Living on a barrier island off the coast of Maine serves as a great locale for watching human behavior in the midst of a pandemic. After watching day-trippers and tourists drive around the island in the midst of a steady rain, I have come to conclude that we, the collective, aren’t well at all.
I am no public health official, though I did study African American Health & Wellness, but I can say with confidence that our country’s approach to tackling COVID feels vaguely reminiscent of how we deal with racism. We sugarcoat reality, are unable to sit with discomfort, and most lack the tenacity to go the distance so we can be better other people. We also focus far too much on the individual rather than the systems and structures that allow racism to thrive or COVID to mutate into more virulent strains. Delta anyone?
Here in the United States, we are a country that was founded on literal stolen land, built with the labor of stolen and enslaved people. These facts are indisputable and yet a sizable percentage of the U.S. population would prefer that we pretend these truths never happened. So much so that in many areas of the country, the truth is becoming illegal.
Likewise with COVID, many would rather pretend that the few safety mechanisms that we have to keep ourselves safe from COVID be ignored and would rather deny the truth of this pandemic. Despite the fact that over 4 million people worldwide have died from COVID, 1.5 million children have become orphaned as a result of COVID, and untold numbers are living with long-haul COVID problems.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Arundhait Roy wrote a thought-provoking piece on the early days of COVID that declared: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
For many of us at that time, there was a sense that as awful as things were, at least at that time, perhaps COVID would humble us and serve as a springboard for the creation of new ways that could honor our collective humanity.
Fast-forward over a year later, and it’s safe to say that COVID has become less a portal to a new world and more of a mirror to show us just how broken we are as a society—and in the United States, our brokenness has mutated into the most ugly and extreme form of individualism. Even as I write this, once again our numbers are surging, but millions of citizens and many of our elected officials refuse to take safety precautions to keep us safe. Instead, the general consensus is that we must get on with our lives and not allow COVID to get us down—also known as “we must keep the wheels of capitalism churning at all costs.”
But the thing is, when people have reached a place of truly not being well, it comes out—one way or the other. Since the charade of normal kicked into full gear several months ago, we have been bombarded with stories declaring there is a lack of labor in the service industries. Restaurants literally don’t have enough help and vacation hubs like where I live are operating on shortened hours due to a lack of staffing. Even summer sleepaway camps, according to this piece, have struggled with having enough staffing, since it turns out the usual way of staffing many camps and summer-only establishments is using international seasonal workers, who for myriad reasons are not available this season.
In other words, for far too many businesses their “success” requires intentionally exploiting others, and in a COVID world many workers have decided that their personal safety matters more than JImbo’s Crab Shack or Break From Our Progeny Summer Camp.
While many want a rapid return to normal and putting COVID behind us, there are emerging pockets of consciousness in our society. People who are looking at the connection between race, class, and COVID to see how it is all intertwined and recognizing that something has to give.
In the last year and a half, inequality has increased exponentially, Black folks and other people of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID, and by all indicators our life expectancies in 2020 decreased at a greater percentage than white life expectancies. Many communities of color saw the ravages of COVID up close and personal, whereas for far too many white communities COVID and its resulting realities did not strike quite as close to home—though, with the Delta variant, that seems to be changing, seen in such actions as the GOP more eagerly encouraging vaccination as its voters begin to die off more.
We are currently standing at the crossroads of betwixt and between, one where our racial history, class inequity, and COVID are all demanding more of us. The continued denial of reality among so many of us does not bode well for any of us. We can’t go back to what we called normal, because it no longer exists. Our current attempts at normal are killing us in a multitude of ways, and contributing to the global surge in COVID cases. At some point, we must reckon with reality before reality reckons with us and, in doing so, allow for the acknowledgement that much of what we cling to is no good.
While I don’t believe all hope is lost, I will say that this pandemic has revealed wounds that are far deeper than I even imagined. We are in need of a collective healing, so that these puss-infected wounds of American culture don’t taint the next phase of American life. However, our healing will require acknowledgment and acceptance of our condition, so that a proper treatment plan for the greater good can be started.
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