Living With Difficult Family During the Pandemic
I live in a house divided, both in terms of political partisanship and in beliefs about the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic—though it seems these two things are becoming more and more inextricably linked.
I am not quite like the rest of my immediate family; my brother jokes that I was switched at birth. For starters, I am a Ph.D. student in Psychology, the first and only one in my immediate family to go to college, and, according to my brother, a “brainwashed” liberal to boot! Meanwhile, my dad and brother are politically conservative, and my mom describes herself as an independent (though she is quite conservative in some respects).
This comes as no surprise to me. My parents were, after all, born in Cuba, and Cuban-Americans tend to vote Republican, though this trend appears to be declining. What’s more, a lot of older Cubans, such as my late grandfather, who was held as a political prisoner in Cuba during the 60s and 70s, conflate “Democrat” with “Communist.” And, unfortunately, these beliefs sometimes trickle down to younger generations (that explains my younger brother!).
Since self-quarantining and working on my dissertation from home, I’ve spent the last few months forced to listen to my family have yelling matches about everything. From whether masks and social distancing are effective ways to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus to how many people have contracted and died of COVID-19 (and if it’s “just another flu”) to whether President Trump has done a good job of managing the pandemic.
I've tried to educate my dad and brother with facts from reputable sources, but how do you argue with people who don't trust the mainstream media or who scoff at the experts because “they’ve been wrong before?” I’ve tried to tell my mom that anyone can post videos on just about anything on YouTube, but how do you argue with someone prone to believing in conspiracy theories, sometimes even over credible sources? My (often) failed attempts to inform my family about the pandemic have left me frustrated and wondering whether it’s even worth it to engage in COVID-related discussions with people who hold strong opposing views, especially when you live with those people.
In general, it’s difficult to argue about emotionally laden topics, especially with people you love. It’s even harder to do so when you are stuck at home most of the day with those people because leaving the house to be with other people could put your health at risk. To live with people who reluctantly wear masks and get mad when you tell them to wash their hands after coming home. Almost every day, it’s a different fight, usually between my mom and brother—are the numbers as bad as they say? Is Dr. Fauci a reputable source if not everything he predicts comes true? Are the social distancing precautions worth the harm to businesses? —while I sometimes sit on the sidelines and wonder how the nuances of science and medicine can be lost on some people.
When I do chime in, my brother accuses me of being brainwashed by the “liberal media”. “It’s all hyped up,” he asserts. “They’re just trying to scare us.” And thanks to the latest viral (no pun intended) “theory” about mask-wearing—that doing so forces us to breathe in copious amounts of CO2 build-up —my brother swears that we are doing more detriment to our health by wearing them all day long than by hardly wearing them at all. But “that’s just [his] opinion,” he says as if his opinion equals fact.
No amount of degrees or familiarity with the scientific method—and its self-correcting nature—on my part could make my brother consider my points. Then again, he thinks Dr. Fauci, a physician who’s overseen the research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for more than 35 years, is an idiot. So why would he trust me? The problem is that what my brother lacks in knowledge, he makes up for in confidence--or perhaps arrogance. I, in contrast, am not someone who is willing to say something assertively as if it is an indisputable fact if I’m not sure that is the case. In fact, most scientists and public health officials are trained to highlight and live with uncertainty in their research— try as we might, there’s only so much you can know about the world, and especially this pandemic. So, sometimes I remain silent when he makes claims I’m not familiar with, which in turn makes him believe he is right. It’s a vicious cycle.
And that’s the issue with these kinds of arguments; they’re false dichotomies. You feel forced to pick a side: you either care about people’s livelihood, or you care about their lives.
And then there’s my dad, who insists the economy should be our number one priority. “People can’t afford to be out of work much longer,” he yelled at my mom after she ranted about the recent spikes in cases in Florida and our governor’s insistence on reopening non-essential businesses. “The economy can be revived!” she rebutted. “But we can’t revive people once they’re dead.”
And that’s the issue with these kinds of arguments; they’re false dichotomies. You feel forced to pick a side: you either care about people’s livelihood, or you care about their lives. My dad’s not wrong; people can’t afford to go without paychecks indefinitely. But then again, people wouldn’t be desperate to go back to work in the middle of a pandemic if we had better social safety nets—a federal government that didn’t believe $1200 was sufficient to live off of for months, more capable CEOs who were willing to provide paid leave to furloughed employees, etc. What’s more, prioritizing economic stability over public health is perhaps what’s made the US a leader in COVID-19 cases, even adjusting for population size.
Political psychology research says that people with conservative leanings also tend to be more cautious and fearful of things, including novelty and germs. So, you would think people like my dad and brother would be warier of something called the novel coronavirus. But loyalty to President Trump and concerns over his reelection chances have made everything all topsy-turvy. In fact, republicans appear to be less worried about the coronavirus than Democrats, according to data.
This is evident in my family. My dad and brother have been downplaying this public health crisis since day one, saying the flu killed more people last year (a now incorrect statement and an unfair comparison given that we haven’t yet had the coronavirus in the US for a whole year) and that COVID-19 is no big deal since most people survive it. They say these things, in large part, because they don’t want their president to look bad. Political partisanship is indeed one hell of a drug. But despite all their bluster about the CDC’s guidelines, my dad and brother thankfully still manage to wear their masks when they leave the house, if only because my mom and I badger them to do so.
It’s a bit easier for me to talk with my mom because, for the most part, she takes the pandemic and precautions seriously. On July 4th, for instance, when my brother insisted on going to a friend’s BBQ, my mother, concerned, asked him why he would do such a thing at a time like this.
“You wanna believe in the coronavirus? Go ahead, but I’m not gonna let it affect my life,” my brother shouted before leaving our house and slamming the door. How well guests at the BBQ adhered to mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines, I’ll never know, but my guess is not very well.
No amount of degrees or familiarity with the scientific method—and its self-correcting nature—on my part could make my brother consider my points.
But unfortunately, my mother frequently visits WhatsApp and Youtube, where misinformation spreads like wildfire. As a result, she’s come across her fair share of conspiracy theories, for example, regarding the origins of the coronavirus.
“No, mom, there is no evidence that China created the virus in a lab as a bioweapon,” I said. “Well, how do you know?! They’ve lied about their numbers. They could be lying about this too,” she replied.
I tried showing her an article debunking such a theory from a reputable news source in Spanish, her primary language. Still, her response was to ask me why I thought my sources were more reliable than hers.
“Because mine is a fact-checked source that draws conclusions from data and experts, while yours is full of unfounded speculations made by anyone with access to a smartphone.” At least that’s the idea I tried to convey to her, although less articulately in Spanish, I’ll admit, but it was met with eye-rolls and hand waving.
Some days it’s quiet on the home front; other days are full of confrontations and disagreements. So, what is a lone wolf like me to do in this situation but keep washing my hands, wearing masks, and trying to stay six feet away from my family at all times? At least I know I’m not the only one quarantined with difficult family members during this time. I have peers on the same boat--friends whose dads think the US will turn into a Communist dictatorship if Joe Biden wins the election in November and who blame China for the pandemic. My friends, too, have given up hope of ever helping their family come to their senses.
In general, it’s difficult to argue about emotionally laden topics, especially with people you love. It’s even harder to do so when you are stuck at home most of the day with those people because leaving the house to be with other people could put your health at risk.
“What’s the point?” one friend said to me the other day. “There’s no convincing the other side,” especially if they believe the pandemic is a hoax or at least an exaggeration of what’s going on.
Some people say we have a duty to challenge our family members when they express harmful, ignorant, or problematic views. It is a noble pursuit, although often futile because of how difficult (yet not impossible) it is to change someone’s deeply held beliefs. Others, like some of my friends, choose to prioritize their mental and emotional health over conflict with their loved ones. I remain somewhere in between, correcting my family whenever I feel confident in doing so.
But when that backfires—and it often does—I can always hide away in my room and socially distance from them, at least until the next argument.
This story is donated to the University of Miami Libraries Distinctive Collections Documenting COVID-19. For more up-to-date information, please visit https://coronavirus.gov