Opinion: David Bowie, Eugene Debs, and the view of the virus from Henry County

Our crisis demands sympathy, even if we feel safe. We are only as secure as the worst off.


Elijah Helton

A section of U.S. Highway 218 leading to Iowa City is seen empty in Mount Pleasant, Iowa on Sunday. Social distancing has reduced travel around the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elijah Helton, Opinions Editor

MOUNT PLEASANT, IOWA — Ziggy Stardust started a dance party of one in my parents’ basement this morning. It was calm and carefree. It was just me, my coffee, and David Bowie.

Even before the pandemic, I was going to come home for spring break. After all, food in my parents’ house is free, and so is the WiFi. But it’s been more than a week, and break is supposed to be over now.

There’s a lot of “supposed to be” going around. Graduation gowns were supposed to be worn. Wage workers were supposed to be clocked in. Students were supposed to be in class.

And through all of this, I’m pretty much fine. But that’s not true for everyone.

I’m a 20-something with no medical conditions that make me vulnerable to the virus. I’ve got a jam-packed playlist and meals I don’t have to pay for. I’m self-isolating in Mount Pleasant, home to 9,000 people who live miles away from case-dense Johnson County.

There are many college students in similar situations, but many aren’t. There are those who won’t be safe in their hometown because of their abusive parents. There are those who lost their jobs as servers and baristas and other service workers. There are those facing crises from mental-health breakdowns to oppressive rent to devastation uncertainty creates.

I’m not smarter to have parents who have jobs that will pay through the outbreak. I’m not wiser to be from a rural county unlikely to be overwhelmed by infections. I’m not superior for being born in 1998 without immunodeficiencies.

We are only as free, as safe, as comfortable as those who are most in need. In lieu of a capable government, we need a capable people.

So what am I supposed to be doing now? What are we supposed to be doing?

The simplest action to take is to avoid the simplest reaction: apathy. We’ve all seen spring breakers who still went on their vacations, citing something to the effect of, “I’ll be fine, so I don’t care.”

This is clearly the wrong response, but our current crisis demands more than staying home and listening to impeccable glam rock. Our moment demands unity.

This is a humanitarian unity, not a political one. There is plenty of room for outrage aimed at our government’s horrific mismanagement of the pandemic. But that outrage must come from a recognition of our humanity.

Indiana politician Eugene Debs put it this way more than a century ago: “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

We are only as free, as safe, as comfortable as those who are most in need. In lieu of a capable government, we need a capable people.

I know it’s not fair. I know we should have universal paid leave, a rent freeze, and a president who doesn’t invent public-health policy with no scientific evidence.

It shouldn’t have to be up to us, but it is.

We have to build the world we need as we lay in bed, attend classes online, and rethink life as we know it in the coming months. We must center humanity in our response in this crisis, and the next, and the next.

And while we spend our time apart, we at least have Starman to keep us company.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.