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America has a sick problem

| Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Nearly a year ago today, a CNN article proclaimed that “things are most likely never going ‘back to normal.’” At the time, that wasn’t really a controversial statement — it was the prevailing sentiment among people who spent too much time reading the news. The COVID-19 pandemic had shaken the foundations of our “normal,” and six months in it really did feel like the world we left behind in the early months of 2020 was gone forever.

A year later, I don’t really know where we stand on “back to normal.” It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, with everyone waiting with baited breath through a vaccine winter wonderland, a spring re-awakening, a summer o’ fun and a doom and gloom early fall. Despite the dreaded Delta variant, however, things certainly look much more “normal” now than at this time last year. Airports are filling up again, most colleges are back to in-person classes and, most importantly, Notre Dame Stadium is once again open to the public

These are all examples of a delightful normal, one full of hugs and maskless laughter and estranged families reuniting. I have recently, however, been reminded of some of the less-than-ideal things about our former “normal.” 

If you’ve never lived in a dorm, sharing germs and bathrooms with 300 other teenagers, you’ve probably never experienced the “freshman flu,” but I’m sure you can surmise what it is. Pretty much every year, at pretty much every college, it seems like all the freshmen on campus, and a good chunk of upperclassmen, come down with the same vague cold. Thanks to extensive masking and social distancing regulations in place last year, it seemed like the freshman flu had been largely defeated. Now that we’re back to “normal,” however, it’s back with a vengeance, and it seems to be hitting the Class of 2025 harder than ever.

I am not a freshman nor do I live in a dorm, so this is all purely anecdotal: I came to this conclusion entirely from my experiences in classes and on campus this past week. Everywhere I go it seems like people are coughing and sneezing, all (expectedly) without a mask on. Rest assured, they pretty much always follow these outbursts of illness with the crucial disclaimer that they already tested negative for COVID-19. Still, I find it unsettling. I’m vaccinated and recognize that Notre Dame has required vaccinations this year, so I’m not particularly concerned about an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak. Instead, hearing the chorus of coughs in DeBartolo Hall had me wondering: why were these students in class in the first place? 

They were clearly miserable, and even if it wasn’t COVID-19, I didn’t really want to catch what they had. Last year, coughing in class was practically outlawed — hybrid classes and Zoom links gave everyone good reason to stay home if they were sick, even if they weren’t sick with COVID-19. We’ve all had messages about personal responsibility for public health imprinted on our brains for the last year and a half. So why would anyone still come to class sick, even if it wasn’t with COVID-19?

In many classes here on campus, the answer is pretty simple: you have to. Many classes have strict attendance policies that were waived last year but firmly reinstated this year. While all of my classes last year had a Zoom link set up for students who were ill or quarantined to attend class virtually, this year none of my classes (nor the classes of most of my friends) have that choice. If you are really sick and want an exemption from the attendance policy, there’s usually a long string of hurdles to jump through. So, students come to class sick. 

It’s a real problem, and it’s not one exclusive to Notre Dame or even college campuses at large. As of 2020, only thirteen states require companies to give their employees paid sick leave. The United States is one of the only industrialized countries in the world to not require paid sick leave federally, and as a result nearly a quarter of US adults have been fired or threatened with termination for taking sick days. Many schools and workplaces require a doctor’s note as proof of illness even when granted sick leave, an odd and unjust requirement in a country with no universal health care, where 30 million people lack health insurance

Even as the country has been struggling to keep its head above water amidst all these COVID-19 waves, most emergency paid sick leave requirements expired months ago. Unsurprisingly, in the absence of legal requirements, most companies have gone back to their pre-pandemic policies on paid sick leave, and nearly half of all US employers aren’t even guaranteeing time off for workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

It is absolutely absurd that after a year and a half of unfathomable pain and loss due to a failure to prioritize public health, Americans still cannot stay home with the flu without risking a tanked GPA or a lost income. Even if COVID-19 is a smaller concern, those most at-risk for serious illness from COVID-19 are also highly at-risk for serious illness from other diseases. And even if you’re not high-risk, do you really want to spend three days with a fever just because your coworker or your classmate couldn’t stay home?

I understand that there are legitimate logistical concerns here, but the COVID-19 pandemic made clear that many jobs can be done from home, and classes can easily be made available to sick students. Even still, most resistance to these proposals are not logistical but ideological — the American work ethic encourages people to push through, work harder and show no sign of weakness. It’s toxic, and it’s putting our collective health at risk. We need paid sick leave, we need better on-campus accommodations for sick students and, on this, we need to stray far from “normal.”

Ellie Konfrst is a senior studying political science with a minor in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited people will once again be forced to listen to her extremely good takes. You can find her off campus trying to decide whether or not she’ll go to law school or bragging that Taylor Swift follows her on Tumblr. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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