How Collective Is the Trauma of COVID-19?
The pandemic is traumatic for all, but the burden of suffering may be unequal.
Posted Apr 14, 2020
“Your next Zoom needs this sweater!” declared an email I recently received from a popular clothing company. Others push must-have video chat accessories, while popular media outlets offer tips on how to look your best on a Zoom call. As the world grapples with COVID-19, these advertisements are tapping into and even joking about the new normal—life that exists online, devoid of human contact and the regular rituals of society.
The lighthearted tone of such media belies the fact that those of us who are merely adapting to life on Zoom are the privileged ones. Not everyone can stay home, and outside there exists a set of individuals for whom the new normal requires repeated exposure to the virus. They are beholden to a society that requires them to put themselves at risk because they are essential for the world to run at all. They treat our sick, care for our elderly, keep supermarkets running, and deliver our groceries, takeout, and prescriptions—they are the blood that flows through the arteries of the system.
Yet that system does not adequately reward or compensate them in regular times, and it has forced them to put themselves and their loved ones at risk in a pandemic because it has left them economically and socially vulnerable.
Similarly, while some of us complain about how we look on Zoom or eating pasta for the third week in a row, others are infected with the virus, struggling to breathe at home or in a hospital. Many are grieving the loss of loved ones or facing death alone. Overwhelmingly, that burden, too, has fallen on the most vulnerable in society: people of color and people of lower socioeconomic status.
While those with money and privilege have certainly become infected, the virus is not the great equalizer some claimed it to be. No plague or pandemic ever is. During the London cholera outbreak of 1854, the poor were disproportionately affected, because their living conditions and reliance on a single water source left them vulnerable to infection. They could not decamp to country houses or benefit from better hygiene practices (Johnson, 2008).
In New York, where COVID-19 is the worst in the country, those in the less affluent outer boroughs suffer disproportionately and have reason after reason to grieve. All of us suffer from having to stay inside (if we can) and from fear of getting sick, but not all of us have the privilege of meaningfully controlling our level of exposure. We are now seeing the virus build upon a history of chronic illness and environmentally impoverished living conditions amongst minorities and the economically unprivileged due to structural and systemic inequality.
Perhaps due to these varying levels of proximity to the virus, there is a dissonance in people’s responses to the current situation. Those who have tasted grief or sickness know that the virus is here and have had to post obituaries or GoFundMe campaigns; for others, the virus still appears as an existential threat, lurking somewhere out there, a punchline for days spent in online meetings and classes. Those who are privileged enough to continue on with their lives online push forward towards “optimal productivity” and can afford to, if they wish, limit their recognition of the real pain and devastation and death that is occurring.
Once this is over, and life begins to move back to what it was, what will the trauma look like for those who have not only had to face the virus on the frontlines, but also may have suffered loss or illness, or been in proximity to it? What about the frustration of having to work, to expose oneself, knowing that those you serviced were only able to protect themselves at your expense? Would these concerns be similar or identifiable to those more fortunate? In an environment where the worst of the pandemic some will experience will be the frustration and depression of social distancing, and for others it will be the exposure to, infection from, and perhaps even death from the virus, to what extent is this actually a collective trauma? And since we know that those gradations of trauma are likely to adhere to degrees of privilege, what does that compel us as a society to do?
Beyond acknowledging the immense loss of life, we must begin to take an active approach to fix inequality. This is no longer, nor has it ever been, an ideal. The virus has reminded us in the starkest terms that inequality equals death.
We have failed as a society when people have to put themselves at serious risk and continue to work because they cannot afford to do otherwise, and we have failed when we do not provide those workers with a living wage, healthcare, sick leave, protective equipment, and the ability to unionize. We have failed when a lack of universal access to healthcare (something that the United States amongst countries of comparative status is unique in failing to provide to its residents) means that basic wellbeing is a matter of economic privilege. We have failed when some, despite what they would want for themselves and denied the protections they deserve, are compelled to deliver the groceries and collect the garbage of those who can stay inside.
As psychologists or psychologists in training, I encourage us to see the bigger picture of this pandemic and to provide services to those who are suffering disproportionately from this pandemic and are also likely to be least financially able to access mental health care.
We must acknowledge the psychological toll that the pandemic is inflicting on other essential workers and those who cannot afford to socially distance. We are all going through significant trauma at this time, but we must understand that for some of us this trauma will be magnified. We must treat those of us deemed as essential as if they are also valuable.
Johnson, S. (2008). The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Kendi, I.X. (2020, April 6). What the Racial Data Show: The pandemic seems to be hitting people of color the hardest. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-exposing-our-racial-divides/609526/