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Op Eds

Why the United States Needs More than Just a Vaccine

By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez
By Jason R. Vazquez, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jason R. Vazquez is a first-year student at Harvard Law School.

On Nov. 12, after a day of classes at Harvard Law, I drove to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to get my second dose of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine. After a blood draw and a Covid-19 test, I rolled up my sleeve and received the injection, which was quick and painless. I had a low-grade fever and flu-like symptoms for a few hours the next day, but by the evening I felt great and even went on a run around Cambridge (mask included).

I signed up to participate after reading about the vaccine trial in October, and I received the first dose just a few days later. I was inspired by the heroic efforts of the millions of essential workers in hospitals, grocery stores, restaurants, nursing homes, and schools who are courageously stationed on the front lines and risking their health to serve the collective good in a time of uncertainty and fear. Many of them were forced by economic exigencies and governmental failures to place themselves in harm’s way, but many acted voluntarily. Thinking of their sacrifice, I was eager to roll up my sleeve and contribute in whatever way I could — knowing there might be some risk.

This year has been one of misery, isolation, and death as the coronavirus has torn through our society and devastated our deteriorating civil and political infrastructure. Millions of workers have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment, facing misery and indignity as their families slip into poverty. Thousands have been evicted from their homes, forced into overcrowded shelters, hastily thrust into remote learning, social gatherings have been canceled, and many of us have gone months without seeing friends and family. Millions of individuals have been infected with the virus and, most tragically, hundreds of thousands have died from it, hooked up to ventilators, separated from their loved ones, and surrounded by medical workers in protective gear as they struggle to take their final breaths.

Unsurprisingly, the virus has struck with particular ferocity at the margins of our society: among the poor, minorities, the undocumented, and the elderly stashed away in nursing homes like old furniture. The most affected have been those who are surplus to the profit-seeking needs of corporate executives and the vote-seeking needs of politicians, and perhaps that is why the government response, particularly at the federal level, has been so incredibly impotent. While exhausted medical workers have made courageous sacrifices to protect the health of their communities, some in positions of power have been more concerned with preserving the “integrity” of the financial system and securing corporate profits than with preventing the spread of the virus, protecting the public, or providing the relief that workers, hospitals, small businesses, and communities so desperately need.

Overcoming such an unprecedented public health crisis requires cooperation, compassion, sacrifice, and solidarity, so it is hardly surprising that our social system, governed by individualism, competition, exploitation, and atomization has failed. This pandemic has only exacerbated the preexisting structural failures of our society and exposed the delusion of shaping economic and political systems around the principles of narcissism and greed.

But moments devastated by crisis are also moments pregnant with opportunity. The lockdown has given many of us a valuable chance to slow down and reflect — to question our priorities, reimagine our economic system, and wonder if our society should be, or could be, organized differently.

This moment of reflection arrives at a critical point in human history, at a time when humanity faces grave challenges. Pandemics, famines, plutocracy, fascism, nationalism, nuclear proliferation, ecological devastation, climate change — it is no exaggeration to say that the very existence of human civilization is threatened. All these seemingly unrelated crises are merely different aspects of the same underlying crisis: a society organized around greed and competition rather than compassion and cooperation. Our generation will be forced to resolve this conflict, whether we like it or not. We will either transition to a more democratic and sustainable society or we will witness the decay of human civilization.

It is a hopeful moment as vaccine distribution has begun, and in the next few months things will start to get better. This current crisis will fade, but we must not throw away the powerful moment of reflection that it provided and ignore the other very real, if less visible, crises that threaten humanity, like the hidden pandemics of poverty, violence, ignorance, inequality, and climate change. My hope is that, through the tragedy and misery of this pandemic, our generation has been collectively inspired to organize a more just, equitable, and sustainable society in order to overcome the calamities that threaten to destroy us.

Jason R. Vazquez is a first-year student at Harvard Law School.

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