by Benjamin Drinkwater
March 6, 2020 was my 49th day at Boston University. I slept through my 10 a.m. class because I had stayed up until 5 a.m. writing a mid-term paper. Little did I know that that class was my last opportunity for the foreseeable future to sit with my peers in a lecture hall watching my professor talk about Cicero for an hour. I got over it pretty quickly though, because it was finally spring break. A few hours later, I was in a car with my two best friends heading to Montreal. Those next few days would be my final opportunity to fearlessly interact with public crowds without social distancing or wearing a mask. After a long weekend of clubs, bars, and mountains, we made our way back home, but home was different now. It was still spring break, but feelings of relaxation and freedom were quickly replaced by stress and frustration, as schools around the nation began to announce their transitions to “remote-learning.”
Just five days into the break, I received an email from my school titled “Letter to the Community on Coronavirus.” The decision to cancel the rest of the semester was far from immediate. This email informed us that school was delayed a month. Soon after we received another confirming in-person classes were canceled for the rest of the semester. A third email announced that all summer classes would be online. In a matter of days, the COVID-19 pandemic turned undergraduate life on its head, leaving me and my 49-day friends from around the globe to adapt to a drastically different reality then we had imagined when we began at BU in January.
I was angry, alone, afraid, but most of all angst-ridden. For the next two months, I lived life in my own little bubble of self-pity. Why did I wait to start school in January? How was it fair that I waited so long to taste the freedom of college life only to have it stolen away in an instant? How was I ever going to make up for missing out on my semester abroad this summer? The unfortunate truth behind all of these questions was that none of it mattered. All that shit went out the window when coronavirus entered the picture. That was the reality of the past, but reality now meant staying home indefinitely, pretending to be in a lecture hall when really just sitting in a living room with a webcam.
One sleepless night in May, I sat outside with my journal to sort out some of the pent-up emotions flooding my brain from the past couple months. My initial intention was to write out some of my bad energy, but, oddly enough, I ended up setting goals. I finally faced harsh reality: quarantine was not ending anytime soon for anyone. What was I going to accomplish in this time? I am not the only person disadvantaged by coronavirus; in fact, I sat in a position of privilege as this pandemic ripped apart families and spread fear throughout the globe. Only through putting aside my haze of seclusion and self-pity could I clearly recognize the opportunity of this lockdown.
I asked myself what was important to me and tried to refocus my life around these priorities. The majority of these goals were related to academics and self-care, but one of the last categories I began writing about was activism. My earliest memories as an activist range back to when I was seven years old attending Save Darfur rallies with my dad. I remember seeing photos of children like myself recruited as soldiers and struggling to comprehend how someone so young could be forced into such nightmarish violence. This experience led me down a path that culminated with my current understanding that safety and comfort I have experienced in life as a white, middle-class, American male should be equally accessible to all others. Civilization rarely presses pause like it has since March 2020; yet, for low-income families and other essential workers, nothing was paused, but rather everything became all the more stressful and dangerous. The lockdown may have inconvenienced me, but it did not endanger me as it did so many others.
Instead of trying to distract ourselves through this compulsory period of isolation, we should perhaps be using our privilege (i.e. being stuck in the safety of our own homes) as a platform to begin redefining modern normality. Not necessarily a normal marked by social distance or remote-learning, but a normal marked by unity, equality, and shared humanity. Technology certainly has its drawbacks, but quarantine has demonstrated just how interconnected the world has become as a result of it. With all this time on our hands, along with our collective addiction to the internet, we are all forced to look social injustice straight in the eye, and ask ourselves “why?” Why are so many Black people being murdered by police? Why are children still sitting in cages at the U.S. border? Why are people dying and suffering in Yemen? None of these questions are simple because they all flag systemic flaws in a global structure that can only be addressed through demanding and affecting social change.
Oftentimes, as college students, I think it can be difficult to fully realize the responsibility we hold. Sometimes it feels like we’re just adults in training, waiting for our turn to finally make a difference in the world. But the fight for genuine equality across the board never ends and it is never too early to begin. When inequality disturbs us, we should not distract ourselves, but rather channel that anger and discomfort into the ongoing fight. The George Floyd Protests have begun actively confronting the systemic racism of law enforcement, and those have been led largely by young BIPOC Americans who are hungry for change.
If we allow ourselves to return to pre-pandemic normalcy, then what has all of this been for? As the world starts to reopen, and people start to return to work, it is crucial to remember what we have started in this period of lockdown; we’ve begun redefining the new normal. However, a few months is not a sufficient timeframe to set the foundations of an equal and peaceful society. We must look at quarantine as a starting point from which we can continuously better the world we live in. As I (hopefully) make my return to campus this fall, I eagerly await to learn from the experiences of others. How were their experiences over these past few months different from mine? What can I contribute to the conversation? How can we forge tangible social change within our communities and beyond? More than anything, coronavirus should serve as a wakeup call to the imminent need for change in the foundations of our social structure, and as a reminder that we, as citizens, should collaboratively dictate the direction of that change.
Benjamin Drinkwater is currently a student of Physics at Boston University with strong interests in global activism and international relations.