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Honors Blog | Bridging the Social Distance | Elizabeth Chambers

A view of rooftops in Spain
The view from Elizabeth's window under lock down during a study abroad in Spain.

Every day we see on the news the growing number of American lives lost to Covid-19. In some sentence or paragraph after that there’s sometimes a note of a much larger figure—the global death toll. Why does it seem like an afterthought?

I’m a news junkie. Long before I interned at my local newspaper or tried my hand as an editor at UW’s student paper, I poured over news sites and funneled hours of my time into the feed of the latest headlines. Local, national, international—there’s too much going on in the world at once to stay up to date on it all, and I confess my attention was largely limited to stories most relevant to my life in my sparsely inhabited corner of Wyoming.

That changed when I moved to Spain to study abroad for the year. Alerts about a winter storm watch in Laramie were irrelevant compared to train strikes in Madrid or the latest Brexit updates as I planned trips around my new country and continent. My attention shifted from the endless political punditry of American politics to policy announcements of the European Union and coverage of Spain’s national election last fall. The more immersed I became in the language, the more I engaged with Spanish news, Spanish stories, Spanish life.  

That habit became a lifeline when the pandemic hit Europe, first crashing over Italy and then rippling into Spain. Local news is the fastest and often most reliable, while large media outlets and English-language versions of the same stories generally follow days after the fact. Unhelpful, or worse.

While chaos and very real fear erupted in Spain, then under a national lockdown and reeling from a skyrocketing number of infections, the news cycle in the US largely continued its useless debate over whether this was just an overly-hyped strain of the flu. The lead story was toilet paper flying off the shelves. Meanwhile, bodies overflowed in the morgues of Madrid.

My roommates and I gathered in our suitcase-strewn apartment so I could translate the latest news on the ground, like whether the airports were still open and if we’d be let in at the American border. With flight cancelations rolling in like fallen dominoes, we emailed the US embassy. We got an automatic reply. I emailed my Spanish homework from the week before to one of my professors. She replied to call her if I needed help with anything, anything at all.

A month later, and I’m back in the US, still trying to process the trauma of getting here and grapple with the loss of not only the study abroad experience I thought I’d have but also the global losses of this pandemic.

Every day I read the news, but I don’t stop at the stories about the United States. I read about Spain, and I worry about my elderly neighbors who I chatted with every day in the elevator. I read about the United Kingdom, and I worry about the generous innkeeper and his family who I met in northern Scotland. I read about Japan, and I worry about the girl I sat next to in Spanish cinema class. I read about people affected all over the world, and my heart breaks for them.

Before I studied abroad in Spain, I never gave much thought to the way we talk about American lives like they’re more valuable than others. A terrorist attack abroad kills dozens—the headline is about two American victims. An earthquake kills hundreds—the first line is about the few vacationing Americans. Now that this crisis has hit the US, we’re hard pressed to devote any attention to the suffering of other countries. That narrowness extends to our help, with mutually damaging moves like banning the export of protective gear and other medical supplies.

If I’ve learned anything from study abroad, it’s empathy. Empathy regardless of the color someone’s passport, or whether they have a piece of paper with permission to stand on the ground under their feet. Because the ground has moved from under all of us, and we have to help each other get through this, no matter where we’re from or where we find ourselves now. We’re in this together.

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