Early on in the pandemic, my family went into self-quarantine mode, before it was mandated by our state. We had been watching the numbers globally, and the numbers in hard-hit U.S. areas, and reasoned that it would be necessary for everyone to self-quarantine and social distance for a period of time, if we were going to be able to manage the pandemic in a way that would not be devastating to human life and the economy.
“We’re all in this together,” was the mantra, back then (and it seems so long ago). People posted pictures of themselves in their masks, and filled their hours of isolation replicating classical art. Essential workers were still going to work, but we were all cheering them on. Outside the Aldi where I shop, gaudy pillars were set up, emblazoned with the words “HEROES WORK HERE.”
I was leading an online poetry writing workshop during that time, focusing on writing poems in times of crisis. We read poems addressing war, colonialism, and racial violence. We wrote about our own experiences of isolation, about the sudden change that had come upon us. My father died during that time, and I connected that loss with the overall sense of a communal loss of a routine way of life, a loss of sense of control over our future.
Many of the poems that I wrote during that month feel irrelevant now, however. What I was addressing – loss, sorrow, lockdown, the race against uncertainty – failed to address the full cope of the crisis that we are now in. We are not all stockpiling beans and planting gardens. We are not waving to one another from windows.
We are not, it turns out, all in this together.
Our collective capacity to deal calmly with a crisis is apparently feeble indeed, because people very quickly decided that since quarantine was tiresome (there are only so many classical works of art one can replicate) it was time to end it. “I am sick of this!” is the mantra I am seeing, repeatedly – from adults, who ought to know that life is not about instant gratification, we can’t always get what we want, and facts, as right-wing pundits like to tell us, do not care about our feelings.
While citizens of other nations were able to lock down without economic anxiety, here in the U.S. fears about financial debilitation were pitted against fears of disease and death. Praise of health care workers quickly came to ring hollow, as we heard more and more stories of the exhaustion of those on the front lines. Referring to essential workers as “heroes” now looks like a cruel mockery, since we have not raised their wages, or provided the uninsured with insurance. While citizens of other nations were given robust financial support enabling them to stay home safely, the U.S. stimulus package was a crumb from the corporate table.
Our plan is inertia
And now the general consensus from Republican leadership appears to be that there’s nothing they can do, nothing anyone can do – in spite of the fact that other nations have done it. Because they and their constituency are terrified of any kind of social welfare support system as “communism” they are willing to accept the death of hundreds of thousands as an acceptable price to pay, just to keep the precious economy open. After all, the shareholders still seem to be doing well, and that’s what matters – not the person, not the common good, not the family, not a stable social order.
Now once again our populace is faced with a Scylla and Charybdis paradigm, as we contemplate the prospect of opening schools. If schools open, our children and their teachers will be in danger. The risk of spread will increase. If schools do not open – or if parents, fearing for their families’ safety, opt to homeschool – many parents will be out of work, since they have relied on schools for childcare. Women, especially women of color, will be disproportionately affected. Lives will be made miserable, mental health strained to breaking point. Power and capital will accrue more and more in the hands of the few, the white, the male, the affluent.
The nation is divided between those of us who are trying to figure out how best to act to preserve life and the common good – and those who have apparently succumbed to the hysteria of the conspiracy theorists, refusing to wear masks, rejecting science, even spitting on people in public and sometimes descending into outright violence. Wearing a mask ought to be mandated, but it is not. Instead, it has become a political dividing line. The idea that we could all come together and fix this by making minor sacrifices has been jettisoned. Now, because so many are unwilling to accept even the smallest slice of personal responsibility, many others have to make choices to curtail their own freedoms in order to make up the difference. And the tragedy is that, since we are not united in this, the sacrifices of those who care will likely be erased by the indifference of those who do not. Look at what the residents of New York City went through: weeks of extreme lockdown, sirens in the streets, health care workers strained to breaking point – and likely all for nothing, since so much of the rest of the nation is not squandering whatever safety was earned through their suffering.
The world watches in horror as our numbers go up. And the world closes its borders to us. It is clear now that we are not in this together, that we never were. Our culture, it is clear, has been predicated from the first on questions about who are what we will be willing to sacrifice for the sake of a spurious prosperity. We lack the ability to come together and forge a social contract for the common good.
And it may soon be the case that no matter what we sacrifice, it will no longer be enough to save us – from ourselves.
As a writer I don’t know how to respond to this except to bear witness.
I’m not sure what metaphors to use. I don’t know how to capture, in poetry, the sense of incapacitated rage so many of us feel as we see the pandemic spiraling out of control, all because of human selfishness and stupidity.
So it is time, perhaps, to speak plainly. To say that what is happening now is not necessary. We could act together and protect life. We could act together and protect the rights of workers. But, apparently, too few of us are willing to do so. As the old comic strip Pogo said: We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Let it be known at least that it did not have to be this way. These deaths were not needed. Yet he loss of these lives was demanded nonetheless by a heartless system, and presided over by a regime that has been touted by the religious Right as the “most pro-life ever.”
Let it be known that many of us saw what was happening, that we deplored it, and that our voices went unheard. Let it be known that when we spoke out we did so against a wall of indifference – alone.
image credit: isolation.jpg