There Is No Place For Toxic Positivity When It Comes to COVID-19

Getty / Noam Galai

I recently heard someone describe the COVID-19 pandemic as an unplanned vacation. “Imagine if you were preparing for a vacation in Italy. You’re all packed, you have your hotels and museums all picked out, and you’re mentally prepared for an Italian trip. And instead, the plane lands in Germany,” the person said. “There’s some shock and surprise, and you have to adjust your plans and maybe buy some new clothes, but after a while, you can look around and realize, ‘Hey, maybe Germany’s not so bad, and there are some pretty great things here, too.'”

I resisted the urge to tell her just how poor a comparison that actually is. Let me be clear: I entirely support staying positive during the pandemic – but I can’t get behind this kind of toxic positivity. I’m grateful for the small parts of modern life that have brought a modicum of joy to this experience, like the technology that allows us to stay connected with family and friends, the ability to support local restaurants through takeout, and even the flexibility of remote work.

But while I’m grateful for the ways that I personally have been able to adapt, I know that doesn’t reflect the experience of others, and I certainly know it doesn’t mean I’m on vacation. Being able to view an experience positively doesn’t make it a positive experience, and in the case of COVID-19, that outlook is reflective of being in a position of privilege and power. I’m sure that the 20 million people who lost their jobs – depending on who you ask, as some think the toll could be double that – or the families and friends of the more than 375,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 wouldn’t feel the same way.

One has to be truly unaffected, and therefore truly privileged, to escape the immense ramifications of the last 10 months.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to stay positive, but perceiving COVID-19 as a net positive represents both privilege and profound ignorance. It implies zero familiarity with the experience of BIPOC, who are disproportionately affected by the disease. It ignores the struggles of parents with young kids, who are trying to guide fledgling homeschoolers while still meeting the demands of their own job. It disregards the immense pressure placed on healthcare workers, and suggests a white-collar level of unfamiliarity with hourly workers, who are also disproportionately affected by the pandemic – either because they’ve lost their jobs and consequently their healthcare, or they’ve been forced to put their health at risk to keep them. Lastly, it holds zero regard for everything that we as a country have lost. One has to be truly unaffected, and therefore truly privileged, to escape the immense ramifications of the last 10 months, which is exactly what makes this perspective so problematic.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t look for silver linings. But ignoring the negative ramifications of COVID-19 erases the social, political, and economic consequences – and what it’s taught us about our society. COVID-19 isn’t a surprise vacation. It’s a national nightmare, and viewing it with such toxic positivity only keeps us from learning from our mistakes, and doing everything we can to ensure this crisis comes to an end.

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