September 6, 2022

SPARACIO | The Great (Immuno)compromise 

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What is space? The following is a range of definitions provided by the Merriam Webster Dictionary: a period of time, a boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and events occur and have relative position and direction, the region beyond the Earth’s atmosphere or beyond the solar system.  

In the Fall of 2021, the beginning of my sophomore year, I started to write this column. I decided to call it The Space Between as a historical marker of the COVID-19 pandemic. When distance was a means of protection, space became a critical concept in our lives, leaving us in scattered orbits. 

The space race of my generation was one in which we ran away from one another. The generations who lived during the Cold War experienced a different kind of space race. What constitutes space depends on the time period; the ways it unites or divides, the ways it incites fear in a society, the ways in which we can fill the space between. I began to write this column as a way to fill the spaces left by the pandemic; the months of high school I never finished, the freshman year that happened over Zoom, the sophomore year that finally started to feel normal and the junior year where I walked to class unmasked. There are still little pockets of the pandemic all around us. The testing site in Willard Straight — though half its original size — is handing out test kits, posters advising pandemic precautions still dot campus, a cough in the lecture hall can be an echo of the pandemic and some Cornellians are still masked. 

On my first day of this semester, the professor of my class asked how we felt about attending class unmasked. The majority of the class was already unmasked and conveyed sentiments of happiness, excitement and ease. I was with this majority, though I wondered and worried about the immunocompromised members of the Cornell community. In fact, the student sitting next to me was wearing an N-95 and happened to be immunocompromised. Should we all be masking to protect this one student? I think if an immunocompromised student asks for their peers to mask, then their peers should comply. But if the immunocompromised student feels that they are protected by wearing an N-95 and socially distancing, then masking is unnecessary. 

Every day the student body makes a conscious risk calculation. We know that if we are unmasked, we might get sick, but many of us are not afraid of catching COVID-19 because we can afford not to fear. Many immunocompromised individuals do not have this privilege. Therefore, the Cornell community has an obligation to find ways to protect immunocompromised individuals. I had one professor who conveyed that immunocompromised individuals could email him if they were unhappy with their circumstances or didn’t feel protected in class. This served as a reminder that, as part of a community, we still have an obligation to protect one another. I think there are some policies the University or professors can put into place to ease the burden on the immunocompromised. For example, I think that all professors should record their lectures as an incentive for students to quarantine if sick and to ease the burden on those more susceptible to illness. 

The pandemic is starting to slip out of our memories, making it easy to forget the immunocompromised. A New York Times article discussing what we can learn about the 1918 Flu Pandemic explains that in 1920 (two years after the initial onset) “ Newspapers were filled with frightening news about the virus, but no one cared. People at the time ignored this fourth wave; so, did historians. Deaths returned to pre-pandemic levels in 1921 … but the world had moved on well before.” There is a phenomenon called a national consciousness which describes what a society as a whole decides to forget and remember. The national consciousness is starting to move on from the pandemic, and so is the consciousness of Cornell’s student body. Another New York Times article titled “We Will Forget Much of the Pandemic. That’s a Good Thing” discusses that forgetting is a healthy part of brain function and of our emotional lives, as it will allow us to move forward from the pandemic. For months now, this type of argument has been utilized to argue in favor of lifting pandemic restrictions. Forgetting and remembering can become critical parts of culture and as students I think we need to remain conscious of immunocompromised individuals.  

A liberalist train of thought developed in Europe — in the time of the Enlightenment — discussing the interconnectedness of rights and obligations. However, once the idea crossed the ocean and arrived in America the obligation dropped, and Americans focused on rights (without obligation). Every stage of the pandemic has been viewed in terms of rights such as claims that masking and vaccination are attacks on personal freedoms. However, another train of thought that prevailed during the pandemic reflected the idea that rights and obligations are tied together — for instance, belief that masks and vaccinations are necessary to protect the community.

In one of my discussion sections, the entire class came in maskless. The TA of the class asked that everyone wear a mask, though she acknowledged that this cannot be enforced through university policy. If the rule can’t be enforced, will students follow the request of the TA? Ideally, everyone in the discussion should wear a mask given the request of the TA and the small room where the section occurs. Given the waning memory of the pandemic and the ease at which Amercians sometimes choose rights (without obligation), students have shed masks quickly and without much thought. The best way to ensure that masks are going to be worn in this discussion is to place a box of them on the table. Masking is not culturally entrenched as it is in some Asian countries — where rights and obligations are deeply connected — and forgetting a mask in the car or at home is quite common (even if someone intends to wear one). 

At the end of the day, the choice to unmask is a compromise between the University and the various interest groups that compose it. The choice to mask or not to mask still divides teaching departments and students, and in my opinion leaves immunocompromised populations at risk. A compromise is just an attempt to fill the space between two groups with differing viewpoints. This compromise leaves me wondering, can we ever fill the space between in a forever expanding universe of ideas? 

Rebecca Sparacio (she/her) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].The Space Between runs every other Tuesday this semester.