Falling through the cracks: are we really ‘all in this together’?

Photo courtesy of Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels.

ADDY MCKOWN | OPINION COLUMNIST | amckown@butler.edu

The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst that only prior global crises — wars, invasions, outbreaks — can compare to. It is a calamity that has, simultaneously, transformed how we are living in the present and altered our futures beyond any scope we could have anticipated. In an attempt to alleviate the confusion, frustration and isolation conjured by the incessant uncertainty of the COVID-19, a popular motto has surfaced: “We’re all in this together.”

At first, this mantra was an ode to the consequences that seemingly all Americans were suffering from. Hashtags started circulating, yard signs were scattered about communities, even t-shirts and bumper stickers were printed with the newfound motto of the people.

Even Butler University’s Office of the Provost ends email communications with “We’re all in this together,” including the most recent update regarding face-to-face instruction. The message has become a rallying cry for unity and camaraderie in the face of COVID-19. 

Here’s the thing, though: “all” does not mean everybody. 

This motto encourages unity while simultaneously failing to acknowledge citizens’ pre-existing circumstances. Mainstream media is failing to portray the current global health crisis in a realistic way, as its narratives and advertisements capitalize on the idea of uniform camaraderie. The “reality” we are being presented with is completely disconnected from the reality that many people are living.

Part of this reality includes systemic shortcomings — primarily, a widespread technological divide. Throughout the pandemic, people everywhere have relied heavily on technology as a way of staying connected and up-to-date on current events. 

It has, seemingly, eased both the strain of work and school instruction and in-person socialization for the majority of the American public, so much so that nine out of ten Americans say that the internet has been “essential or important” for work or school amid the COVID-19 outbreak. But what happens when there is no internet at home?

America’s blatant digital divide has left millions of students without internet access and, consequently, without the means to continue their education. The Center for Equity in Learning states that the gap between people “who have sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those who do not” has only grown as technology has evolved. Educators refer to the disparity of the digital divide in the classroom as “the homework gap.”

In Marion County alone, at least 40% of families do not have access to Wi-Fi, not to mention the devices needed to remotely complete schoolwork. Marion County is one of many districts nationwide that has taken to creating “Wi-Fi parking lots” in an effort to provide better internet access for students without a stable connection at home. 

Internet accessibility has long been known to be inconsistent, yet “virtual learning” and “remote work” are being regarded as a panacea in replacing the curriculum of face-to-face instruction.

Our own Butler community has experienced the consequences of virtual learning amid the digital divide. Sophomore Avery Buck lives in Selma, Indiana, a rural community where internet connection is not offered by providers and cell service is hard to come by. When in-person classes were initially dismissed in March, Buck realized that navigating online classwork would be all but impossible at home.

“Everything was immediately shut down in stage one of the pandemic so I couldn’t go to coffee shops or restaurants to do my work,” says Buck. “I had to sit in parking lots where free Wi-Fi was available.”

Buck also noted that at first, she was not too concerned about her situation because she thought it was only temporary. When class was canceled for the rest of the semester, however, her anxieties quickly intensified, not only from the new-realized severity of COVID-19 but from the growing concerns of how and where Buck could complete the virtual semester.

Later on, Buck heard about one of the aforementioned Wi-Fi parking lots at Ball State University. Ball State was offering free internet access to all students in the surrounding areas, including Buck. 

“I finished the rest of the spring semester in a lawn chair outside my car by Ball State’s baseball diamond. My professors were very understanding and tried to support me the best they could,” Buck said. 

Butler University as a whole, however, neglected to individually acknowledge her situation and did not offer any aid to Buck. In a Keep Calm and Study On page on Butler’s website, some resources are available to “enhance distance learning during campus disruptions,” including a link to a forum on what to do if you don’t have internet access at home.

The university recommends hotspot cellular data options and then forwards students to another link that offers internet connection solutions based on a zip code. These alternatives, however, were not applicable to either Buck’s location or provider coverage. 

When looking toward the rest of this semester, Buck says she is anxiously anticipating a concrete decision from the University. 

“My family and I have agreed that I just can’t stay at home if we have to vacate campus and move classes entirely online,” Buck said. “I’m not sure where I’ll go yet — I’m really just hoping it doesn’t come down to that.”

The “we’re all in this together” narrative is telling the American public that we are experiencing the same pain and hardships in the wake of COVID-19, yet, to put it most simply, this unifying portrayal is just not the truth. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is not happening in a vacuum — rather, it is manifesting within a society plagued by marginalization, one that long ago left those outside the majority behind. Systemic inequalities and inconsistencies have only heightened the catastrophic ramifications of the virus, disproportionately affecting people across America with a staunch polarity.

As universities everywhere move into the semester, it is crucial that such polarity remains a factor at the forefront of our decision-making. Individual and community-specific hardships are valid, and glossing over this is oppression in its fullest and most apparent form. 

In refusing to recognize personal context, we are invalidating the experiences of our neighbors — we are telling them that life has been hard for everybody, so it does not matter if the pandemic has been extra difficult for them to navigate. We may not all be in this together, but we are all in this. 

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