I resisted taking COVID-19 seriously in the beginning. Processing the scope and magnitude of the changes it so rapidly initiated and making big decisions based on rumors that continued to become substantiated went against the way that I try to navigate the happenings of our world. Only a month ago, I was dismissing the news as hype and hysteria, not believing in its urgency or that nations would ever really take such drastic policy measures so quickly, particularly when they went against the logic of capitalism.
Yet, it has happened, in many ways quite literally overnight, and we¹ are now living a new reality. All over the world, commercial flights have been grounded until further notice; we’ve stopped going to work and assembling in large groups; and we now think more deeply about the ethical implications of how we consume. Suddenly, governments are able to gather the monetary resources for massive stimulus packages, pausing debt payments, and providing citizens with basic income.
One of the struggles of political organizing and movement building has always been engaging in the imaginative yet practical work of fleshing out just what an alternative society could look like. How would those “necessary” jobs get done, and what would keep us motivated and productive if we didn’t all have to clock in for 40 hours or more each week at a day job? How could the government afford to provide a social safety net? Would we have access to the stuff we need or desire if it weren’t for the multinational corporations who supply the demand?
Questions like these are enshrouded in the fact that it is extraordinarily difficult to think outside of our social conditioning, to imagine an alternative when our imaginations are filtered and formulated by that very same conditioning. As countries declare obligatory quarantine and lockdown, however, we’ve all been forced to reckon with another way of being for an indefinite amount of time. It’s difficult to speculate about future plans or what life will be like after this. Still, so many of us remain in a state of positive denial, that this is just one momentary detour in an otherwise linear continuity of world systems and events, that things will return at some point on the horizon to how they had been before. We continue under the assumption that our weddings, vacations, graduations, and plans, even if a bit delayed, will still take place, that the businesses and industries which employ us will still be around in the coming months.
We need to let go of the idea that there will be one fixed point in time when life will return to how it was before, and stop placating ourselves with the notion that as long as we behave ourselves and quarantine properly this will all be finished soon. In reality, it is more useful to begin the work of accepting how this pandemic will change the course of the world as we know it. In this way, we can cultivate the kind of resilience necessary to weather a global crisis and possibly even to encounter a sense of agency and awakening through it.
The reality of the virus itself is grave. The entire globe is navigating the pandemic, albeit perhaps at different stages, as new information about the nature of the virus comes to light. In Wuhan, China, the first place to be affected by the pandemic and now the site the world looks to as a beacon of what’s to come, we are seeing that people who once had coronavirus, stopped showing symptoms and tested negative, are now testing positive again. This has signaled that diagnostic tests must be reformulated and that contrary to popular belief, the pandemic in this region may not be over, despite widespread efforts to adhere to strict quarantining rules. In fact, it should be noted that quarantining is not meant to stop the virus nor to hurry it along towards a neatly demarcated end point. On the contrary, quarantining is meant to slow the spread of the virus so as not to overwhelm hospitals or to totally shock our social, political, and economic systems into chaos. Yes, what we are seeing now is the best of our efforts not to do those things. According to medical experts, the virus outbreaks may come in waves — at best with periodic regional reprieves — and that it will spread into the millions, particularly as we continue to discern the extent to which people can be asymptomatic carriers. We may be a long way away from reaching any type of herd immunity, and it is still unconfirmed how this concept applies to the coronavirus in particular.
Thus, it is more fitting that we reckon with this new reality and grieve the loss of life as we have known it. In fact, psychologists point out that one useful way of articulating the profound collective experience that we are currently having is in recognizing it as a form of grief: grief, for instance, at the loss of social connections, habits and habitat, assumptions and security, and trust in our systems. While reckoning with the true gravity of this situation is frightening, and might inspire feelings of hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and loss, these are only the beginning steps in the grieving process. As Jem Bendell writes in his work on deep adaptation in the face of impending climate catastrophe,
… “hopelessness” and its related emotions of dismay and despair are understandably feared but wrongly assumed to be entirely negative and to be avoided whatever the situation. Alex Steffen warned that “Despair is never helpful” (2017). However, the range of ancient wisdom traditions see a significant place for hopelessness and despair. Contemporary reflections on people’s emotional and even spiritual growth as a result of their hopelessness and despair align with these ancient ideas. The loss of a capability, a loved one or a way of life, or the receipt of a terminal diagnosis have all been reported, or personally experienced, as a trigger for a new way of perceiving self and world, with hopelessness and despair being a necessary step in the process (Matousek, 2008). In such contexts “hope” is not a good thing to maintain, as it depends on what one is hoping for…. “In abandoning hope that one way of life will continue, we open up a space for alternative hopes”… (15).
If we can move beyond our denialism, confront our grief, and be willing to peer over the precipice of the unknown future that lays before us we can begin to adopt new and meaningful ways to move forward, including a more “radical hope” and sense of “creative adaptation” that will incline us towards resilience and allow us to seize opportunities for lasting change in the face of crisis.
In this way, the pandemic is also an intensely spiritual time and an undoubtedly profound collective experience. That is not to be confused with trivializing or making light of this frightening moment in history, the death and distress, recession, and shortages in essential supplies that it is only just beginning to cause. Rather, like any spiritual experience, it is one of awakening. One that pulls us beyond judgments of “good” or “bad” towards truth. Responding to the spiritual imperative of working through our collective grief towards cultivating more intentional ways of living and organizing our communities is critical in terms of building a coherent alternative vision of resistance to the efforts that corporations and politicians are already implementing at this time in order to maintain the broken system and continue to profit off of it.
In a recent talk, journalist Naomi Klein, whose work focuses on the phenomenon of disaster capitalism, has pointed out that much of the recent stimulus package passed by congress has been allocated towards corporate slush funds. Donald Trump has already pledged to protect those sectors most detrimental to the environment and public health such as the oil, airline, and arms industries. Regular Americans look on as policymakers continue to prioritize the stock market over the lives of their constituents. Indeed, the pandemic reveals just how greedy, short-sighted, and cavalier those in power have been in their consistent and relentless enactment of neoliberal policies and austerity measures over the last decades. These economic approaches have eroded our society’s resilience against crises such as this one by dismantling the social safety net, vastly expanding precarious labor arrangements, privatizing healthcare and other vital resources such as water, and so on. It is clear that this is a crisis of capitalism as much as it is a pandemic. Capitalism continues to intersect with the pandemic in terms of hiked prices for medical supplies and the lack of statutory healthcare coverage due to the privatization of essential facilities such as hospitals and insurance companies under neoliberalism.
The pandemic has also exposed just how essential the hyper-exploited working class truly is to the functioning of our society. Environmental racism is being laid bare as data shows that African Americans and indigenous people are hit hardest by Covid-19, and class divides have been exacerbated. In a recent article, Noam Scheiber, et al. writes, “A kind of pandemic caste system is rapidly developing: the rich holed up in vacation properties; the middle class marooned at home with restless children; the working class on the front lines of the economy… if there is even work to be had.” In the age of late capitalism, even the ability to quarantine against the virus is a privilege. It is increasingly difficult to ignore how corporations and landlords continue to extract the wealth generated by working people — cleaners, caretakers, grocery store clerks, delivery people, factory workers — who are currently and so clearly carrying our society must do so under such precarious conditions.
In the face of massive injustice and inequality of a failing system, there is also the rare opportunity to see that the rules and conditions under which society is organized are pliable. We witness just how quickly our politicians are — and evidently, have always been — able to pause debt, suspend mortgage payments, release prisoners, provide free meals to those who need them, make public transportation free, enact moratorium on evictions, and provide basic income. How is it that suddenly governments who continually slash the budgets for education, healthcare spending, and so forth suddenly have trillion dollar aid packages? The funds already exist — it is only a matter of gatekeeping and distribution that has kept this from happening.
The stimulus money that has suddenly materialized is our money, aggregated from our taxes and from our unpaid wages which are popularly disguised as “profits.” The increasingly urgent demands for systemic change during a global pandemic have been laid out and then realized in some places so quickly that the reality of life under a pandemic has called into question the very rules upon which economic and by extension social and political life are organized.
In other words, the pandemic has allowed us to have a glimpse at the fact that the rules upon which daily life is structured are nothing more than socially constructed abstractions. What is money if the Federal Reserve can just print more? What is the point of salvaging the stock market when people are faced with a pandemic that has drastically halted lifestyles predicated on excessive consumption? What kinds of labor really matter, and are those who engage in it compensated accordingly? Which occupations actually serve the needs of the community and which only seem to exist due to our compulsory participation in an obsolete wage labor system? If the civilization cannot ensure our survival, then why would we continue to uphold it? There is the opportunity to get curious and reflective in this moment of living differently.
The powerful know this. The actions they take during this crisis will set a precedent. Now that we have seen what is possible, politicians’ jurisdiction over the lives of the many, and their attempts to deny people housing, food, access, and equal opportunity will be called into question in the future. Despite the instances mentioned above, many decision makers continue to drag their feet on making the changes necessary to redistribute wealth and security to the people and small scale producers as the situation continues to grow exceedingly dire for many particularly on the margins of society. The radicalizing potential of this situation is alarming to those who have the highest stakes in the existing order, the politicians, the billionaires, the reniters, the capitalist class. The widespread wellbeing of the public has become urgent, and its role in functioning society, in a functioning economy, has been exposed to the point where it can no longer be ignored.
To an increasing extent, working people are realizing this too. Under the conditions of the pandemic, frontline workers are realizing their power to an increasing degree, and Amazon, InstaCart, Whole Foods, Everlane, General Electric, rent strikes are continuing to mount. These organizing efforts come as a continuation of a mounting trend of successful strikes in the fields of nursing, education, as well as in the auto and coal industries. This matters because these efforts disrupt capitalist class hierarchies and build leverage necessary for collective bargaining that shifts power back into the hands of the people. These strikes and protests are significant far beyond the individual issues they serve to confront because they allow us all to remember the power we have as workers and as people in community with one another to forge a more just world. Those who are not actively on strike right now can also support labor organizers by not crossing picket lines, amplifying the efforts of workers who are organizing in order to raise consciousness, and considering how these struggles might also be relevant within their own labor relations.
In order to build more resilient networks of community in the face of future crises which are likely to continue both in terms of additional waves of the coronavirus pandemic as well as in terms of climate change and economic recession. By understanding the oppressive class structures upon which our society is organized, we can more constructively direct our disgruntlement towards the capitalist class and the powers that serve it. Despite our differences, we share more in common with each other than we do with them. We have more to gain from serving each other than we do from serving them.
Thus, part of processing our grief and adapting to this crisis necessitates that we reflect on our communities, our existing networks and relationships, as well as on ourselves. In fact, just as much as the coronavirus pandemic has already fundamentally reordered public life and called into question the limits of what we thought to be possible, it has equally begun to reconfigure personal and private life as well. The realities of living under quarantine and strict social distancing protocols are how the pandemic has been most intimately experienced by many of us.
Over the course of the last weeks, it has become commonplace even for people who get to work from home to confess an utter inability to live as usual within their own domiciles, to get work done, and to adhere to any kind of consistent schedule. While those who are now employed from home may enjoy some of these changes, such as the absence of long commutes, and harbor disdain for others, such as the social isolation and the lack childcare options, we are undoubtedly faced with the chance to imagine new labor arrangements and ways to work, along with the meaning and significance of the kind of work that we do in the first place.
If nothing else, the solitude and lack of stimulation we may experience during quarantine will allow us to feel and experience pleasure and significance of community and engagement of the things we love and miss from the outside world more deeply. How can we use the sense of lack — of freedom, of food, of supplies, of human touch, to transform us in solidarity with others who struggle with this lack on a daily basis ? This experience can help us to develop the empathy necessary to extend compassion towards those who experience isolation, disruption, powerlessness, and precarity when society is functioning “normally.” How can we hold our attention to the elderly, the disabled, those struggling with mental illness and addiction, the homeless, the vulnerable, those experiencing domestic abuse? As we become more acquainted with the importance of freedom of movement, clean air, and access to green spaces, how can we work towards making these more accessible to others going forward? How can we extend the same approach to nonhuman species and to our planet more broadly?
It is possible to find the healing potential in this situation by holding each other gently in these mutual states of precarity. Going forward, will we stay more aware of how these same conditions have and will continue to apply beyond the quarantine? In our current state of affairs lies the opportunity to understand our identities and existence not as something atomized and individual but as absolutely and fundamentally interdependent at every scale. These are human conditions just as much as the isolation and the ennui.
Already, we are reconnecting more meaningfully and taking the time to find the words to tell each other how we feel, to check in with each other, and making sure our loved ones and our neighbors have what they need to withstand this situation. For every story about supply shortages and empty supermarket shelves, there are others displaying interpersonal acts of generosity and the collective gathering of mutual aid funds. Our persistent engagement in these efforts is critical.
Beyond the immense collective grief raised by this moment of crisis lies the chance to welcome the sorts of transformative change that are fundamental to building a new way forward. The revolution begins internally within the hearts and minds of regular people. Often in political discourse we forget this. It is my hope that this experience, however profoundly disruptive, how terrifying, how chaotic in our grieving of this massive collective loss of life as we know it, allows us to let go of beliefs and attachments that uphold the cruel, toxic, ugly side of the kind of normal we have the chance to leave behind, and that in our grieving processes we let go of that which does not serve humanity at large. I hope that we use this time to think about what matters in our own lives and what we want society at large to be like with the knowledge that this is our chance, the opening is there and if we act intentionally there is the possibility to refill it in the way that we want. That we are not passive in the changes to come. We must continue to let this moment radicalize us. We must not relinquish our power in the face of despair.
- A note on “we”: I have chosen to use this pronoun in order to speak in conversation with, you, the reader in an active way, and to invite a sense of urgency and applicability to these reflections. That said, I want to take a moment to point out that the contents of this essay are not new for many people who have been historically marginalized and most vulnerable to crisis, who have, for many generations, had to deal with the kinds of issues presented by this one. The bounds of their wisdom on surviving crisis and building resilience through community extend far beyond my own. While I use the pronoun “we” to engage the reader, it is not meant to universalize experiences of crisis.