Celebrity in the Face of Crisis

Niko Nguyen / Sun Design Editor

April 8, 2020

NGUYEN | Fame in the Face of a Pandemic

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Whispers of Coronavirus echoed across international news outlets throughout all of January and February. As weeks passed and the global death toll soared, the murmurs magnified, tugging our ears and begging for our attention. They were noticeably loud — garnering enough of a spotlight to be the topic of dinner table conversations across the country. But, they were still just whispers: distant enough to push down in our priority list, to dismiss and sweep aside as faraway, foreign issues.

Then, Tuesday, March 10 rolled around. And for those at Cornell, these whispers snowballed into an undeniably deafening roar. COVID-19 finally became real for us. As our eyes dreadfully glazed over the now-notorious administrative announcement that cut our spring semester short, our worlds shattered. The threat of Coronavirus became more than a distant shadow — it became a reality. Meanwhile, the rest of America continued to bask in complacency… until the following evening.

The night of March 11, the country finally faced its reckoning with Coronavirus: News broke that the NBA would suspend its 74th season and that the world’s beloved Tom Hanks had contracted the disease. And so at last, as Cornellians attempted to reconcile with Martha’s campus-shaking announcement from the day before, the nebulous whispers of Coronavirus morphed into a blunt reality for the remainder of America. It finally felt personal.

This night marked a shift in national perception of the virus — it’s when the severity of the disease finally materialized in our country. Surprisingly though (or maybe not), it wasn’t the widespread global fear staining the planet that triggered a response. Or even the exponentially increasing number of domestic cases that jolted America into awareness. It was the eerily vacant arenas on our screens as NBA players sunk shots without the standard roar of applause. It was the growing list of high-profile celebrities that had fallen victim to the virus, that gained membership into the COVID-19 Club: Good ol’ Tom Hanks, Canadian First Lady Sophie Grégoire, universally lauded actor Idris Elba and even Bachelor star Colton Underwood.

As Nicole Sperling of The New York Times explains: “The pandemic might mangle the stock markets, shut down colleges and bring worldwide travel to a halt. But infecting the beloved Tom Hanks? That was too far, especially for many people who have not been personally affected by the spread of the virus.”

Whether we like it or not, fame and star power have become mediators between our personal lives and the realities that exist outside of our homes. Especially now, with the world’s rising dependence on social media and our youth’s fascination with virality, we place weight on those already buoyed by clout and recognition. Celebrities and influencers directly inform our realities, give human faces to the numbers and statistics buzzing around on news broadcasts and act as models for behavior in times of blurred direction.

In the age of Coronavirus, we have looked to these figures more than ever to reshape our social norms. Is it socially acceptable to wear a face mask out in public now? How seriously should we really be taking the shelter-in-place and self-quarantine orders? How do we recalibrate our lives in a spell of chaos, confusion and calamity? This is not to say that we should bank our public health on the actions of celebrities and influencers — but it is worth recognizing the enormous power they wield when it comes to guiding our social actions through this crisis. After all, Coronavirus heavily leans on how we navigate our social lives. In an unprecedented era where “social distancing” is now ingrained in our daily vocabulary, we tread a hazy terrain of uncertainty and doubt. Naturally, we look to those at the peak of our social networks for models of behavior, for ways to interpret this new reality.

And yet, as instrumental as they are in sculpting the public’s norms, celebrities derive their power from elevation — in fame, power, influence, resources and wealth. Tom Hanks and his wife were able to afford testing and early treatment when faced with the virus. Idris Elba was able to test for the disease early on, even though he hadn’t shown any symptoms for it. Meanwhile, thousands of concerned Americans are floundering without access to available testing and the virus is striking the vulnerable points of our fragile healthcare system.

So what does this mean — when we have a tight cohort of influential individuals that don’t represent our larger society? It means that these figures, those with the access and resources, should be vocal in fighting for what’s right. They should be generous in using their privilege to uplift others. It means that we need more than a cacophonous, eardrum-bursting iMovie compilation of celebrities covering “Imagine.” It means we need more than Vanessa Hudgens telling her fanbase, “Yeah, people are gonna die, which is terrible but, like, inevitable?”

Even Olympic ice skating phenom and first-year Cornellian Karen Chen ’23, a campus celebrity in her own right, understands the power she wields: “I do feel like it’s a big responsibility to get facts right before opening my mouth to say something or to post an Instagram post.”

Because at the end of the day, the enormous amenities and luxuries that accompany fame carry a major caveat: responsibility. The spheres of singing, acting and “influencing” don’t explicitly state “social responsibility” in their job descriptions; nevertheless, the elevation of celebrity demands a recognition of one’s influence and power. Our new reality has shifted in the past two months. We now live in a world where the average American can’t go on a grocery run without fearing for their lives, where our healthcare workers shoulder the weight of this global pandemic without adequate protective equipment. Overcoming this crisis requires unity, empathy and compassion. And especially to those with the power and the platform, that compassion should be delivered in the form of meaningful, concrete action.
Niko Nguyen is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at nnguyen@cornell.edu. Unfiltered runs alternate Thursdays this semester.