This commentary is part of The COVID-19 Writers Project (C19WP), which captures a hyper-local view of the coronavirus pandemic, while examining the extent to which health outcomes are impacted by socio-economics, education, and race.
"In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity."
Sun-Tzu's "The Art of War"
Friday, March 13th, 2020 was effectively the last day of high school for us. However, for me, I had been out since Monday. I missed a calculus test; didn't hand in a drama project; and sat at home, envious of my friends celebrating senior pajama day in their plaid trousers and sleeping caps.
None of that mattered anymore, though — my grandmother was with us at home, and the last thing I wanted was to bring in an unknown virus that, by now, was probably dashing through the subway and the school's hallways. And that point rang true when the announcement was made that schools would be shut down until further notice.
And so began the weeks of quarantine. The news coming from the mayor made it abundantly clear that to slow the spread of the virus, we needed to minimize our time outside. Luckily, my time was spent at home in front of screens, which, as time passed, felt more like a decaying chamber than a safe space.
But what mattered was that I was sheltered from what was made out to be the ravages of the outside. There was a push for everyone in my family to stay home, so filing for unemployment was the best option. March 28th was when my dad stopped working, under the assumption that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program was going to sustain us.
However, navigating the unemployment process with my dad, alongside learning about integrals and polypeptides, felt like another commitment outside of virtual school — it quite literally felt like we were trapped in a labyrinth. It started with intrusive questions on an application about work history, dates and amounts of recent paychecks, and all the nitty gritty details that weren't so easily accessible.
But we got through that and moved into the period of weeks of no information on our status before desperation kicked in. The world was on pause but rent certainly wasn't. Neither was our growling stomachs nor the internet bills to keep me going for school.
There were days we sat with our phones sprawled out in front of us, each ringing as we tried to reach the pandemic assistance line. We were mostly met with extended rings and occasional automated messages saying that our designated day to file for unemployment was Thursday.
Bills were encroaching, and so the number of times we called per day reached the hundreds, only to get no response. By early May, living off of savings didn't make any more sense and so my dad had no choice but to return to work.
This wasn't a unique story to me, much like other aspects of society, the process to file for unemployment was designed in a way to inherently bar the very people it is supposed to benefit from applying.
During the core of quarantine, I recall pictures surfacing on social media of subway carts packed like sardines with masked working class people of color headed to work. Not a sliver of a chance to socially distance. Despite the existence of a global crisis, there still remained no way out of working until we literally dropped dead.
The pandemic underscored the fact that people of color were the most adversely impacted, reflecting the disadvantages ingrained in the systems of oppression in this country. Low-income students could not transition into online learning, because they lacked the necessary resources. Then, the death of George Floyd finally sparked a national awakening of the systemic racism that plagued black citizens face, the ill-equipped healthcare system — the list goes on.
For Generation Z, these realizations ignited a fire in us and awakened us during a sleep quarantine — one that would forever change the landscape of our online domains.
To counter the harsh inequities in education during this virtual era, my friend Karma worked with Teens Take Charge to rally and divest funds from the NYPD and move them towards balancing out youth services and educational inequities. To fight against the systemic racism perpetuated against the black community, young black women, such as my friend Ashanti, took to social media to organize marches for Gen Z by Gen Z that hundreds of students attended in solidarity with NYC Students for Justice. My friend Sunehra took her art and created Sketches by Sunehra to sell hand-drawn stickers and raise funds for issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
2020 most certainly was one of the deadliest years in modern history — one humanity will forever look back on as one of our biggest failures. But I find solace in the idea that it marks the start of the era in which Generation Z will inherit our world.
This is the start of the decade where we claim our adulthoods. And we've already started by creating virtual crusades; by redefining what social activism means and can actually accomplish. We are now of age to vote and will be flocking to the polls this November to ensure our voices are heard.
We will soon be rising to positions of influence, and I couldn't be more excited to see people like Karma, Ashanti and Sunehra permeate the frontlines of change-makers and leaders.
As for myself, I will continue to fight with fervor as a representative of my generation; to build the tomorrow we want to see.
While to some, the pandemic has set us ten steps back, to my generation, it has graciously laid out every societal issue that needs work. We are progressing in our world with set intentions, we know exactly what needs to be fixed.
And where the walls have been torn down, we are now ready to build new bridges. And change our world.
COVID-19 Update: The connection between local and global issues–the Pulitzer Center's long standing mantra–has, sadly, never been more evident. We are uniquely positioned to serve the journalists, news media organizations, schools, and universities we partner with by continuing to advance our core mission: enabling great journalism and education about underreported and systemic issues that resonate now–and continue to have relevance in times ahead. We believe that this is a moment for decisive action. Learn more about the steps we are taking.