Listen, or you’re social-distanced!

Jericho Rajninger/Staff

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A few weeks ago, residents across the Bay Area received a rather unfamiliar decree from the local government. In an effort to curb the rapid spread of COVID-19, we were told to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between ourselves and others at all times. Officials called the practice “social distancing” — a phrase we all now read, hear and say no less than 37 times every day — and urged us to avoid interaction with anybody whom we do not live with. Scientists asserted this was the most effective way to control the infection rate, admonishing everyone to comply.

And I did — for a time, at least.

Soon after these rather explicit restrictions were imposed, however, my friends and I decided it was a good idea to go out for Korean barbecue. Disappointed that the semester was coming to a premature close, we wanted to celebrate together before parting ways. It was a nice sentiment, sure, but in the process, I think we forcefully violated every single guideline the government had issued in response to COVID-19.

If you’ve ever eaten Korean barbecue before, you know it’s a rather foolish meal to share with nine other people in the midst of a global pandemic. At the restaurant, we squeezed around two tables, sitting face-to-face and knee-to-knee. We shared dishes and utensils. We ate from communal serving plates, using our personal chopsticks to grill and divvy up each other’s food. Some of us even used our hands. If you include the Uber rides to the restaurant and back, we likely exposed ourselves to every active viral strain in the city.

In retrospect, going out for dinner that night was an unwise decision. But let’s be honest: College students have a rather poor reputation when it comes to following government directives. Those of us between the ages of 18 and 22 are notorious for bucking the rules whenever possible: We pack upwards of eight people into midsize sedans meant for five; we “forget” to show up for jury duty; we drive 70 mph in 40 mph zones; many of us consume alcohol underage. We’re also known for making foolish and shortsighted decisions — two categories into which the aforementioned examples often fall. In short, college students are quite a nuisance, and we seem to take great pride in that.

But let’s be honest: College students have a rather poor reputation when it comes to following government directives.

When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there is absolutely no room for our ill-advised, self-centered antics. Usually, when young adults break the rules, we do so with the understanding that our actions will only affect ourselves and perhaps a few others (somehow we do justify endangering these others). But these COVID-19 regulations are not like speed limits or drinking ages — boundaries that, when crossed, have consequences that remain mostly confined to our personal lives. In fact, we’re in a unique situation now in which the choices of young people across the United States can — and most certainly will — affect the well-being of the entire nation.

If we think of our collective safeguard against the spread of COVID-19 as a network of correct decisions — everybody maintaining social distance, isolating themselves at home and avoiding large crowds — then this safeguard is only as secure as the worst decision someone makes. As soon as poor decisions are made, the chain of dutiful ones made by the rest of the population soon becomes moot.

It seems, in many places across the country, young adults have been the weak links in this chain. I became a weak link when I chose to go out for Korean barbecue, as did everyone else who came along that night. Those of you who went to parties last week are weak links, as are those of you who haven’t attempted to quarantine yourselves after air travel.

Our utmost compliance as young adults is important for two reasons. The first is one you’ve likely heard many times over the past month: Even though most young people can recover easily from COVID-19, we may pass it on to older folks (or people with underlying health conditions) who cannot. In this case, you, a strong, healthy young adult, will likely not pay for your poor decisions, but a friend’s grandma suffering from heart disease might. If your friend’s grandma is diligently following the government’s guidelines in order to avoid sickness, then you have a moral obligation to follow them as well. In fact, your friend’s grandma is desperately counting on you to do so.

Young people must prove we are able to take something like COVID-19 seriously because next time, the virus might target our demographic more directly.

The second reason we must be compliant is that this pandemic is likely a precursor to other, more dangerous outbreaks to come. Scientists posit that global pandemics will only grow more frequent and severe as our interconnected society continues to alter and destroy the natural world. Young people must prove we are able to take something like COVID-19 seriously because next time, the virus might target our demographic more directly. Think of this pandemic as a test run — not in a way that belittles the hardship of those suffering from COVID-19 but with a fervor that acknowledges the gravity of the situation. If there was ever a time in our lives to follow the government’s rules, it is now.

In the coming weeks, let’s all work to buck the rebellious spirits that compel us to undermine the social order older adults are frantically trying to enforce. Or if, in classic young adult form, we’re desperate for disobedience, let’s aim to be disobedient from the confines of our homes. Instead of hanging out with large groups of friends, let’s try pulling out every single drawer in our houses or blasting music at three o’clock in the morning. Let’s eat dessert before dinner and not wear our retainers. Let’s annoy the hell out of our parents and siblings and anyone else living with us at home if it means protecting ourselves and others.

I don’t know what’s in store for the United States or the world over the next weeks and months — nobody does, not even the doctors and scientists helping us navigate the uncertainty of COVID-19. But for now, especially now, please, just listen.

Let me put it this way: Listen, or you’re social-distanced … indefinitely!

Contact Jericho Rajninger at [email protected].