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. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. – Arundhati Roy, April 2020
This weekend marks two years since COVID knocked on our collective door and uprooted our global lives. Those early days were filled with so much fear and so many unknowns. The week the pandemic became official, many Americans had no idea that COVID had even been heading our way. It was a shock to our system, and the American government’s inability to give us straight answers on things as basic as whether we should mask or not only added to the confusion.
Remember the early rush on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and all things bleach-related?
Those early days were terrifying because we didn’t know anything and our government at the time was headed by an incompetent and cruel man. Yet even at that moment the American government mustered enough pretense to look like it cared. A halt on evictions, a pause on student loan payments, stimulus payments, loans to keep business afloat. Those temporary actions gave us a brief glimpse into what could be possible if we turned away from the heartless nature of capitalism and embraced a culture of caring for all. If, as Arundhati Roy said, we took this pandemic as the opportunity to examine an unspeakable horror and turn it into a portal for change.
However, human nature is what it is—often not seeking the highest states—a problem further exacerbated by living in a society that values the individual over the collective. Furthermore, this is a place where our elected officials tend to care more about winning than well-being—and they assume themselves to be wise even when they are ignorant of public health—and they made an important and terrible decision after those first few months of the pandemic. They decided the goal was not to change for the better but rather to fight to get us back to “normal” as soon as possible.
By late 2020, masks and mandates had become divisive and any sense of the collective was deeply fractured, but with the presidential election looming, we held hope that a new president would tamp down the divisions and we would follow the science. Perhaps we could listen to the epidemiologists and others who understand that a new virus such as COVID means we have to adjust as needed, as new information becomes available.
Sadly, that would not be the case. Make no mistake, the Biden administration fought a valiant fight—as did numerous Democratic governors across the country—to keep people safe, but the vitriol and the lingering duration of the pandemic became too much. Their will faltered.
Which is no doubt why a few weeks ago, in his first State of the Union address, President Biden essentially told the American people that it was time to move on beyond COVID—it is time to enter the post-pandemic phase of life. Despite less-than-stellar vaccination rates across the country and variants brewing in the background—variants that are currently creating surges in other countries that, since the arrival of COVID, have served as a harbinger of things to come for us. No, it’s no longer a time to be diligent and concerned with the collective good or long-term physical and societal health. Rather, it was time to unmask and get our butts back in our offices, since even though many of us can do our jobs just as well and with less adverse impact to ourselves or the environment from our homes, we can’t let rich people who sell or rent commercial real estate suffer.
Suddenly, masking is a thing of the past. The CDC, which less than a month ago said most of America was swimming in COVID, is now telling us that most of America is at low risk for COVID.
To really carry out the ruse that all is well, it seems funding for COVID is being cut, so all the COVID-related safety items that Biden told us about in his SOTU address are in jeopardy. According to Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, by May the current supply of monoclonal antibody drugs used to treat COVID will “stock out.” By July, the administration will run out of another antibody drug, Evoshield, that was recently authorized to prevent COVID in people with immune deficiencies.
I will be the first to say that I am so tired of pandemic life. I find masks to be uncomfortable, especially the N95s I started wearing when Omicron arrived. I miss being able to get up and have brunch in a restaurant. I miss the carefree days of just going places and having conversations with people in crowded spaces. While I don’t wish to return to the life I lived in 2019, which involved 130 days of travel, there are days when homeschooling and working from home are hard and I would like to be working around other people. Yet, these are not normal times and part of keeping myself and others safe is making sacrifices for the greater good.
Especially when there are no approved vaccines for humans under the age of 5 and millions of immuno-compromised people.
In two years’ time, we have lost almost a million Americans to COVID. Millions more are living with the disabling effects of long COVID—and only now is it becoming common knowledge that COVID is not just a respiratory issue but also a vascular one. Knowing a few folks with long COVID, including one of my employees, I am scared of following in their footsteps. Right now, the projections are that anywhere from 10% to 40% of COVID survivors are dealing with lingering issues related to their initial COVID infection. That has serious implications not just for personal well-being and lifespans but for the health of a country that doesn’t really have a proper healthcare safety net in place for the masses.
The thing that makes this moment so heartbreaking is the mass assumption and delusion that if the Democratic party was in charge, the pandemic would be handled more humanely. But watching Biden tell us it is time to move on chilled me to my core. And to see Democratic governors now walking back their care and concern for the sake of the upcoming midterm elections was a masterclass in watching whiteness work.
Whiteness lacks the ability to care for the collective unless it involves capitalism. It sells its soul to maintain the status quo, because it lacks the ability to lean into uncertainty and discomfort.
It is safe to say that as days became weeks, weeks became months, and months became two years, whiteness reared its head and said: “Enough!” Despite the clear evidence that declaring a premature victory over a virus racing across the planet is foolish at best and would lead to countless more infections and thus more death and permanent disability.
It is even more troubling because it was just last year that the Biden administration and the CDC declared victory, only to have to deal with a variant that could suddenly penetrate the protection of our vaccines.
The current downturn in COVID is more about the precautions that were re-enacted in the wake of the Omicron variant than the virus magically dying out. Yet magical thinking is another hallmark of whiteness when it comes to dealing with the uncomfortable.
As I have written before, our approach to COVID is very reminiscent of our approach to racism and, in the end, very little changes. Except that we are talking about a pathogen that can kill us a bit quicker than racism or leave us disabled for life.
History shows us that pandemics are painful because humans are resistant to change. Therefore, it will take more than two years and a presidential proclamation to end this thing. Given that 57% of Americans have not been infected by COVID, global vaccination efforts are appalling and we have a deluded emphasis on “getting back to normal,” something tells me COVID has a lot more bodies to play with.
However, on this second anniversary of pandemic life, I take a moment to honor the lives lost globally, both directly and indirectly from COVID. I honor our collective sorrow and pain, as well as the growth and resilience of the human spirit that has also surfaced over the last two years. To sit with pain and to allow ourselves to feel is to say “no” to this white supremacist, capitalist system which strives to steal our humanity and souls.
We can still do better and find a new and better world on the other side of COVID. But will we?
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Image by Kobby Mendez via Unsplash,