by Meghan Rankins ’20

On Wednesday, April 29th, the Instagram and Twitter account @wildcatwatchers exposed Davidson College student and Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) member Maya Pillai ‘21 for starting the Facebook group ReopenMeck, a movement inspired by ReopenNC. Both groups are pressuring Charlotte officials and Governor Roy Cooper to end their respective stay-at-home orders. Similar groups across the country have accosted politicians and healthcare workers, claiming that state governments need to end these orders in order to “save the economy,” even at the cost of individual lives. Signs from these protests range from “I need a haircut” to comparing quarantine to prison and enslavement. Videos depicting Reopen America participants dancing to a cover of “YMCA,” replacing the famed letters with “MAGA,” and carrying guns into state buildings reveal who most of these people really are: violent, White supremacist terrorists.

While COVID-19 has been and will continue to be devastating to the economy, it is clear that Pillai and other Reopen protesters believe that individual lives, particularly those who are Black, Brown, disabled, fat, or low-income, are expendable for the sake of America’s oppressive capitalist machine. Not only do we have to bail out American capitalism every eight to ten years with taxpayer dollars, but now Reopen advocates and governors are also asking us to feed it with our lives and our families. State governments that are ending their stay-at-home orders, such as Georgia’s, are only doing so to reduce the number of people on unemployment, forcing many into dangerous, life-threatening situations. Such a decision would cause COVID-19 cases to drastically increase across the United States, overwhelming hospitals and healthcare workers, like my mother, to the point of exhaustion and lethality as we have seen in New York City. 

As historians of past pandemics argue, capitalists continue to sacrifice lives for their own profit. Dr. Paul Kelton, professor of American History at Stony Brook University and the first of many speakers to participate in the History Department’s “Social Distancing Lecture Series,” underscores this fact in his work on the 1830s cholera epidemic. Kelton studies three groups that the epidemic devastated in the United States: Irish immigrants, enslaved Black people, and Native people, particularly the Choctaws. In all three of these groups, clear themes of classism, racism, and exploitation for profit emerge. Irish immigrants perished because investors refused to lose funds from northern canal construction. Enslaved people died because White slave owners demanded free, coerced labor, leading to huge outbreaks in slave-trading hubs such as Charleston and New Orleans. Finally, Andrew Jackson forced Native people off of their land so that White colonists could cultivate it and make a profit, causing many Native people to contract the disease  on the Trail of Tears. Like the Reopen advocates and governors of open states today, these investors, slave owners, and the president (then and now) privileged White accumulation of wealth at the expense of people’s lives. 

Today, construction work continues as an “essential business” despite North Carolina’s stay-at-home order. Yet, the majority of construction work that persists is for non-essential projects, such as the QuikTrip gas station near my home that will soon rival the BP across the street. The majority of those working at this site are people of color. Construction only continues so that investors do not pull funding and so that the state does not have to financially support these workers. At Davidson, renovations continue on Richardson Hall. The college has also jumpstarted new projects such as building a new roof for the Baker Sports Complex that was originally scheduled for the summer. While discussions circulate about dining service workers’ and other staff’s hours being reduced, Davidson funds these projects that could easily be delayed until conditions are safe. Reopening North Carolina and America will only force other workers to take on such an “essential capacity” because they cannot afford to stay home. Meanwhile, majority White, privileged individuals, myself included, can continue to isolate and work from home.

What the Reopen movements also forget to consider is that the stay-at-home order and social distancing protocols are working. North Carolina is actively flattening its curve. The peak which was supposed to occur mid-April is now projected for early-June. It is only because of the measures we have taken that we have avoided overwhelming our healthcare industry in the Tar Heel state. Reopening when COVID-19 cases are still increasing will result in a progressive uptick in cases and will severely burden the healthcare industry. While COVID-19 lethality when there is complete access to care hovers at just under one percent, that death rate increases to three to five percent in the United States where resources are slim.  

My mother who is a family physician in Guilford County, one of the soon-to-be hotspots in North Carolina, tells me “she is not worried about right now” under the stay-at-home order. Rather, “after is when we need to worry.” From Denver, Colorado to Raleigh, North Carolina, other healthcare workers have demonstrated against the Reopen movements. Like those on the frontlines of this pandemic, we must recognize the inherent systems of oppression that influence the politics of reopening and understand that if we “return to normal” too soon, living, breathing human beings with families, dreams, and ambitions will be denied care, and they will die. 

We are far from the end of this pandemic. As the spikes in COVID-19 cases in Georgia and other open states show, ending stay-at-home is dangerous and irresponsible. Pillai’s quote, “It’s important that we restore our economy and get it back on track,” but “at the same time, I do recognize that there are people testing positive on a daily basis and the death count is rising as well,” demonstrates hers and others’ willingness to sacrifice people for capitalism and profit. Individuals who must now return to work will face greater risk. More people will be hospitalized, potentially triggering emergency triage protocols that strictly benefit White, able-bodied, and cis-gendered people.

It is clear that those who advocate for reopening have likely never lost a loved one due to a lack of access to care. Because if they had, they would understand that the feeling of loss when a death was preventable is a grief like no other. If we reopen, this loss will become an unbearable reality for Americans across the country. When this is all over, I hope we can reflect on our actions and congratulate ourselves for the lives we saved rather than the corporate profit margins we maximized.

Meghan Rankins ’20 is a senior History major and Gender & Sexuality Studies minor. Contact her at merankins@davidson.edu.