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The Ties That Bind and Suffocate

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).

Cuban rebel soldiers in the Habana Hilton foyer, January, 1959. Many Cubans fled the country during and after the Cuban revolution, including Vanessa's parents; the majority of them settled in Florida. (Lester Cole/Corbis)

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, Ive 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.


A COVID-19 checkpoint sign in Florida. (mchebby/Getty Images)

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-wearingthat 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.