COVID and the confusing nature of You and I

April 13, 2020

"In those years, people will say, we lost track

of the meaning of we, of you

we found ourselves

reduced to I"

—Adrienne Rich


Dear Family,

I have been having anger management issues. “How can we have such a terrible health care system that costs more per person than any other industrialized country!?” I rage to myself, to my long-suffering husband, to whomever dares to ask me how I’m doing. “How can political and public health priorities be so out of whack that we are suddenly shutting down entire economies in order to face a virus, even when rising death tolls from pollution and car accidents and poverty and opioid addiction and climate change barely even warrant political lip service, forget about political action??” I’ve been raging about the Too-Little-Too-Late perspective that has experts and the rest of us suddenly debating public policy and vaccine research and infection without ever going back to basics to ask: how do we best support human health and immunity in the first place?

“Why don’t we collectively ALWAYS prioritize the best human health possible,” I fume, “and work to reverse the effects of chronic disease and chronic Energy Use/Consumption Patterns/Economic Priorities that have ravaged our populations, made us much more likely to die from infectious diseases and other factors, and have left an ever-growing gap between the richest few and the poorest many???”

Up until today, the lockdowns in all but 8 US states have been angering me more often than not, and I certainly haven’t been getting warm fuzzy patriotic feelings of Facing A Challenge, Collectively while I stay home enjoying my own happy life - despite how truly lovely it is. “Lockdowns are the bluntest of instruments!” I keep frowning and grouching. “They don’t help those who need it the most! They help a broken healthcare system to limp along while remaining broken, they allow wealthy citizens to avoid infection for longer, and disproportionately DON’T help poor people avoid getting sick. Without metrics to allow decision makers to determine How Flat Is Flat Enough, the concept of Flattening the Curve is meaningless. Plus, there is very little chance that anyone will avoid being exposed in time to a virus this contagious, unless a person is legitimately quarantined AND willing to remain so until a vaccine is developed.”

Incidentally, I am personally uninterested in technological (vaccine) approaches to fixing this situation. Technology is not what we are lacking, in my opinion, even though I am not anti-technology, and I fully respect that many people will choose to get a COVID 19 vaccine when it is available. That is a personal choice. But in my personal opinion, vaccines and technology cannot save us from something requiring (at the risk of exposing myself as the atheist spiritual hippie that I am) our hearts, minds, innovative thinking, community building and compassion, not to mention an entirely different set of economic and ecological and spiritual priorities, along with many frank discussions concerning the meaning of health and life and the nature of death. Social isolation is only about changing the timing of a few deaths, and barely begins to acknowledge the value of life - and surely it would be better to discuss ideal ways of controlling exposure for those most vulnerable to death from COVID 19, rather than, as usual, making relative Richness and Poorness the same old determinant going forward?

I know about the silver linings: less pollution over major cities, more time with family, more calm for those of us lucky enough to have food and shelter in which to hunker down. But still I say balefully, “I can’t agree with any action that isn’t THOUGHTFUL! Relative risk matters, and fear of an infectious disease isn’t somehow more worthy of priority than all the other things that are causing death in this world! There are MANY important reasons to reduce our travel, reduce our use of fossil fuels - reduce our industrialized consumption, period. It’s just no good if these things are Happy Accidents that are just gonna get reversed as soon as the lockdowns are over.”

I cry when I read about the luxury that only some Americans have - a comfortable house in which to shelter and work from, plus money for food - while a lockdown is basically an impossibility for millions of vulnerable Americans who are now at greater risk of not only getting the virus (which they are already getting and dying from disproportionately to wealthy white persons), but also of starvation, homelessness, and all sorts of other hazards of Not Being Rich in a market economy that’s riddled with institutionalized racism and classism. Plus, let us not forget about the ramifications this “social distancing” will have on those who live alone, already suffer from mental health challenges, or have a medium-sized problem with Complaining Too Much about things outside her circle of influence...

People I care about have gently pointed out: the lockdowns might save some lives. Maybe many lives. Isn’t that a good enough reason to be okay with them? Also, things weren’t great for those vulnerable people before! And you didn’t care about it so much three weeks ago...

Which causes me to say furiously: “No, those are NOT good enough reasons! That’s called not-counting the collateral damage, or ignoring non-COVID deaths!”

But Sara, here we are: this is what’s happening. This is how most of the world is responding to a pandemic virus. And that economy of which you speak? Something was gonna have to bring it down - if not this, than Something Else.

And guess what? I have no arguments against that. Which makes my opponent - er, kind and loving family member - sigh a little with relief.

But wait! I can still self-flagellate! “That IS one of the points! The pandemic is a slap in the face and a chance to look around. See what’s going on outside of my comfortable bubble. Notice the ways I personally live that aren’t in line with my values. And to decide: is that okay? Am I okay with the choices I make and the sacrifices I do and don’t make, and the privileges I exercise!”

And that’s when my loved ones sigh slightly and say, What is your point again? I thought we were talking about public health...

So, right. Can I personally change the course of public health policy in this country? Definitely not at this time. Will my super-annoyed raging concerning the new emphasis on Wearing Masks As Most Important Public Health Strategy make any difference at all except to lower morale among my inner circle? Should I read the news and watch for signs of totalitarianism and fascism and speak out when I do? (Speaking of: the How To Be A Successful Revolutionary handbook didn’t get delivered to my mailbox. I’m seeing some signs, for good and certain: now what?!) Should I fret and rail and complain and lecture to my immediate family, the only people lucky enough to hang out with me for the foreseeable future? Probably not nearly as frequently as I’ve been doing, I have been tactfully informed.

Perhaps there are only a few questions in all of this which I am fully qualified to answer: Do I feel, in the process of this wake-up face-slap pandemic situation, that the way I have been living my own life up until now is an acceptable amalgamation of my desires and privilege and constraints and moral responsibility?

And upon that line of questioning I am not nearly as clear as I am on many other opinions I hold. My anger suddenly dissolves when I sit and quiet my mind: We Are Here. Right now. Where will I go, and what will I do, and what can I see inside my heart when the bitterness slips away?

I will be pondering.

How about you? What is in your heart, and how are you doing? And where do you want to go from here?



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