Our leaders and our neighbors have failed us.
It’s been horrifying watching the downward spiral of America. When people first realized that COVID-19 was indeed coming to the United States — that we couldn’t ward it off with our belief that we were somehow an exception — there was a sense of widespread unity and community that I had never felt before. Families used chalk to write well wishes on the sidewalk. Moms and dads placed teddy bears in their windows so that children would have something to look for during their walks (one of the main methods of entertainment over this time). Friends and families around the country gathered via Zoom to play games together.
Gradually, people got tired of thinking about the suffering and death that was going on all around us. Because the pandemic affected different parts of the world and country at different times, it lulled us into a false sense of security. First, we “othered” the countries that were currently epicenters for COVID-19. Next, we “othered” New York, New Jersey, and other northeastern states, believing that they would be the only ones who would ultimately be affected by the Pandemic in the United States. Now, we’re othering the states and counties that border our own. We traded our sense of community and good-will with the belief that “ it can’t happen here.”
Desperate to fulfill our fundamental need for human connection, we pretended that we could impose our desire for normalcy onto reality. More and more, we let our guard down. We decided it was okay if we went to just one or two friends’ houses to visit. And going to a restaurant couldn’t hurt, especially if we sat outside. And, hey, we were doing all of these things and still hadn’t gotten sick, so clearly we didn’t really need to wear masks either (if we ever wore one to begin with). Soon enough, we were visiting anyone we wanted, drinking in crowded bars, and laughing at people who wore masks. Of course, these actions only prolonged the time we would need to socially distance.
“We pretended that we could impose our desire for normalcy onto reality.”
We became complacent with the idea that people were just going to die, that death had to be okay for the sake of the economy. We had to think about all of the businesses that were suffering right now, the families who were out of work waiting for the economy to get up and running again. (This is not at all to downplay the reality of these Americans, who I’ve regularly thought about and intensely empathized with during this pandemic.) While small businesses suffered, larger organizations padded their pockets, paying for commercials that capitalized on the tough times we’re all experiencing. These well wishes, of course, happening at the same time that meat packing plants and companies like Dole refused to close despite hundreds of employees being sick with COVID-19.
Ultimately, these decisions didn’t affect the well-off in our community — some people were able to wall ourselves off from the virus, get food delivered to our front door, work from home in our extra bedroom. These decisions most affected black and brown Americans who have been subjected to institutionalized, systemic, and individual racism their entire lives — people who didn’t have the choice to work from home, or had pre-existing health conditions, or visited racist doctors. Black Americans have died at 2.3 times the rate that white Americans have died from COVID-19. And as black and white Americans protest in the streets against the gross injustices placed on black people for centuries — murdered by cop, health and education disparities, among many others — some people look at that statistic and still don’t recognize its significance.
Reopening the economy never meant helping Americans. Reopening the economy was meant to serve corporations, the wealthy, and whites. We gave people the choice: death by COVID-19 or death by starvation? So many other first-world countries figured out unique ways to create job and fiscal security for their citizens. They found a way to make things work so that everyone could have access to food, water, shelter… and soap. People were able to cope with the communal stress and anxiety of a global pandemic without the added personal stress of not knowing if they could feed their families.
Where do we go from here? I’m angry. We should all be angry. Every day that passes and states experience an all-time high of new COVID-19 patients, I think about where we’re going to be in just a few short weeks. I think about the thousands of people who will needlessly die. We do things that are bad for us all the time — smoking, eating meat, not exercising. Most of the time these choices only impact ourselves. I have to wonder how those individuals who refuse to wear masks and social distance will look back at this time in a few years. Will they finally be ashamed of their selfishness then?
Originally published at http://plantanewfuture.com on June 27, 2020.