“To live entirely for oneself in private is a huge luxury, a luxury countless aspects of this society encourage, but like a diet of pure foie gras it clogs and narrows the arteries of the heart. This is what we’re encouraged to crave in this country, but most of us crave more deeply something with more grit, more substance.”
“What makes people heroic and what makes them feel members of a community? I hoped that one thing to come out of the end of American invulnerability would be a stronger sense of what disasters abroad – massacres, occupations, wars, famines, dictatorships – mean and feel like, a sense of citizenship in the world.”Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
One of the events I was really looking forward to next month was writer Rebecca Solnit’s book tour visit to promote her new memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence. Instead, I will just quote heavily from her book Hope in the Dark in this dark moment of our history. I keep seeing the word “unprecedented” to describe this experience of a global pandemic. In some respects, of course, that’s accurate. The rapidity of the virus’s spread and the drastic containment and mitigation measures we’ve needed to take because of a slow, inadequate federal response has not happened in most of our lifetimes. This is a tale of multiple crises –the political leadership crisis compounding the health crisis to create an enormous public health disaster that will likely precipitate an economic crisis the extent of which is difficult to predict.
But what Solnit’s book argues is that we have been here before; though the details are different, the lessons we can learn from history, especially the hidden histories that we too often overlook, can help us figure out the way forward when the future is unknown and unwritten, when the darkness of that unknown might lead us to despair. The immediate context for the passages quoted above is the 9/11 terrorist attacks and she’s talking about activism and social change. With a high stakes presidential election on the horizon, the current moment was already fraught with danger before this pandemic revealed all the ways we have failed to learn the lessons of 9/11 and those brief moments of community and heroism that followed. More divided and distrustful, more trapped by fear-driven policies since 2001, America is more vulnerable than ever before to tyranny and economic collapse, and our response to the coronavirus crisis is inseparable from the political fight of 2020.
All the experts tell us we are well beyond containment, because we failed to do aggressive testing for the virus early on. Given that widespread testing is still not readily available, all we can try to do is mitigate the rate of spread and “flatten the curve” so that hospital systems aren’t overwhelmed. We’ve all seen the graphs, right?: charting the rates of infection in Italy vs. South Korea; showing the impact that social distancing can have on flattening the curve; comparing the actions of the Philadelphia and St. Louis mayors in the face of the 1918 flu epidemic.
And yet, the public health challenge is how to bridge the gap between knowing what needs to be done and getting people to do it. Why is social distancing so difficult? So many reasons.
I’m not talking about people who can’t (healthcare workers and emergency responders, service industry workers with no paid sick days or childcare, those in nursing homes, prisons, detention centers and the essential staff needed there), but those who can and should, yet who downplay the risks or think the risks somehow don’t apply to them. I’ve heard reports of older people, one of the most vulnerable populations, who can’t be convinced to stay home, because they feel they’ve lived through worse and the dangers are overblown. It’s difficult to change our comfortable routines so drastically, of course; to forgo social lives not only for ourselves but for our children; to be told we can no longer do all the things that give our days order, meaning, and pleasure. I admit I wondered about some of the extreme measures at first, too. Can’t we still take the kids to the movies and just not sit near other people? Do we really just not go out at all? We’re all healthy; surely letting the kids play with their friends can’t be too bad as children don’t seem as vulnerable to the virus.
But it very quickly became clear that we were fooling ourselves if we thought a half-assed, kinda-sorta social distancing was going to cut it. “Asymptomatic carriers” means any of us could be transmitting the virus to others. And that’s the problem. Without testing everyone, the vectors of exposure and infection remain invisible, and we could just as easily infect as be infected. That knowledge brings a necessary social responsibility.
Perhaps part of the difficulty is a failure of imagination. What does it take to project ourselves outward and really feel a “sense of citizenship in the world”? Flattening the curve requires us to care about people who are not us or not personally connected to us, even if those people are half-way around the world and don’t speak the same language. At one point, I wondered whether the slowness of the U.S. response was due to latent racism; thousands of Chinese people dying doesn’t unclog the hardened arteries of the U.S. policymaking heart, because it’s hard to imagine that what happened to “them” could happen to “us.” Every time Trump calls this the “Chinese virus,” my suspicions are confirmed. But it’s not just Trump; we’re all prone to this kind of distancing and depersonalization. Some distancing is necessary to function in a world full of endless tragedies, but to resist the permanent clogging and narrowing of our hearts requires a regular exercise of the imagination. Looking at video footage of the young Chinese doctor trying to warn us about the virus before he succumbed to it, I need to think, “what if that were my brother?” or seeing the obituary pages in the Italian papers circulating online, “what if it were my mother dying alone in a quarantined hospital bed?” It shouldn’t be such a big leap for most of us.
But If we take Solnit’s words to heart, that “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act,” that “hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope,” then we need to empathize not just with the victims, but with those on the frontlines trying to use their powers and knowledge to act. The doctors and nurses, epidemiologists, public health officials, scientists, and other experts trying to sway the politicians and the public with the clarity of what they know: we also need to imagine ourselves in their place and empower ourselves to act along with them: “Authentic hope requires clarity – seeing the troubles in this world – and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable.”
So, unprecedented times, yes. But also: we are shown to be vulnerable again, and there are plenty of precedents to teach us that in the face of any social crisis, we have essentially two choices: retreat into your private life as your resources allow or join in the collective struggle to make things better, to work together toward a future we want to live in when this is all over. The paradox of our current situation is that social distancing is an act of social solidarity and hope, a communal action based on the belief that what course this pandemic takes is in our hands. But it most certainly has costs. What moves me are all the community efforts springing up around me to help those hardest hit. I want to be part of that. And when we see the contrast between the current administration’s incompetence and indifference and the possibilities offered by Elizabeth Warren’s or Bernie Sanders’ plans for a different America, I hope it motivates enough of us to action, to “write history with our feet and with our presence and our collective voice and vision.”
In short, #staythefuckhome but also make sure you vote.
If you missed it: #1 – March 15: social distance