It’s amazing how much I took for granted. I played sports, my family traveled, my grandparents visited, I went to school, and the Internet had entertaining stories on all sorts of things. Now all of that is gone. The COVID-19 pandemic is a struggle for teenagers in many ways, but the main source of our pain is the loss of social networks and all the contact with friends and family that made our world livable. The only thing that makes it bearable is knowing that we’re saving lives and that it won’t last forever. Sometimes I wonder, though, what will come out of this. What will the new normal look like?
Social networks — friends, extended family, and classmates — make up most of a teenager’s life. As psychology professor Catherine Bagwell points out, “Adolescence is a time when forming and maintaining close, intimate friendships is a critical developmental task — a main ‘job’ of being an adolescent.” She goes on to say that much of this work happens in “face-to-face interactions when teens gather in the basement, legs and arms entwined as three or four pile on a couch talking and hanging out, or at the school lunch table when a dozen teens sit together at a table designed for half as many.” All of this closeness is important for our development and happiness. It’s one thing to play virtual tennis online with a friend, but it’s a whole other thing to be playing actual sports with friends. Social distancing has taken this away, and now it looks like we won’t be getting it back any time soon.
There is some comfort in knowing that our pain is saving lives. In an April 15 article for WTTV Chicago, Heather Cherone reports that according to city data, Chicago’s stay-at-home order has “saved nearly 1,700 lives” in that city. These are dramatic numbers, and they show that social distancing is slowing down the infection rate and keeping people alive.
My mom’s parents live in Ohio, and they are both over 70. When I get bored or frustrated at home, I think of them and how I hope that young people in their state are also doing the right thing to keep my family safe. Maybe there are kids in Ohio with grandparents in Menlo Park, so I’m helping to keep their family safe while they’re doing what they can to protect mine.
All this talk about protecting the vulnerable makes me think about how ideas of community and social networks might change after the pandemic ends. Will I feel closer to those kids in Ohio who stayed in and saved my grandparents? Will they feel grateful to us for protecting their grandparents? Will this bring us together? Are there other ways that this pandemic can help us to be connected? Most of the news I read is pretty negative, but there are signs of hope. In Albany, New York, for example, there is a boom in community gardening that is “helping to save money and ... getting people outside during the COVID-19 pandemic." It’s also a positive step forward in the fight against climate change. Even in the Middle East, there is talk of hope. In Israel, the national health care system is bringing Jews, Muslims, and Christians together in a unified effort to halt the spread of the virus. As Yossi Klein Halevi has reported, Israel is now in a position to turn “crisis into opportunity” and build a unified society that is secure and free.
In the end, there’s no way to spin this pandemic into a good thing -- it just isn’t. The United States has 4% of the world’s population, but we have over a third of the world’s coronavirus infections. Over 40 million Americans are without work, and over 100,000 have died so far. Despite the bad news, there is reason to believe that the shelter-in-place order is saving lives and that new possibilities can come out of this hardship. I look forward to being there to help make that happen.
Arhaan Gupta-Rastogi is a student at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park.