Do not smile at me in 2021

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I’ll be honest. I’ve never been a fan of the Midwestern “friendliness” culture in Wisconsin. Coming from a city of 20 million people, you are trained to keep your eyes forward and your hand on your possessions as you navigate busy traffic or crowded markets. In my freshman year international student orientation, one of the seniors told us, “You’ll find it very, very, weird at first. Just smile and nod back. No one is being rude or trying to fight you.” This advice came to be useful the first time I went downtown because many people on the street who were not even Lawrence students were smiling or trying to say hello to me. I was pretty confused most of the walk, wondering: were people mistaking me for someone else? Do I have an approachable face? Or maybe my make-up looks off? Nope, it turns out that Midwesterners just love saying hello to each and every person on the street.

In 2018, I found those cultural habits odd but quirky and fitting for a population mostly concentrated in small towns or farms. “Perhaps there’s not much else to do and they like seeing new people,” I used to think. Since the out- break of COVID-19, I have a much lower tolerance for being smiled at. Not only has this country’s government severely mismanaged the response to curtail the spread of the virus for more than a year, there has been an absurd culture war over mask-wearing and abidance of social dis- tancing. Apparently for some American patriots, putting on a mask is a violation of personal freedoms as is any temporary suspension of bars, clubs, restaurants or gyms. These thugs, deniers of science and Capitol rioters form a substantial amount of not only the general population but
of the U.S House and Senate as well, resulting in a year’s worth of unnecessary deaths and hospitalizations for a nation already struggling with health issues and a crumbling public health infrastructure. And then we come back to the issue of fake friendliness in a pandemic when most people walking through downtown Appleton cannot even be bothered to put on a mask. Expecting pleasant interaction from a stranger you will pass by for 5 seconds is entitled enough, but to brazenly have your face out in 2021 is nothing short of ignorance. After a whole year of seeing what this virus does to the most vulnerable of the population and able bodied young people as well, it’s not a lot to ask for Midwesterners to keep their masks on and socially distance.

Of course, in an ideal world, the U.S would not be behaving like it somehow doesn’t have the resources or capital to keep its citizens at home and not rush to reopen its economy. The difference between the American response compared to, let’s say, the Chinese, Vietnamese, Australian, Taiwanese or Bhutanese response was a direct and steady agreement on policies by scientists and public officials. Even in poorer Asian nations, there was an immediate response by health and government authorities to centralize the fight against COVID-19 (Tang). Previous exposure to pandemics such as SARS, H1N1 and MERS was also at the front of public memory, which is why mask-wearing was more strictly abided and social distancing rules were followed (the irony of the increase in Anti-Asian sentiment due to COVID-19 in the U.S could be a whole Op-Ed of its own). Communal cultures also inspire more cooperation in times of emergency, more so than the independent American culture where young people cannot wrap their heads around the fact that even if they don’t get deathly ill, going out in a pandemic still spikes transmission rates. From their own government, they heard mixed messages across state and county lines as each state went about the mask mandate in their own way. Personally, what I noticed the most as we switched to pandemic cleaning procedures was that most Americans were even confused on the basics of hand washing and sanitizing surfaces or just staying clean. Not to be shady or anything, but this is probably how white European settlers killed the Native American population by biological warfare via the viruses pooling in major European cities in the 1400s. On the topic of biological genocide, the Brazilian response to COVID-19 is perhaps the only one more worrying than the American one. While the U.S government wants its citizens to go ahead and kill themselves going back to work and by convincing them it’s safe to eat inside a restaurant, go clubbing or attend large events, the Brazilian govern- ment is much more adamant in its intent. Since the beginning of the pandemic, sci- entists and doctors have been intimidated by the Bolsonaro regime to stay silent or have been arrested for undermining government efforts. In March of 2021, popular vlogger Felipe Neto was arrested on charges of “threatening national security” for calling out Bolsonaro on his genocidal intent at letting a virus run free in a population already heavily divided on racial and class lines (Marin). Brazil is struggling with the highest death rate from COVID-19 globally, and in no other country of major outbreak are there still record-highs being set for daily infec- tions, hospitalizations or deaths. There have been major protests in 2021 against the Bolsonaro regime’s active intent to kill, which has also resulted in the intensification of the virus and creation of new variants (Al Jazeera). The national outcry came at a time of increased deaths but the response of the administration has been uncaring and brutally repressive in silencing protestors. A recent press brief- ing by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) stated that the Americas could see more cases this year than in the entirety of 2020 due to this new variant, all in the same month that the Florida governor banned vaccine passports as “divisive” (Pan American Health Organization; Hall). If there is no clear, uniform, centralized response in the Americas soon enough, this virus will never leave us. We will continue liv- ing through half-assed, non-enforced lockdowns during which the majority of the population will go about their lives while somehow also complaining about masks, all as the most vulnerable will remain locked up at home. I do not plan on sticking around any longer.

I used to have faith in the American people. Now, I cannot wait to finally leave and never come back (at least as a resident). Even though I come from a country that has been bombed and invaded by the U.S military and that has seen a violent phase of anti- American sentiment, I really did believe that the American people were not their imperialist government or military. So much so that I came in 2018 under the Trump regime thinking I wouldn’t run into half the population of the country which voted for him. In just 2018, I knew my first mistake was thinking of the American people as a homogenous population. So I will clarify my earlier sentence: “I used to have faith in the white middle/upper middle class.” Seeing and hearing the experiences of BIPOC in rural areas and inner-cities alike made me realize how much the Hollywood and media portrayal of racism is shallow and doesn’t hold a candle to the lived experi- ences of BIPOC. The pandemic further revealed the inequalities in housing and employment for those living paycheck- to-paycheck compared to Americans who could afford to do their job remotely or take time off. As in Brazil, the popula- tions in the U.S who are struggling the most with COVID and will continue to do so are marginalized: Black, Hispanic and immigrant communities who already have limited access to public health care. It amazes me to no end that those who are the most privileged have the means to stay at home, but simply choose not to. And while being out and about com- mitting acts of biological warfare, they expect a smile or acknowledgement of their existence as if I have not already begun plotting the 5 meter circle I will walk around them to make sure they know I spite them and their germs.

Works Cited 

Hall, Louise. “Florida Governor Bans Use of Vaccine Passports to Avoid ‘Two Classes of 

Citizens,’” The Independent, 3 March 2021. 

Marin, Jorge. “Felipe Neto é intimado por chamar Bolsonaro de ‘genocida’ no Twitter”, 

Tecmundo, 16 March 2021. 

“More Brazil Protests Against Bolsonaro’s COVID-19 Response,” Al Jazeera, 31 Jan 2021. 

Tang, Shenglan. “How Some Countries Beat Back COVID-19,” Duke Global Health Institute, 

12 Aug 2020. 

“Weekly Press Briefing on the COVID-19 Situation in the Americas”, *Pan American Health 

Organization, 31 March 2021. 

Further Reading 

Horton, Richard. “This wave of anti-China feeling masks the west’s own Covid-19 failures” 

The Guradian, 3 Aug 2020. 

Ogbogu, Ubaka and Lorain Hardcastle. “Opinion: The worst part of COVID-19 vaccine 

nationalism? It will have the opposite effect on the world,” The Globe and Mail, 

31 March 2021.