Opinion: We are at war with COVID-19; we cannot afford to be at war with each other

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal ran a photo of my Colorado College classmates and me during Champagne Showers, an end-of-the-year tradition on campus for seniors. We immediately became the unwilling face of a story headlined, “A Generational War is Brewing Over Coronavirus.”

Confused and offended by the misinterpretation, I wrote to the authors.

The Journal removed the photo, and the paper acknowledged “the headline incorrectly implied that the students were among the number of young people not taking the threat of coronavirus seriously.”

My letter to the editor was allowed only 270 words. Here is the full version, written from my self-mandated and expert-recommended quarantine in New Mexico.

The photo they ran might be worth a thousand words — but "war" isn’t one of them.

Let me offer a timeline.

Five days before this photo, I called our campus coronavirus hotline on my own roommate, because she’d brought a friend over who had been at the same hospital in Colorado Springs that a coronavirus patient visited.

Less than 24 hours before this photo, the U.S. president said we should "stay calm and it will go away." Eighteen hours before this photo, the remainder of our college experience was abruptly (albeit necessarily) taken from us.

Twenty minutes before this photo, we received an email urging us to move out all essential and non-essential belongings, "if not all of them," before we departed campus — for many of us, that afternoon. In fact, standing atop the flagpole platform on my sudden last day of college with tears in my eyes as I prepared to pop my bottle of champagne, I vividly remember surveying the surrounding area, relieved that no older-looking individuals were present.

At this time, less than a week ago, the importance of "social distancing" was barely even circulating in media.

An hour after the photo, with champagne in our hair and tears wiped from our faces, we scrambled to pack. We made hasty decisions about what we would need for the unforeseeable future, what we wouldn’t, what could fit in our cars, in carry-on bags, in storage units we hadn’t reserved. We asked questions, of which none of us knew the answers: What do we do with the shared kitchen items? How do I take an intensive laboratory-based class online? Will they let us retrieve items we

can’t take within the next hour? Even though school is canceled, is there a chance commencement isn’t? And, worst of all: Will we see each other again? Is this goodbye?

The reality of this devastatingly unfortunate situation is that it is escalating exponentially.

Each day since this photo, I’ve socially distanced at every opportunity. On a run, I saw an elderly man using a walker coming up the street, and quickly darted to the opposite sidewalk. I got home from the airport and immediately threw my "plane clothes" in the washing machine.

I told my mom to tell my grandma — I didn't have the heart to tell her myself — that, even though she lives five minutes from us, I cannot visit her for, minimally, two weeks. And for a woman who has lived through the brutal realities of World War II and every other war since, I can confidently say on her behalf that she does not feel at war with a “youth” like myself who has not once taken this situation lightly.

I am not an anomaly — I know my friends and fellow classmates, including those in the Wall Street Journal photo, are navigating this just as seriously as I am. Which is why the headline was shockingly misleading.

For Colorado College seniors, champagne showers — traditionally taking place on the last day of the spring semester — symbolize so much more than "carefree youths” partying. Champagne showers represent four years of grit, perseverance, promise of the future — regardless of how

uncertain it is — and the culmination of shared experience manifesting itself in joy and celebration (and bubbles, whether Brut or Extra Dry).

But this year, champagne showers represented even more: fear, uncertainty, gratitude, but above all, one final opportunity for us to celebrate together one last time. The champagne shower symbolized everything else we had yet to experience as college seniors, including graduation — the most important milestone in many of our lives up until this point, and something my classmates and I care deeply about missing out on. So I can promise you — we are anything but "carefree."

This photo was taken March 11, before social distancing guidelines were in place, let alone even trending in the press. We were not actively "defying" these rules; we were living in a moment which stood for so many un-lived moments.

If any light can emerge out of this darkness that is a global pandemic, it should be unity, solidarity, and connection predicated upon similarities, not differences. The only way in which we should be

socially distant with one another is physically, as we have been presented with an opportunity to find common ground with those who seemed so different from ourselves just days ago.

We are at war with COVID-19; we cannot afford to be at war with each other.

— Catie McDonald