So, originally, I had planned to talk about how I have observed an observable lack of agency among some of my peers from my days as an undergraduate student to now. However, in light of recent events, I have changed my mind because I have observed a swift shift in behavior in the last week or so. As COVID-19 has become more of a public health crisis in recent days, I have observed an overwhelming increase in the amount of agency I have seen more people exhibit online because now it has become clear that if we do not advocate for ourselves, then who will?
For those who may be unfamiliar with the concept, agency in the sociological sense focuses on one’s autonomy and their ability to act independently from others and advocate for themselves; which has been discussed to date by information sources like ThoughtCo. Before COVID-19 became the most prominent news item in everyone’s news feeds, I had seen only a select number of peers, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, actively exercise agency in face of serious adversity regularly. The same goes for other people I know more intimately, like family, friends, and acquaintances. Even a counselor who spoke at the new student orientation I attended when I transferred to university to finish my undergraduate degree identified it as the top issue she and her colleagues were experiencing with students because it was not very common for students to actively advocate for themselves unless they seriously needed to.
Students were coming to them not knowing how to locate the class schedule, how to identify degree requirements, and how to locate information using the search feature on the university’s website, among completing basic tasks that, admittedly, they realistically should be able to complete by the time they start university. Instead, they regularly expected someone else to do for them what they were already expected to know how to do themselves. However, now, in the age of the Internet, social movements, and recently increased civic engagement, I have seen a distinct shift in people’s ability to speak for themselves and advocate for change in and outside of an academic environment because it has become apparent that we need to exercise agency to protect ourselves from both what is occurring now and what is coming.
However, I acknowledge that some people still have not cultivated the skill of advocating for themselves over letting others act for them; especially when it comes to locating important information. This is dangerous because misinformation is rampant as we collectively figure out how to navigate our new normal, where many businesses and institutions are closed, events are postponed or cancelled, and many are working at home, if at all, as we try to distance ourselves from each other and COVID-19 and figure out how to weather such swift and ongoing change. I understand that, sometimes, life can get overwhelming and it may be easier for people to offload some of their mental load onto others on occasion, but when does that practice cross the line between doing self-care and being a form of self-neglect?
Just one look at #librarytwitter and social media at large and the tension and anxiety COVID-19 is causing is palpable. In recent days, I have honestly considered taking an extended break from all social media because it is honestly so overwhelming at times. Being a full-time student right now, it almost feels like staying updated on everything going on is its own full-time job. But, it is still encouraging to participate in social media as I have seen people continuously push for business closures when they did not come as quickly as first hoped, for everyone to stay home and not unnecessarily go out if they are sick to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, and for people to not hoard essential supplies that everyone will need because resources are finite; while pushing for other necessary change. However, this is not a new phenomenon as COVID-19 has been a problem since January.
So, why is everyone just starting to see it for the problem it really is?
Just in the last couple of weeks, I have heard about businesses just now drafting or updating business continuity plans, universities just now scrambling to convert on-campus classes to online platforms and extending courtesies to students, faculty, and staff that should have been available earlier than now, and institutions outright panicking as they implement safeguards they should have been in place well before now (and, of course, we cannot overlook the staggering shortages of resources across the country as people “panic-buy” goods). In short, the places and communities in which we work, learn, shop, and live are scrambling to protect us from a public health threat that has already affected many and will continue to affect our society when they should have begun implementing such change when this was initially being discussed to prevent the panic currently affecting us all. Thus, this reality has been troubling for me as recent events have shown me that, while some have risen to the challenge, many of the institutions we frequent did not plan until they were forced to; and I hope this public health crisis serves as an example of how not to handle future crises as they likely will happen if we do not acknowledge how we can improve our crisis management skills now and actually improve.
Thus, the most important suggestion I can make based on personal experience is that we learn from each other how to cultivate these crucial skills and push for the change we need to see as it is up to all of us to protect one another when we are not solely focused on protecting our families, friends, and ourselves. It makes me ill to see people on social media not taking this situation seriously due to their age, socioeconomic status, current level of personal health and wellness, or how they perceive the situation via the misinformation they have been exposed to. So, we need to continue to cultivate and practice these skills as it is a gradual process that involves a lot of different stages, processes, and, above all, growth and we clearly cannot afford to neglect it any further going forward.