we all just want to feel something

on moralist finger-pointing and whether young people are responsible for the surge in covid-19 cases

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The last thing I expected from New York City’s gradual return to Covid-19 “normalcy” is the experience of ordering a $4 peanut butter and jelly sandwich at my local bar to fulfill Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s puzzling food mandate. Bars must now offer a “sit-down dining experience,” the state required in July, in an effort to prevent patrons from “congregating and mingling.” When bars reopened in June, enough people (Manhattan-ites, mostly) started drinking on sidewalks in close proximity with others, leading Daddy Cuomo to sternly declare, “Don’t make me come down there.” That unsurprisingly translated into a classist, financially straining policy that punishes all parties involved: patrons, the bars themselves, and the state.

Restaurants, bars, and small businesses are already struggling. (The flimsy federal aid is another can of worms I won’t get into.) It’s strangely short-sighted that Cuomo’s first instinct is to require bars to start serving sandwich-style meals — which increases their overhead costs — as if seated meals will directly lead to social distancing. Rather, the policy seems to be a sort of collective punishment for the misbehavior of a few.

It’s also emblematic of America’s inability, in pandemic times, to balance the collective and the individual — skewed by our red-blooded impulse towards personal liberté. As a young progressive, I and plenty of my peers lean towards collectivism. But as the US surpasses yet another somber coronavirus milestone (5 million and counting!), I have begrudgingly begun to admit that, yes, maybe young people are part of the problem. Maybe our selfish individualistic impulses, for those of us healthy and privileged enough to act upon them, are tempting. Like most Americans, young people have grown tired of the isolation, a sacrifice that’s been met with governmental failure to effectively flatten the curve. And so in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago and social hubs like college campuses, I’m aware of how tempting it is to say, why not enjoy whatever we can for now? Winter is coming after all.

The second surge of cases in the US, Europe, and Asia has largely been attributed to the frenzied levels of summer socializing by young people in their 20s and early 30s. Of course, it’s not only this age demographic who are interacting with strangers again, and Covid’s many unknown variables has made it difficult for scientists to declare what is safe or unsafe. Another matter is whether states or municipalities will take that advice. So a lot of it boils down to personal choice and responsibility.

Yet, the bulk of the blame has significantly fallen on young people, an awkward moral pivot orchestrated by institutions and leaders that’ve failed in their public health messaging. It doesn’t help that influencers and fraternities have continued to host social gatherings, despite the clear risks involved. For politicians, it’s much easier to fault adolescents who are biologically inclined to engage in high-risk behaviors for a lack of personal responsibility than examine their institutional blunders. School administrators, who feel financially incentivized to bring droves of horny, germ-infested students back on campus, are also playing this card. And while some of the most ridiculous rumors about “Covid parties” (which are reportedly hosted with the intention of infecting attendees) have been laid to rest, social distancing fatigue is real. We are not hermetic creatures. And naturally, people with higher levels of risk tolerance have been mingling in close quarters — providing an opportunity for authority figures to point fingers.

This distancing fatigue is different for every person — the breadwinners of working-class families, those with children and older family members, the disabled and the immuno-compromised. I can, though, broadly speak for the demographic of able-bodied young professionals that live alone or with one to two roommates. There’s a desperate yearning to re-experience the FOMO from our previous social lives, and coupled with our nation’s declining levels of serotonin and sanity, most of us just want to feel something. Perhaps that’s why so many young people are still out marching, organizing virtually, creating, posting, gossiping. The allure of experiencing life is powerful, and it’s a feeling that’s virtually been put on hold for most Americans since March.

We all just want to feel something. Usefulness, from sharing an Instagram infographic to marching in the streets, during this incredibly helpless time. Sudden spontaneity, which could explain why so many people filmed their quarantine hair experiments. Camaraderie, because who really fucking wants to clink a plastic wine glass against a pixelated screen? These emotions are not just deeply personal, but also collectively understood.

There’s a scene in the pilot episode of Mad Men that I think about whenever I come across headlines about young people partying and bar-hopping without remorse. The advertising dude-bros (“ad men,” as they were called) are attempting to win over their client, cigarette company Lucky Strike, on a campaign idea. The campaign can’t acknowledge the health benefits of cigs because, well, there aren’t any and the FDA had just started to prohibit it. In an effort to please their clients, a young account executive named Pete chimed in.

“People get in their cars every day to go to work, and some of them die. Cars are dangerous. There’s nothing you can do about it. You still have to get where you’re going. Cigarettes are exactly the same, so why don’t we simply say, ‘So what if cigarettes are dangerous? You’re a man. The world is dangerous. Smoke your cigarette. You still have to get where you’re going.’”

In his pitch, Pete referenced the “death instinct” or the death drive, a Freudian theory that “the goal of all life is death” and the antithesis to the “life instinct.” (Interestingly enough, this theory was first mentioned in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a book he wrote after his daughter’s untimely death from the 1918 Spanish flu.)

As reductive as Pete’s logic sounds — comparable to the line of logic from conservatives and some economists in April to fully “open up the economy” — it illuminates the mindset held by young people when they go out, meet friends, and date around, even if they take the necessary precautions (as one should). Of course, socializing and drinking and dating aren’t essential to living; cars and cigarettes aren’t either. That’s not the point. The point is, people will still choose to engage in these activities, even if they know there’s a modicum of risk involved. If we’ve spent months in self-preservation mode, in pursuit of this Freudian “life instinct,” perhaps we’re now progressing towards the “death instinct.”

This is all very hypothetical and extremely psychoanalytical; I might as well have written an astrology-based analysis of why Zoomers and millennials are inclined to act recklessly as we transition away from the boldness of Leo season.

As a healthy young person though, I can say there’s a subconscious degree of confidence and naiveness in hoping to be the exception to the rule (although there’s plenty of evidence of young people dying or falling extremely ill from Covid-19). However, emerging data has shown that young people who are getting fatally sick tend to be essential workers, and are disproportionately Black or Latino. According to the New York Times, “young people who are dying are not necessarily those who got sick at a party.” The stark inequality of Covid-19 is that it impacts the most economically vulnerable and marginalized, no matter what age. Suffering — and a result, health outcomes — is segregated. I don’t have much of a solution, other than to hope that we start pressuring, protesting or pointing fingers at government officials, rather than each other.

some good stuff, according to me

Reading:

Watching:

  • On Season 5 of Mad Men and the occasional Sex and The City episode

  • This pastel USPS fancam???

Listening:

  • Time To Say Goodbye, a podcast on current events related to Asian America

  • ICYMI: The Substack podcast featuring yours truly!

  • Ex-Factor (Lauryn Hill) and Juicy (Notorious B.I.G.)

cheers,

tn