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Living with the Vulnerable During Coronavirus


A minor mistake I made in a simple recipe of mac and cheese, a staple in my quarantine dinner repertoire, is what made me snap. The overwhelming pressure of having to focus on remote classwork, cook and clean, and worry about the wellness of my grandfather who's currently undergoing cancer treatment had finally gotten to me.

My grandfather eventually calmed me down, but I couldn't help but feel like an anvil was weighing down my chest. What would happen if he caught COVID-19 or his cancer worsened under my watch? What if my sister or I came back from the grocery store and gave him the virus? How am I going to continue to keep up with my mounting schoolwork? What if this lasts longer than we can imagine and we run out of money for groceries?

My grandfather is 82 years old and suffers from a rare cancer called chordoma. He's undergoing proton therapy treatment at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. He's still strong and cleans around the house, but I can see he's gotten weaker. The threat of coronavirus has made him afraid. I can see the fear in his face as the death toll and images of people his age in body bags on the news reflects in his eyes.

He'll tell you that he can take care of himself, but it's in my nature to make sure he's okay. While my mother is away in Pennsylvania working at a home for disabled adults and providing for us our family in Maryland the best she can. My sister and I, who also attends AU, are tasked with looking after the house and our grandfather.

We are fortunate and privileged to have shelter, access to the internet, and food. But I can say that getting sleep has been hard, focusing during online class sessions has felt impossible at times while my sister scrambles to get to the grocery store and back in time for her own classes and I click through internet tabs in search for quick dinner recipes so that I have time to keep up with my workload.

It's been exhausting as I worry when my grandfather goes back and forth from his treatment during the week, that he won't even come home. That he'll have contracted the virus and I won't ever see him again.

It's hard enough for students to focus with the constant news of rising death tolls, a doomed economy, and the simple fact that our globe is suffering during this COVID-19 pandemic.

People of color are suffering the most right now. Many of us are at a higher risk for underlying health conditions due to systemic issues that have led to poorer air quality near communities of color, food deserts limiting access to nutritious food options, and a lack of adequate education on healthy living. We are the ones who make up most of the essential workforce and usually the ones tasked with helping to look after younger siblings, or living with elderly relatives who are at a higher risk of dying from this virus.

Chloe Li, a sophomore at AU, is in a similar situation. She is currently living in Staten Island, NY, the epicenter of the pandemic in the US, with her grandparents, younger brother, and mother who is immunocompromised and an essential worker at LabCorps.

"I think the main thing with living with people who are so susceptible, especially someone who has to go outside everyday, you wake up and you're just kind of afraid of what's going to happen. And you don't know when it's going to end so you don't have time to recover" Li said.

Li expressed noticing anxious reactions from her loved ones, and fear over the uncertainty brought with this pandemic and how it could particularly harm her grandparents and mother who is at a heightened risk of exposure to the virus due to her job in the medical field and pre-existing health condition. 

"With my grandparents, it's a lot more that they're just getting very restless and bored to a point where I can see them get more agitated because of the whole situation, and you know they've been through a lot", Li explained. "Both of them were born in the 1940's, before the war ended. This is really different, it's not the same in any form for them. So I think the impact on them is just having to experience something else on top of everything they've already had to deal with in life".

Although Li added that she can't know for certain how her family is feeling mentally since mental health isn't talked about much, she can see the negative impacts. She's also noticed that her mother is very tired, stressed, and on high alert but has to continue going to work to provide for their family, doing what is necessary to keep them going.

Coming from an Asian immigrant family, Li also described fear over racial profiling and having heightened responsibility as the oldest daughter in her family. Li has more physical responsibilities now like helping to disinfect, cook and clean, but also is the main person communicating to her extended family. She understands that her family must work together to get through this difficult time, but feels the mental toll.

"We recently had some death in the family and I was the only one in the extended family group chat. I was the one who had to check in on my grandmother, because it's on her side of the family, to make sure that she's okay. So a lot of the heightened responsibility is the mental burden of having to be the one who knows what's going on and knows that this isn't going to end anytime soon" Li said.

The added pressure has gotten in the way of schoolwork for Li, but she acknowledges how lucky she is to be in a place where she has space to complete her assignments. She's been able to communicate with her professors about her situation and  the option to push back deadlines. Although some professors gave her the option to accept an incomplete or to do the work and get a poor grade. Schoolwork has given her a sense of normalcy, but it has been hard for her to focus with the constant threat and worries brought on by COVID-19.

Being a first-generation, low-income, or student of color can bring about these added pressures at a disproportionate rate in comparison to students in more privileged positions. Students in these positions may also feel extra pressure to succeed.

"Not to speak for every student of color, but I think it is a general experience that a lot of us feel is that if we slack it's not the same thing as a white student slacking. It's more dangerous for us and our careers. I just think that's been another thing bogging down on my mind is if I slack, I don't know what's going to happen to my future because I have a bigger responsibility than white students on campus", said Li.

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