By the Rev. Jeff Kapp
Many of us are learning to talk about racial privilege in conversations about racism. Let’s talk for a moment about another area of privilege. Regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, physical or mental ability, education, etc., the vast majority of us who are reading this are fortunate to have privilege in one particular area that some do not.
During the protracted COVID-19 pandemic we have been free to gather and move about for the most part, while practicing social distancing. Some have visited local family and friends, while others have enjoyed engaging others in video-chats and Zoom conversations, even in face-to-face online worship.
We are free to choose when and where to go for a walk or run, a bike ride or other forms of recreation. We can go out to buy groceries or take-out meals. And we are free to make choices to protect ourselves from COVID-19, to control our environments at home and our movements outside the home.
My family has used curbside deliveries at groceries and other purchases. We are fortunate enough to live close enough to a farm that we are getting weekly deliveries of milk, eggs and fresh-baked bread. This means that, other than my own immediate family, I haven’t been within six feet of any other person, with few exceptions, since mid-March. My family hasn’t been within six feet of other persons since mid-March. I haven’t been inside any building except my own home in that period of time (other than an occasional trip to the church office at times when no one else is in the building and a couple of necessary medical appointments that could not be put off or accomplished virtually).
For some who read this, you have chosen to go to the grocery store, while maintaining social distancing. You may have had to report to work, while maintaining social distancing or taking extra precautions; or you have chosen to not follow social distancing with selected people, like family members or close friends.
Perhaps you have chosen to do things with more or less risk. Or for some, perhaps you are out of work, but you may be at home and relatively protected. Whether you have had to go out or have chosen to go out, the choice to be less safe was yours. Or you’ve been given the option of using social distancing and preventative measures to keep you and your family safe.
I live and serve as a pastor in Lebanon County. People want to get back to work; so many have decided for themselves to do so. Many have been laid off, businesses have suffered, and people are getting tired of having been at home for over three months.
Despite our ability to retain some normalcy by using Zoom and other online platforms to keep in contact with other people, which is helping to maintain our sanity, it is still been difficult. We’ve dealt with some fear and anxiety about illness. We’ve gotten a little testy with each other from time-to-time. In short, we’re getting a bit tired of all this and we pray every day that the disease spread will slow down and things will start to ease up some, so we can re-engage in some of the activities we’ve been missing.
Maybe for you, it’s been rougher. Yet, it has been a privilege for most of us to stay relatively protected from COVID-19 by social distancing, by working, worshipping and gaining wisdom from home, and by taking preventative measures like wearing masks.
But imagine for a moment that you do not have the privilege of taking efforts on your own to protect yourself from catching COVID-19.
What if, in addition to not being able to go to the gym or your barber or hairdresser, your access to worship, books, the Internet, and telephone was restricted? What if you did not know when you would be allowed to see your parents, your spouse or your children? What if you did get to use the phone or a computer, but you weren’t sure who had used it before you and whether they were sick or not? And what if you weren’t allowed to use hand sanitizer?
What if your home was small and you had to share it with someone who wasn’t your family, maybe not even your friend? What if your living space was so small that you didn’t even have privacy while changing clothes or using the bathroom? What if you lived so close to your neighbors that it was impossible to be socially distant from them?
What if many of your neighbors appeared sick, maybe with the virus, but they weren’t getting tested? What if the quarantine order required you to live in one 6 feet by 8 feet room, for over 23 hours a day, with a roommate who isn’t family and maybe not even a friend?
What if you had to choose whether to spend the remaining time taking a shower, using the phone or computer to chat with family members, or enjoying some brief exercise outside? What if this has gone on since March 29, and you do not know when it will change?
If all this was the state of your life, what would your level of fear and anxiety be like now? Is it possible you’d be feeling stressed or having something close to a mental breakdown?
Maybe you are a person who doesn’t have a lot of privilege because of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, etc. But chances are, if you are reading this, you are not incarcerated, and you at least have privilege that prisoners do not.
At Pennsylvania’s 25 State Correctional Institutions (SCI), 44,600 inmates were in lockdown and suffering from what amounts to solitary confinement for over two months. Last May, some of those institutions began to relax their restrictions from Level 5 to Level 4 or Level 3. (A full explanation of the Department of Correction’s levels is found here).
Every question in the previous paragraph was written to point out what has been taken from the prisoners at our state’s various SCIs. They should give you just an idea of what it is like to be incarcerated—and without even basic privileges—during our COVID-19 pandemic.
The Rev. Jeff Kapp is a fulltime Local Pastor serving Ebenezer and Bethany UMCs in Lebanon and a member of the Eastern PA Conference Prison Ministries & Restorative Justice Team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.