My first memorable experience moving to Columbia was the 1,000-year flood. The National Guard was camped out for days in my neighborhood, and we couldn’t find a hot cup of coffee anywhere around town. Knowing very few people at the time, I felt depressed, isolated and most of all anxious for things to go back to normal.
During that time, the #ColumbiaStrong hashtag emerged, which became a symbol of the resilience that the community demonstrated through the collective trauma that was experienced. The flood seems so far away now, five years later, but if you look, its effects are still eerily present, especially for some of our most marginalized neighbors and communities.
COVID-19 feels like a more overwhelming and longer version of that flood — although I now have family and friends here — with the same call for South Carolina to be resilient. As a public health researcher who studies resilience and adversity among children and families, I’m the first to recognize that resilience is an important trait, one that a community is able to demonstrate through trust, collective identity and protective resources and supports. It’s a word I use a lot to describe the opportunities and supports that every family in every community needs to ensure that every child can live their fullest potential.
But there’s a fine line between using the term resilience as an opportunity for us to be proactive to help communities and using the term to deny accountability and burden our communities with finding ways to adapt to the arrival of COVID-19 without strong public health policies. And I believe the latter use of this term is why South Carolina is on track to fall to the bottom of public health rankings again.
We were the last state on the East Coast to institute a stay-at-home order, or what we call a “home-or-work” order. Over and over again, we heard from the state’s leadership that it was unnecessary, although we continued to see a rise in cases and mortality associated with the virus. Gov. Henry McMaster has gone so far as to say that South Carolina is not like other states. One point I’ll agree with him on is that South Carolina is unique, but not in the way that he may believe. South Carolina is unique because COVID-19 gave us an opportunity to prioritize prevention, to improve the health and well-being of all South Carolinians. It gave us the opportunity to change social norms, improve public health infrastructure, strengthen communities and break the cycle of being at the bottom for every public health indicator. Instead we’ve chosen to fall back to this idea of resilience in which the burden is on us as citizens of this state to do the right thing on our own.
There is an abundance of research to show that our choices are not fully autonomous, that our behaviors are shaped by our social networks, communities, environments and policies around us. Called the social determinants of health, this body of evidence shows that these factors can influence us to make healthy choices or, in many cases, unhealthy ones. Resilience is greatly determined by these determinants; it isn’t a trait that we are born with or just learn on our own. To depend on our individual resilience as a collective force against COVID-19 is irresponsible and detrimental to our state’s future. It ensures that our health inequities continue to exist, and communities remain fragmented.
Perhaps most importantly, just because we are resilient doesn’t mean we are doing well. We deserve to be well. That means promoting policies and social distancing practices that benefit us all and fairly distribute the burdens of this unprecedented time. A resilient South Carolina is defined by more than overcoming COVID-19; it means being able to move forward in a way that we are all prepared and supported to thrive under our new normal. We must be collectively equipped as a community to help our businesses, our schools and, most importantly, our neighbors to bounce back. This won’t happen through decisions last minute or under political pressure, but through intentional and bold decisions for our greater good. That’s what #SouthCarolinaStrong means.
Dr. Aditi Srivastav Bussells lives in Columbia and received her doctorate in public health from the University of South Carolina. Her research expertise is in health disparities, childhood resilience and health policy.