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I didn’t ask to be essential

This is something I have been thinking about for a while now, and I’m still unsure of how best to phrase my thoughts.

I have anxiety (surprise, surprise, I know) and panic disorder, both managed through a combination of medication and therapy. My anxiety manifests in textbook ways: overanalyzing, perfectionist tendencies, some nervous twitches and habits, and a preoccupation with germs. As I am immunodeficient, my preoccupation with germs is somewhat justified, which really just adds fuel to the ‘sterilize everything in sight’ fire.

I wasn’t ever really aware that the rest of the world did not think about germs as often as I did, until I left for college. Arguments with roommates over cleaning, and the ‘shoes off or on in the house?’ debate that I still have with my family (off duh, I’m not a monster) made me realize that I think a little differently than most.

Then, during a typical social media crawl one night, I came across a bunch of screenshots of conversations between antivaxers. If you are lucky enough to not have come across this term before, an ‘antivaxer’ is a person who believes that vaccines are horrible poison and should not be enforced by the government or health board. Some say that they are “unhealthy”, other say they “cause autism”, or that they’re simply “unnatural”. (For a small but mighty list of resources proving these ideas are complete and utter bullshit, see the links at the end of this post.)

Anyway, this particular conversation was focused on the eradication of the smallpox virus. These two people were discussing how society had successfully rid the world of smallpox without the help of a vaccine (false) and a bunch of other made up stories.

But that got me thinking. Smallpox was officially announced as eradicated in December of 1979, but that doesn’t mean the virus doesn’t still exist. The virus exists in two places: Russia, and the United States of America. Both countries have vials of the virus in laboratories for further study and analysis, though there are some who believe there may be other vials of smallpox around the world.

As I thought about this, I started to hyper fixate on the death toll from smallpox. It’s highly contagious, particularly fatal, and no one is vaccinated for the virus anymore. Though the virus still exists in labs, it is no longer out in the open, highly unlikely to infect anyone, and because the vaccine caused some serious side effects, the World Health Organization has stated that mass immunization was unnecessary. The likelihood of anyone becoming infected with smallpox is so infinitesimal that in my research I was unable to find any statistic. There is absolutely no reason to worry about smallpox.

And yet.

See where I’m going with this? My anxiety latched upon the tiniest sliver of a microscopic chance someone, somewhere, could maybe become infected with smallpox, and then suddenly I was terrified. Despite my best efforts to calm myself, my hard work with my therapist, and so much evidence to show that my fears are groundless, my anxiety had found something to grab onto and damn if it isn’t letting go.

Fast forward a few years and through effort and support I’ve been able to build skills to manage my anxiety and panic disorder. Even though germs continue to be something I think about, I’m not as fussy with cleaning (though I still refuse to wear shoes inside the house. That’s what slippers are for). I was satisfied with the knowledge that humanity has survived for thousands of years, science has taken tremendous strides since 1979, and that in the unlikely case of a global pandemic, the world would surely come together once again and work for the good of all mankind.

Yup. The irony of those statements is not lost on me either. This pandemic is, quite literally, my worst nightmare.

I know that many countries around the world are doing amazing work to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and that scientists around the globe are working on a vaccine as I write this. I know this, which is why I haven’t had a complete mental breakdown yet.

But I live in the United States of America, where ‘personal freedom’ means putting other people’s lives at risk because wearing a mask might be slightly uncomfortable.

I currently work at a grocery store as a cashier. I originally worked in the bakery, which was ideal for me because I love to bake, and I wouldn’t have to interact with customers as frequently. But the physical labor of working as a baker was too much for my body right now, so I was transferred to the front end and started working as a cashier, which means countless face-to-face customer interactions and a definite increase in blood pressure.

Most people are pretty good about wearing a mask and staying 6ft apart, but you do occasionally get the people who wear the mask below their nose or say that they don’t have to wear a mask at all because of the Americans with Disability Act. (FYI, that’s not how the ADA works. And if you really do have a breathing problem, maybe going out and about when there’s a global pandemic of a virus that affects your respiratory system isn’t a good idea.)

A few times a week I have really nice customers who socially distance, wear their masks properly, and even thank me for working during this time. They thank me for being an essential worker and for doing work that puts me and my family at risk in order to keep society going. And this is what I wanted to talk about today. The thanks I get when at work. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that people appreciate and recognize the risks I am taking just by going to work, but there is also a part of me that is resentful towards every customer who enters the store.

I didn’t ask to be essential. I am not working as a cashier because of some noble idea of righteousness, and maybe that makes me a bad person, but I’m not. I’m working because I have no other choice. The economic downfall caused by the pandemic has made life difficult for most people around the world. I am lucky that I am able to work and have a job when I know many do not. But I am resentful that every day I am risking the health and safety of my family. I am resentful that while the upper class is able to take proper precautions and receive top of the line medical care should they need it, the working class is being used as disposable statistics to keep the economy running. We’re simply another number on the fatality count constantly running on television. I am resentful and angry and so very, very tired.

And I know that I have it a lot easier than many others. I am lucky, not because of skill or blessings from above, but because I was born white, and institutional racism is alive and well in the good ol’ US of A.

I know that my MO on this blog is remaining positive, finding the little things, and persevering, and I will continue to do that. But this has been bothering me for a while, and I want to use what little power I have, what small platform of people I can reach, to express my frustration, anger, and disappointment in the American government and people. We need to do better.

I didn’t ask to be an essential worker.

But, I demand that every person is an essential life.

References:

World Health Organization FAQ’s on Smallpox

https://www.who.int/csr/disease/smallpox/faq/en/#:~:text=Smallpox%20has%20existed%20for%20at,was%20in%20Somalia%20in%201977.

Dr. Adelaida Sarukhan, Master in Scientific, Medical and Environmental Communication, PhD in Immunology, and CR1 scientist on anti-vaccine arguments:

https://www.isglobal.org/en/healthisglobal/-/custom-blog-portlet/como-desmontar-cientificamente-los-4-principales-argumentos-antivacunas/3098670/0

United States Public Health on Vaccine Myths:

https://www.publichealth.org/public-awareness/understanding-vaccines/vaccine-myths-debunked/

World Health Organization on Immunization Misconceptions:

https://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/initiative/detection/immunization_misconceptions/en/

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