Blog by Jasper E. Lee (they/them/theirs)
Roughly a year into the pandemic and the disruption of normal rhythms through social distancing, quarantining, and staying at home, there are innumerable ways our lives have been changed. I was just three weeks into my public health career, working at a healthcare start-up in Boston, when our office had to pack our desks and begin working remotely. A few months later, the company ended up furloughing and laying off a third of its workforce, myself included. I spent the next few months bumbling through applying for and collecting unemployment for the first time, and later, landing a temporary job at a local corner store. The experience was humbling, frustrating, and yet made cynical sense; with my educational and professional pedigree and work ethic, surely, I’d find work in my career again soon – yet I could not separate my experience from my identities, as a neurodivergent queer and trans person of color.
I felt as though I was the statistical outcome of applying marginalized identities to someone from my educational and professional background. I would scroll through LinkedIn looking for opportunities, and would see my old (white, cis, neurotypical) classmates working in stable research jobs at MGH or private healthcare consulting firms. My motivations – to dedicate my career to health equity and transformative justice – felt aligned with my identities, and at conflict with the path and experiences of more privileged classmates from my cohort. I couldn’t separate my identities from class background either; I was at the time living with two other queer and trans friends, yet both of them were white and either had extremely wealthy parents or were making just under six figures in the software industry. All around me, I saw young, privileged members of my professional world and my community enjoying the stability their privilege gave them. This is not to say that they didn’t also struggle with the pandemic and quarantining, of course – but none of them had the same journey I had over the span of just a few months, laid off, on unemployment, working a minimum wage retail job to pay rent. I felt the dissonance when I went out of my way to shop at Market Basket, and my housemates would walk to Pemberton Farms down the road and return with a third of the groceries for the same price.
The other, painful side of the coin was seeing how more members of my communities were suffering in the same ways I was. I supported my best friend (a beautiful fat, queer, femme tour de force) going through a divorce to her emotionally abusive husband (a wealthy white man) and losing her financial stability in the same stroke. The interpersonal power dynamics created by the large difference in identities and privilege between her and her ex was lost on neither of us. We then both supported our other friend (hysterically blunt, multiracial, non-white passing, who worked in retail and previously sex work) as she struggled to afford therapy and realized she needed to file for bankruptcy. Our mutual friends who were men of color were also unemployed and struggling to find work.
This is all to say – it is damn hard to suffocate the love, humor, and strength of our communities. I’ll never forget nearly peeing myself with laughter in a TJMaxx when my best friend’s new partner winked, leaned over, and whispered loudly to her, “Buy whatever you want, baby, my unemployment check just dropped.” One of my favorite tattoos is the stick-and-poke of a clown on my left ankle from the night of the 2020 election, when we all gathered to distract ourselves from the stress by playing Mario Party and getting into trouble. I miss the cultural whirlwind of food from this time, when we would all make and share homemade tacos, oxtail soup, biryani, matcha lattes, Midwestern hot dishes, and joking joke about everyone’s varying degrees of spice tolerance. The empathy and shared experiences of those around me helped soften the frustration and lack of agency I felt over my situation, and more practically, the shared resources we pooled together – safe housing, money, food, access to a car, pet care, domestic labor – made surviving the pandemic viable.
Thinking about the question of how public health can foster COVID resiliency, especially in marginalized communities, sometimes feels droll to me. You know what my community needed last year, and still now? Therapy, jobs, healthcare, stable housing, money, food, medication, transportation, probably more therapy – all the wrote things that public health professionals and social services are already aware of.
What we also needed was joy.
Joy and gratitude are closer to the heart of resiliency than most resources, in my opinion. We – and I’m sure, countless others from other vulnerable and marginalized communities – survived the brunt of COVID-19 not only by desperately pooling our resources and engaging in mutual aid, but in large part due to love and camaraderie. Looking back to six months ago, I can draw upon so many happy memories. Those memories don’t minimize the frustration, chronic anxiety, depression, and turmoil experienced; I can hold and make space for dialectics, for both the good and bad. Going to my best friend’s apartment every day – whether to help her pack her ex-husband’s belongings, to apply for jobs together, to share meals and make sure we both ate – was an incredible source of joy, almost like harm reduction for the pain of the situation, and I’m not sure if there will come another period in our lives where we spend as much time together.
Overall, I don’t have much of a concluding point. I could write about how our communities need resources so that we can solve our own problems, how a thriving life is more important than surviving life, how there are already community members in public health trying to uplift higher standards of equity. What’s most important for me, right now, is that we tell our stories with truth, power, and humor, and personify and humanize what COVID resiliency looks like. After all, it’s not a statistic.