Cooties. The dreaded imaginary childhood plague that haunts every schoolyard. The poor kid who is singled out to have cooties is called names, bullied, and excluded. When I was in elementary school, back in the Stone Age, we had our version of the cooties. If you were thought to have the cooties, you were called “corroded.” Why? I have no idea. I didn’t even know what the word meant. All I knew was this, if you were called corroded (pronounced in the thickest NJ accent, ca-ROW-did), then you were a social pariah. No one would even go near you. There was one girl in my elementary school that bore the brunt of this inauspicious title FOR YEARS. When I first met her I was warned not to go near her otherwise I would be “corroded.” I remember looking at her. She looked like a regular kid, albeit a little pale and on the skinnier side. She didn’t look “corroded.” But nevertheless, not wanting to get branded by that label, I stayed away from her.
Looking back, I remember she was a kid with learning differences, which already set her apart from the rest of our class, despite it being an early version of an inclusion classroom. She didn’t have many friends, and she spent almost every recess by herself, playing on one piece of playground equipment all on her own. No one would even dare play on the same play structure as her because she had “corroded” it. If you dared, you were incessantly teased by your other classmates. In the 4th grade, my best friend at the time and I had a moment of uncharacteristic self-reflection and wondered why we had all chosen to be so mean to this girl for so many years. We sensed the toxic atmosphere it had created, and how tense and sad this girl appeared to be all the time. What good had it done to exclude her?
People who are different have always been the object of scrutiny by the masses regardless of whether this plays out in small scale at the school yard or on the grand scale of the world stage. Disease and pestilence gets assigned to the presence of “the other” by the larger, dominant group, especially in times of medical epidemics. This is neither helpful nor prudent. Suspicion, harassment, fear of disease and xenophobia go hand in hand and have deep roots globally. Explicitly branding those who are different as the originators of contagions and infection and then repeating that message in heavy rotation allows this idea to be accepted as a cultural norm. The idea of “the other” as the contagion is pernicious and pervasive.
History has proven time and again how these associations are unjustified and societally damaging. However we are currently hearing some of the same informal and formal discrimination bubbling up from the past, some of which is being spread by the highest levels of our government. This is immoral and dangerous. Echoing the scapegoating propaganda from the past does not have to accompany our health-related worries.
Amid all the stress around current events, including the spread of COVID-19, it is natural to be anxious about getting sick with a novel virus that is spread through contact. Anyone who coughs or sneezes in public gets the stink-eye. Instead of letting our anxiety get the best of us, let us be responsible and caring members of our society, both in our actions and in our attitudes, modeling good behavior to our children. Practice good public health protocols based in scientific facts (hand washing for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water, covering sneezes and coughs, and self-quarantining if you are experiencing a dry cough and fever) and use common sense. Let’s take a lesson from the schoolyard. Use your influence for greater good in this truly disorienting and stressful time. Help dismantle the weaponization of xenophobic traditions. Like it or not, we are all in this together.
Take care, stay healthy and stay tuned dear Marshmallow Peeps!