Like many UChicago students, I spent one morning a week with a cotton swab up my nose this quarter. But it isn’t the nasal swab that I dread each time I go to Rosenwald Hall for my weekly coronavirus test. It’s seeing the nurses smothered in protective gear in the overheated testing room awaiting their next patient. It’s being checked in by medical professionals who watch the tabletop printers whir endlessly hour after hour. Yet most of all, it’s seeing other UChicago students disregard these essential workers. Not once have I heard a “Thank you!” from a student to a nurse or coordinator, or heard someone ask how their tester’s day is going. I’ve watched some students come in with earbuds, avoiding as much interaction as possible. I’ve seen others go on social media to evade conversation entirely.
Despite COVID-19 bringing light to the importance of essential workers, I haven’t seen a shift in UChicago students’ actions towards the people who allow our lives to continue on normally as possible— the people who run weekly tests, clean the classrooms that enable continued in-person learning, and keep our dining halls open. Although most, if not all, UChicago students acknowledge that essential workers deserve respect in principle, they fail in practice to extend respect to the essential workers all around them—the ones who keep our campus running.
Even before COVID-19 took over our lives, many essential workers on campus went uncredited for their work. In the dining halls, countless people received service without a smile or a thank you. On campus corners, I watched students lower their heads to avoid eye contact with security guards. Given the circumstances of the pandemic, which has highlighted that these employees are indispensable, I’m beginning to wonder why this hasn’t seemed to change.
I think some of this is due to the fact that we treat essential workers as a cumulative whole rather than as individuals. Even the UChicago Instagram page has done so; they posted a video this Thanksgiving thanking public health workers for “inspiring efforts to protect our community and save lives” and the dining and housing workers for “helping keep on campus students safe while creating communities that feel like home.” These statements fail to acknowledge the individuality of each of these workers—how each of them puts themselves at risk in pursuit of keeping our community unified. However, for many of these employees, it’s not a willing choice. Financial instability has gripped households, forcing essential workers to come to campus despite fear and health risk. Even UChicago has flown in the face of “state, city, and campus guidelines” to provide an in-person library experience at the expense of essential workers.
The above statements from the UChicago Instagram address the essential workforces of UChicago as a whole, brushing over the fact that the individual action of essential workers on campus is what allows our UChicago community to remain stable and unified in these turbulent times. It’s Emma, who checks students into the dorm, and Kevin, who serves meals in the dining halls who allow students in the College to have an in-person dorm experience during this strange year. It’s Edgar, who checks students in during their weekly test, who creates the essential infrastructure of UChicago's expansive coronavirus testing program. It’s countless other employees that have kept our libraries open even as coronavirus cases spiked, and have cleaned classrooms endlessly so that we could continue in-person learning. Given that this is the case, it is the responsibility of the students to make these essential workers feel as though their part makes a difference.
I’m not saying that all UChicago students follow the same model I depicted. Although I haven’t witnessed students speaking with or thanking testing staff, some of my friends have recounted how they have a conversation with their check-in person every time they get tested. Another did a round of campus, bringing hot chocolate to the security guards. I’m not saying that all of us need to perform acts like these, but we do have an obligation to actually express the gratitude we talk about on social media to the people that put themselves at risk to make our lives better.
Small, random acts of kindness have made some of my worst days tolerable. When a stranger holds the door or flashes a genuine smile, it can completely alter my perception of the current moment for the better. It reminds me that we truly are all in this together. I’m not saying that every nurse or security guard necessarily wants to be asked how their day is going, but greeting essential workers appreciatively and saying “Thank you!” has more potential to change someone’s outlook on their work situation than you may imagine.
Maya Ordonez is a second year in the College.