Various news media outlets have noted a spike in Millennial travel as airlines, cruise companies and resorts have slashed prices in response to COVID-19. Some young people are viewing these price drops as a chance to travel on a discount, racking up trips and vacations.
This adventurous mindset of American Millennials is troubling for the rest of the world. While healthy young people who contract the virus have a low risk of dying from the illness, their increased mobility can contribute to spreading the virus to older persons, people living with pre-existing conditions and others who fall in high-risk categories.
A friend of mine who lives with Lupus, an autoimmune disorder, is among those who have grown weary of the cavalier attitude of many young people towards the virus. As someone constantly at great risk of falling ill, she wishes her peers would be willing to inconvenience themselves in order to help her, and others like her, to avoid the virus. Since she has had to be extremely diligent about limiting her exposure to germs every day since her diagnosis, it seems the least the rest of us could do is to wash our hands regularly.
A recent Newsweek article offered a sensible suggestion for young people to cut back on all nonessential travel. It urged Millennials to think about others (which we sometimes do need to be reminded of), because it’s not just about us. The writer noted, “It’s the civic and moral duty of every person, everywhere, to take part in the global effort to reduce this threat to humanity. To postpone any movement or travel that are not vitally essential, and to spread the disease as little as possible.”
While young people may feel invincible, they risk putting others in danger. “Odds are,” the article continued, “you might catch coronavirus and might not even get symptoms. Great. Good for you. Very bad for everyone else, from your own grandparents to the random older person who got on the subway train a stop or two after you got off.”
As young adult Christians who are making decisions about how we will live and where we will go over the coming weeks or months, we should factor in more than ourselves. We should factor in our grandparents and other family members, our congregations, our communities and our at-risk friends. Young adults, we need to check our age and health privilege and think about the people – especially the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our society – we could be putting at risk. At the very least, we need to accept minor disruptions and inconveniences by cutting back on unessential activities, taking extra hygiene precautions, practicing reasonable self-distancing and following other recommended protocols.
On the flip side, I have been frustrated with a glaring lack of empathy in some of the public discourse. I have a young friend who was scheduled to go to a conference with a few older colleagues two weeks ago. His boss told his colleagues to stay home but urged him to still attend the conference since he was young and healthy. A few days after I heard that story, I overheard a conversation in a coffee shop. A couple of bus drivers were worried about the virus and the decline in travelers. If their shifts were reduced, they might not be able to pay their rent. And being laid off, even temporarily, could be catastrophic.
“I have been frustrated with a glaring lack of empathy in some of the public discourse.”
Much of the public commentary on the coronavirus has come from medical professionals, public health and government officials, politicians and commentators on television and radio. It is easy for white collar professionals who have telecommuting options, writers who work from home or physicians and others who live well above the poverty line to call out people for being selfish. Many seem to have little empathy for those who cannot work from home, cannot afford to miss a single paycheck or have no viable childcare options. Why can’t “those people” stop taking risks, stop going to work or stop going into public spaces?
Here’s a newsflash, folks. Some of us don’t have a choice. People under a certain age or under a certain socioeconomic line have less autonomy over their own lives and choices. Our decisions are ruled by our bosses, our ability to get our next paycheck, and the very real fear that we might not be able to pay the next month’s rent.
Most of my friends, many from privileged, middle-class families, are paying off an overwhelming amount of student loans. Others are saving up to have children or own a home. Others cannot even fathom doing either of those things within the next decade. I’m among young ministers employed by congregations that may have to make drastic decisions in the face of declining financial support. Like other young professionals, we have virtually no safety net. And, again, we are among the privileged.
As Christians – young, old and somewhere in between – we should all be responding to this pandemic with the compassion of Christ. Millennials, let’s not be reckless at the potential expense of others who are God’s beloved children. Older Christians, please don’t assume that young people are being selfish and uncaring before you understand their circumstances. For all of us, trying to assign blame is unhelpful and un-Christlike.
The way COVID-19 is affecting you is not the only thing that matters because it’s not just about you. When we live in Christian community, we pray, we love, we empathize. We go beyond inconveniencing ourselves. We bear one another’s burdens and make sacrifices for the sake of others.
Because we know that’s what Jesus would do.