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ON THE FRONT LINES: Our pandemic summer, uncertain future

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Let me set the scene for you.

It is late January, and in the final days of winter break, the American media explodes with news of a novel virus from Wuhan, China, that has devastated thousands and has begun to spread globally. 

One day, the death toll in China is reported to be 56 people, a few days later, it rises to 200, then even later, the first deaths outside of China are being reported. Plane tickets suddenly plummet in prices and then airlines begin canceling flights altogether, supply chains begin to shut down, and conspiracy theories about this new and unknown disease emerge from all different corners of the internet. The very name of this disease changes several times — from the “Wuhan virus” and other depictions of the virus with heavy racist undertones, to SARS-CoV-2, coronavirus and COVID-19. 

As countries in East Asia begin to mobilize their public health measures, beginning with stringent lockdowns in China, the rest of the world watches on in confusion and, arguably, apathy. After all, what could possibly explain all the time that we spent sitting on our hands, unconcerned and comfortable, as deaths increased by the hundreds on the other side of the world? 

Combined with the misinformation and unconvincing advice from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which both insisted for months that mask-wearing is unnecessary and even detrimental to overall public health — by depriving health workers of the supplies they need — Americans became at best confused and at worst disbelieving.

This is how it all began. Unfortunately, it seems that not much has actually changed since that time.

Fast forward to the present: Our stubborn president has finally come around on the mask issue, encouraging Americans to mask up against the “Invisible China Virus,” but Americans seem to be just as unwilling and divided in their responses to COVID-19 as they were months ago, when it first began wreaking havoc on the world. 

During the spring, as we tracked COVID-19 infection rates and the death toll in New Jersey, we watched it rise daily, some days with more alarming increases than others. For at least a month, New Jersey and New York were the most devastatingly hit states in America, with numbers that far surpassed any other state, and even other countries in the world. 

Weeks later, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) announced his plans to revitalize the economy and to reopen several public and private spaces to the population. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, particularly the South and the West, which had largely escaped the first surge of cases, was now beginning to suffer the consequences of a misinformed public and unreliable political leadership. People still do not wear masks, abide by social distancing policies and take this virus seriously enough. That is exactly what will keep us struggling through the rest of the pandemic with no near end in sight.

Yesterday, The Daily Targum reported the University’s estimates of students living in off-campus housing: Anne Newman, associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, said approximately 8,000 to 10,000 students will live between New Brunswick, Highland Park and Piscataway this fall semester, through a University-wide email. 

A few days prior, New Brunswick police broke up a party on Guilden Street with approximately 100 party goers, according to NJ Advance Media. Many more students were seen partying in other houses, according to the article. On any given night in New Brunswick, especially on the weekends, rowdy bar hoppers and groups of college students are not an uncommon sight. Unfortunately, that has not changed even in the face of a global pandemic. Every time I drive down George Street, I encounter swarms of people mingling with each other, masks optional.

After a whole summer of anxiety and concern, many of us have been looking forward to a fall that will no doubt be unlike any other, and ultimately a day when physical social interaction no longer poses a threat to our health. But before that can happen, our collective mindset needs to change. It is not enough for some people to wear masks, avoid crowds and adhere to those admittedly annoying one-way store aisle rules. Everybody has to do it. 

Think about this: Wearing a mask is not meant to protect you from contracting the virus — instead, it is meant to protect others from you, who may unknowingly be a carrier of the virus. If everybody understands this simple concept and upholds the values of prioritizing community health over personal, individual desires, we might just have a shot at beating this thing

Until that happens, the future will continue to be uncertain, and no amount of nights at the bar — against all better judgement and public health warnings — will make up for the experiences we are all missing out on.

Michelle Fan is the Managing editor for The Daily Targum.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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